3.4 / Review

Cheap Trick Part 2

By Brandon Brown October 31, 2011

The work in Cheap Trick Part 2 appears to primarily address itself to the by-now-canonical postmodern questions regarding authenticity in a mediated world saturated by spectacular imagery. Whether as a representation of the formulaic relation of the human being to commodified objects, or as interventions against the body’s conditioned behaviors as it shares the sensible world with other commodified bodies, both Jonah Susskind and Zefrey Throwell’s works dramatize the somatic encounter with the simulacral.

Susskind’s pieces worry familiar thresholds: the real and the mimetic, the form of painting and the form of sculpture, use and excess. Through strategies of masquerade, gimmick, and scale, his self-described “still lifes” question the economic fact of the object as such. In Ply (2011) and 2 x 6 (2011), for instance, Susskind has painted stretches of canvas to look like ordinary pieces of functional wood. From afar, the virtuosic replications of machine-made cuts of wood suggest the codes of minimalist sculpture. But approaching the objects effects a gradual denudation of the illusion, drawing the viewer into an aporetic theater of cognition and recognition—is it wood or is it a painting? Other pieces foreground the mechanics behind such illusion. In Rug (2011), an unremarkable white mat lies on the gallery’s floor, while a burgundy pattern is projected onto it from above. Rug enacts the drama of fetishized value—the transitory nature of decoration as it meets the blank slate of total function. The invitation into this temporal and spatial play was welcomed by the attendees at the opening as people and even dogs freely walked across the mat, dancing, stepping, kicking up dust, spinning on their heads.

Where Susskind’s still lifes engage the gallery audience in a drama of recognition and illumination, Throwell’s videos document interventions into the normative mobilities of everyday life. Some of these interventions take place in the urban strongholds of contemporary finance. In the extremely timely showing of Ocularpation: One San Francisco (2008), Throwell emerges from the Montgomery Street BART/MUNI station in a suit, only to carefully strip nude and sit at a desk with a cup of coffee, talking on his cell phone and miming the ergonomics of functional semiocapitalist practice. In another of Throwell’s videos, New York City Paints Better Than Me (2010), the artist crawls through Greeley Square in a bright white jumpsuit. A crowd of mostly daytime workers watches his ordeal, concerned, confused, curious. The end of the crawl

Jonah-Susskind-Queens-Nails-Projects-Ply

Jonah Susskind. Ply, 2010; oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Artist and Queen's Nails Projects, San Francisco.

Zefrey Throwell. Ocularpation: One San Francisco, 2008; video; TRT: 7:29 min. Courtesy of the Artist.

feels climactic; the still of the besmirched suit ends the piece as a kind of credit roll. Indeed, Throwell’s videos consistently use a cinematic lexicon to manipulate the affective tempo, resulting in a suspense that can be manipulated toward comic ends. In Vamping: Part One, Tits and Pickle (2010), the very duration of the “sex” scene between cucumber and tits enchants the viewer to stay tuned until the excessive and hilarious fruit salad money shot.

Many of the pieces in Cheap Trick abut the puzzling borders between genuineness and irony, autonomy and interpellation, legibility and obscurity. And yet they seem to me to mark a real difference from the admittedly rehearsed orthodox postmodern “interrogation” of such overdetermined zones. Which is to say, simply, that having taken certain of those questions about the real and the representative as givens, both Susskind and Throwell initiate new kinds of play from that givenness. This play is formalized via careful, strategic manipulations of affect varying in their political intensity.

Tongue Slap (2011), for instance, a video document that shows Throwell and a collaborator disrobe in a gallery, don suits bedecked with lollipops, and engage in some kind of erotic wrestling/sugar-suck, doesn’t foreground social ambitions as many historical engagements of its kind do. But Throwell’s many references to canonical performance and body art are not merely ironic retellings or translations evacuated of any strong politics. The sight of a seemingly privileged, young white man dragging himself on his stomach through downtown Manhattan in New York City Paints Better Than Me is still able to produce a kind of perturbing identity trouble. Throwell candidly delights in the response of his viewers; the confused pleasure his performances cause is tactfully emphasized in the editing.

Susskind’s objects also suggest nuanced political meaning, although they uniformly insist on forms of humor.  But in a deadly serious move, his work ultimately resuscitates the human body as a privileged manufacturer of precious materials. What appear to be mass-produced objects (plywood, sandpaper, marijuana), which we all know are typically made by machines or slaves, become highly unique, virtuosic works in Cheap Trick. Far from acting as the emblem of the “free market,” the bizarre products of Susskind’s workshop defy business logic. The brutal economic facts that pertain to the structure of mass production are not solved by this alternative, but they are at stake precisely for the careful viewer of his works. The social surprise Throwell evokes resembles the uncanny recognition viewers experience when apprehending Susskind’s objects.

These experimental economies are mirrored by the installation of the show at Queen’s Nails Projects itself—nothing appears to be for sale, for instance—so even if these objects do finally participate in the economics of the bourgeois art market, their “value” remains an object of mystery. Like the “truth” of one of Susskind’s still lifes or the anticipated climax of one of Throwell’s actions, the determination of value is suspended and deferred. And given the actually catastrophic world conditions that they (mis)represent or into which they intervene, these works in this context are always fun. That is, the deranged objects that they take up are absorbed into a theatrical critique that tends to present the grotesque as the comic uncanny. They’re fun…or at least funnish. Funny…but not funny ha-ha. I laughed. I cried. I laughed until I cried.

 

 

Cheap Trick Part 2 is on view at Queen’s Nails Projects, in San Francisco, through November 5, 2011.

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