Degree Critical, Spring 2018

Thursday 01/04/2018

Mikel Rouse. Dennis Cleveland (1996); performance view, live at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 2001. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Chris Brown.

Good times

by Emma Drew (Class of 2017)

Two specters haunt I hear it everywhere I go, a group show on view at Franklin Street Works in Stamford, Connecticut: the words and work of artist and writer Cady Noland, and the uniquely corrosive and cruel political and cultural climate of 2017. Prompted by Noland’s 1987 essay “Towards a Metalanguage of Evil,” the exhibition is built around a dissatisfaction with the “American Dream,” and the socially acceptable forms of violence through which such discontent is expressed. In her text, Noland highlights sports, celebrity worship and teardown, television talk shows and spectacle, and resource depletion as outlets for anger and unease. These act like valves to let off steam, made necessary because, as Noland puts it, the United States lacks a language of dissension. The show, curated by FSW Creative Director Terri C. Smith, uses Noland’s framework (though not her artwork) to bring together works that reflect her diagnosis and make use of the violence-surrogate tropes she perceives as ubiquitous. Giving explosive shape and voice to their dissent, Smith’s artists go further than Noland, crafting responses to the exclusionary underpinnings of U.S. exceptionalism and its warp of our modern times.
 

Rashid Johnson In Circles
Rashid Johnson. In Circles (2015); burned red oak flooring, black soap, wax, spray enamel, vinyl, shea butter, books. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Noland’s writings from the late 1980s and early 1990s arrive in a pre-Internet moment at the start of identity politics; the works on view span the mid-90s through 2016. Conceived pre-election, the exhibition was not meant to address Trump’s United States, but as can happen in times of crisis, the exhibition’s subjects—race, gender, sex, power, money, fame—feel thrown into high-relief, hyper-sensationalized, and especially partisan. Noland’s own words of warning are prescient: she identifies society as a game manipulated by state and corporate interests to keep citizens unaware of the economic and social stakes at play and therefore incapable of acting on them. Smith’s curation focuses on the difficulty in talking about common experience while living individual, identity-based realities, and the tension between siloed camps and shared hopes, dreams, and histories.           

The wide-ranging selection of media and subjects include pieces that isolate and exaggerate spectacle and celebrity, like Adam McEwan’s phony, spot-on, large-scale obits of Brett Easton Ellis and Richard Prince (2011), and Rodney McMillan’s an audience (excerpts from Michael Jackson’s 30th Anniversary Special 2001) (2003), a supercut of audience members dancing and spectating at that televised event. Rashid Johnson (In Circles, 2015) and Nayland Blake (Ibedji (Quick), 1996–97) blend personal histories and affinities with objects from black-American culture in assemblages that are both symbolic and autobiographical. Alex Bag (Untitled, Fall ’95, 1995) and Tameka Norris (Yale School of Art series, 2010–2012) take on alter-egos in self-conscious, parodic videos, playing solipsistic art school students of both the Gen X and Millennial ilk.

Nayland Blake Ibedji (Quick)
Nayland Blake. Ibedji (Quick) (1996–97); mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.
Tameka Norris Yale School of Art
Tameka Norris. My First Semester, Yale School of Art (2010–2012); video, color, sound, 08:44. Courtesy of the artist.

Mikel Rouse’s opera Dennis Cleveland, which first premiered at the Kitchen in New York City in 1996 and is shown here in a video from a 2002 performance at Lincoln Center, nails the aesthetics, gestures, and language of mid-90s daytime talk shows (think: Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael). The piece is uncanny: highly-stylized, fusing the over-the-top personalities and relationship problems of guests on stage with collective singing and New Age-y and anti-consumerist platitudes from the host (played by Rouse) and audience members. “Why are you here today?” is one of the many repeated lines from the polyphonic chorus of overlapping and disembodied voices, and connotes the right amount of empathy, condescension, and emptiness of expression experienced in communal soul-searching, on television or elsewhere.

Rodney McMillan’s other video work on view, Untitled (sheet performance) (2005), appears modest and stripped down yet, like Rouse’s flamboyant undertaking, is hypnotic. A single figure ensconced in a cream-colored bed sheet, their face and other features totally obscured, thrashes and bobs beneath the fabric, whipping it across the width of the frame, the black, placeless space in which the action happens. The figure periodically pauses, but otherwise it’s loud (the volume is meant to be turned up) and visceral, a 3-and-a-half-minute-long articulation of activity and lyricism from a body both unseen yet undeniably present. McMillan mixes medium and message to the point of abstraction and an eerie unrecognizability, like a frenetic heartbeat.

Rodney McMillian Untitled sheet performance
Rodney McMillian. Untitled (sheet performance) (2005); video still. 

The exhibition’s title completes the chorus of Neil Young’s “Vampire Blues”—“Good times are comin’ / I hear it everywhere I go / Good times are comin’ / but they sure comin' slow”—a reflexive jab at the dogged optimism (easily construed as a sense of entitlement or delusion) at the core of the American attitude. It’s easy to be pessimistic these days, but the show moves past Noland’s own sinister take to flesh out a potential reality by honing in on a characteristic restlessness. This agitation is its own course of action, not merely a side-effect of malaise. Good times may come and go, but idly waiting around for them never brings about much change.
 

I hear it everywhere I go
Franklin Street Works
November 11, 2017–January 7, 2018