Anthony Discenza Presents A Novel: An Exhibition by Anthony Discenza

Review

Anthony Discenza Presents A Novel: An Exhibition by Anthony Discenza

By Maria Porges March 22, 2016

When or why does art become the idea of art: a representation or simulacra of it, rather than the thing itself? In a constellation of objects and images, Bay Area artist Anthony Discenza tackles this question, among several others, through a deftly ironic manipulation of the visual languages of Minimalism and Conceptualism—tropes that, many decades after their first incarnations, continue to be recycled ad nauseam in galleries and museums worldwide. The works presented here are meant to be seen as enclosed in a veritable cloud of quotation marks, as a kind of performance of these too-familiar ideas, experienced through the filter of Discenza’s own writing in the form of a longish essay available as a newsprint takeaway from stacks in the gallery. Prefacing Discenza’s text, quotes from Jorge Luis Borges and Joanna Russ muse on the idea that there are not only multiple universes in which we live out one thread of possible choices, but that we consist of multiple selves. The exhibition is based on this conceit: Anthony Discenza, friend (or doppelgänger?) of “Anthony Discenza,” has put this show together from notes and materials abandoned by the other. By stepping outside of himself in this way, the essay’s author can describe and evaluate his own gifts as well as his shortcomings with a charming wryness, talking about the work of “Anthony” as if it is not his own. “Anthony,” we learn, had planned to make this show by using, as a point of departure, the 1969 art-world novel The Disappointments by Lane Hobbs, an artist and critic who (of course) died prematurely in 1974, having produced only this satire of the late 1960s scene in New York. That this novel does not actually exist should go without saying, but I am going to say it anyway; as indicated by the essay’s title, “Considering A Novel: An Exhibition in the Subjunctive," the book’s existence is fictional, like the concept of the two Anthonys.1 The Disappointments serves as a vehicle for the ultimate subject here: the artist’s struggle to make art, to put forward work and be confident in its clarity, originality, and importance, but ultimately, by some important inward measure, to fail. 

Anthony Discenza Presents A Novel: An Exhibition by Anthony Discenza, 2016; installation view. Image courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery. Photo: Phil Maisel

Discenza has remarked that social media forms part of the backdrop for this project, in that it splits us into the multiple personas through which we perform the different aspects of our lives. Stepping outside the self and viewing it with a crippling lack of confidence is a familiar literary trope, not as well known in the art world (where confidence, whether real or faked, is everything, as enacted by Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, or more appropriately in this particular context, Richard Serra or Joel Shapiro). The quotation by Borges that introduces Discenza’s own writing considers the quandary presented by this kind of dislocation and doubt of the work produced by that other being who is one’s public, artistic self. With this passage, Discenza reminds us of the difficulties engendered by the intermingling of public and private, artist and self, until your work becomes your identity. Or fails to, as you resist, gripped by existential angst.              

Both metaphysically and metaphorically, the exhibition itself is also a text, a fact alluded to by its austere black-and-white appearance. The “metas” stack up here like planes on a runway in bad weather, or maybe like the pile of tortoises on which the (flat) Earth supposedly rests. For example, Floor Study: Expanded/Collapsed invokes works by Serra as well as Carl Andre, or even Robert Morris. Its faux-casual stack of profoundly black planks of densified Polyethylene foam is mysterious and heavy-looking: macho, brooding, faintly toxic. During the gallery walkthrough, Discenza revealed that these slabs are the form in which the foam, a packing material, is recycled—essentially, that they are found rather than made. Similarly, several small, stepped forms, scattered across the concrete in the adjoining gallery, look comfortingly like Joel Shapiro’s dark, chunky little houses, but turn out to be commercially manufactured rubber wheel chocks. Finally, in a pair of companion works, gnomic texts have been printed on two fluorescent bulbs that lean against the wall, conflating Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner, and maybe even a little Jenny Holzer. In all of these sculptures, the presentation is flawless, the product desirable. The insider joke—that these are, in essence, a satire of such art—is apparent to anyone who spends the time to figure it out, though the individual works, familiar at a glance, suddenly shift, on closer examination, to a satisfying obscurity, requiring serious parsing and delving to wrap one’s brain around the full idea. Achieving a successful understanding of the many layers yields a devious satisfaction.

Anthony Discenza Presents A Novel: An Exhibition by Anthony Discenza, 2016; installation view. Image courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery. Photo: Phil Maisel

But what would a civilian think, were she or he to wander into the gallery? Are these images and objects in fact real, no matter what the artist tells us? Were one of these pieces to be arranged in a museum or collector’s house at some future date, separated from the frame of its text and context, it is possible that the quotation marks might simply disappear. To some viewers, the words of Materials List for an Unrealized Artwork No. 3 and No. 4, rendered in vinyl letters on the gallery wall, might recall a specific lineage to the point that “Discenza’s” work will be mistaken for that of one of his antecedents—say, the tiresome Joseph Kosuth, or even early works by Nayland Blake. But that, too, is quite possibly part of the intent here.

In addition to taking aim at Minimalism and Conceptual Art and these movements’ now tired and shopworn (yet constantly invoked) ideas, Discenza satirizes critical writing itself—the takeaway includes an eerily pitch-perfect fake New Yorker review of the show—as well as the endlessly rehearsed ideas of genius, the prevalence of publicly undertaken self-abnegation (now widely current in the form of the humble brag), and the state of the art world today. But without the takeaway’s extensive text, clearly intended to be read by every visitor, is it possible to know all of this? In a way, the review you are reading now is part of the immense mechanism required to keep the meta going—even if, in the end, the artist’s denial of the work on view means that it can’t really be critically evaluated as art, and that this review cannot do more than describe and explain.

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Anthony Discenza Presents A Novel: An Exhibition by Anthony Discenza is on view at Catharine Clark Gallery, in San Francisco, through April 16, 2016.

Notes

  1. This grammatical term refers to a specific mood found in certain languages that describes states of unreality, including wishes, emotions, possibility, judgments, opinion, obligation, or actions that haven’t yet occurred.

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