Artforum / September 2002

"Just Pathetic"

In the ’90s stretch of a time line featured in the handy primer Art Since 1960, the steady march of minimovements—YBA, “art post-medium,” “live art,” “context art”—is rudely interrupted by an upstart newcomer, “abject/slacker art.” As the volume’s author, Michael Archer, plots it, the tendency first showed up at the butt end of the ’80s and burned out by about ’96, though the influence of its lax affect is felt still.  Centered stylistically around a shabby-chic variant of Pop, abject art marked a transition (at least in the art world) from the ’80s careerism of American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis’s book hit stores in 1991) to the jaded slackerdom of Kevin Smith’s 1994 movie Clerks.

The label “abject art” suggests a fittingly belated use/abuse of Julia Kristeva’s essay on the scatological impulse, “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection” (first translated into English in 1982), and curator/ movement maker Ralph Rugoff confirms that Kristeva was indeed “very important for critics and curators interested in the abject.” Of his own exhibition “Just Pathetic,” he offers, “Georges Bataille was closer to the pathetic spirit; that also comes from a history of philosophical thought that deals with the roots of comedy, including Baudelaire’s notion of ‘satanic laughter.’” Nevertheless, to the academic mandarins such theoretical borrowings felt promiscuous.  Denis Hollier bristled in the pages of October; in response to “Abject Art,” a 1993 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art organized by Independent Study Program fellows Craig Houser, Leslie C.  Jones, and Simon Taylor, he complained, “What is abject about it? Everything was very neat; the objects were clearly art works.  They were on the side of the victor.”

At the cusp of the decade, three exhibitionsvmapped out abject art’s overlappingvterritories: Rugoff’s “Just Pathetic” at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles along with “Work in Progress? Work?” at Andrea Rosen Gallery and Vik Muniz’s “Stuttering” at Stux Gallery in New York.  All three opened in 1990, and between them they introduced a handful of artists who would become this antimovement’s major players. Mike Kelley and Cady Noland were Rugoff’s key protagonists, while Karen Kilimnik and Cary Leibowitz (aka Candyass) were the divas of Muniz’s drama. And at Rosen, the then twenty-eight-year-old Sean Landers launched a rigorous program of self-deprecation with which he has persisted, Morrissey-like, well into his middle years. “True Stories,” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1992, and “Abject Art” at the Whitney were arguably more definitive surveys, but it was this first odd trio that set the (low) tone.

In “The Loser Thing,” an early survey of the tendency (Artforum, September 1992), Rhonda Lieberman defines abjection as being “cast off, existing in or resigned to a low state—dumped by yourself, as you psychotically misrecognize yourself in ideals.” Citing Marcel Proust (who embarked on the translation of Ruskin’s art-historical writings despite being insufficiently fluent in spoken English “to order chops in a pub”) and Samuel Beckett (who bought the same size shoes as James Joyce, literally walking “in the master’s footsteps” until his feet got too sore), she characterizes these acts of high-end homage as “constitutionally abject,” attitudinal precursors to their pathetic descendants. Leibowitz, Landers, and the rest are marked by their ability to translate inadequacy into art, throwing the previous decade’s slick critiques of modern mastery into harsh relief.

Introducing his exhibition, Rugoff writes that to be “pathetic” is to be “a loser, haplessly falling short of the idealized norm,” and that the art he identifies as belonging to this degraded taxonomy “makes failure its medium.” It does so, he argues, in several ways. First, it exhibits a preference for lowbrow aesthetics
and threadbare materials but pointedly avoids dignifying either one as metaphoric or poetic. Second, it veers away from established modes of art production toward a strain of base comedy more often experienced at the back of the school bus. Finally, it makes little or no attempt to align itself with art history,
preferring an ephemeral and defensive association with the present—however lackluster that present might be.

The clutch of works by Mike Kelley that appeared in “Just Pathetic” filled the bill. Kelley had already staked out the thrift store and the yard sale as his domain. The pitiful assortments of mangled soft toys, grubby socks, limp baby blankets, and tarnished pet dishes that he contributed to Rugoff’s show suggested that there was nowhere to go but down. In a tripartite memorial to a pair of dead cats (Storehouse, Mooner, and Ougi, all 1990), Kelley articulated (but barely) a commentary on emotional displacement and cultural inadequacy that in the immediately preceding era of cold steel and hard cash would have been laughed out of the gallery. Where Jeff Koons’s Rabbit, 1986, is glamorous and erotic despite its kitsch origins, Kelley’s mice look used and abused, utterly beyond redemption.

Like Kelley, Cady Noland was an inveterate snapper up of unconsidered trifles. In his article “Slackers” (Artforum, Nov. 1991), Jack Bankowsky recalls Noland’s Dirt Corral, 1984–85, as a harbinger of the abject-art implosion. The stated function of this floorbound arrangement of decorative furniture panels—the harvesting of dust—celebrated fissure over surface. And despite the nods to Marcel Duchamp and Robert Smithson (Rugoff characterized her work as “the product of lowgrade entropy”), Noland’s vision was far from either intellectually chilly or ecologically ambitious.

Noland’s contributions to “Just Pathetic” retained all the cheap squalor of their salvaged components, emphasizing inadequacy rather than attempting to disguise it. In Pedestal, 1985, she arranged a mat, a belt, and a deflated soccer ball to form a sculptural depiction of a potted plant. It looks like it took all of five minutes to make, from idea to realization. The corrosive Chicken in a Basket, 1989, introduces one of the artist’s favorite containers of meaning—and stuff—the shopping basket.  Inside this one is a rubber chicken, a bungee cord, some beer cans, and, beneath the whole mess, a crumpled American flag. When Jasper Johns drained the color from Old Glory, it retained a glimmer of power; Noland’s devastatingly careless gesture dismisses even this vestige of possibility. 

“Just Pathetic” was an irritant to viewers at the time in that it was openly framed as a no-win situation, a seemingly unassailable double bluff. Catherine Liu’s review (Artforum, Apr. 1992), after an introduction that might lead one to expect a positive response, lambastes Rugoff for an apparent desire to have his cake and eat it too (though her attack is aimed more at what she regards as inconsistencies in his catalogue essay than at the work, of which she grudgingly approves). “He tries to be shamelessly adolescent, voyeuristic, and cynical,” Liu writes, “but apparently he reads Freud as well as Peter Sloterdijk.  He obviously wants to have it both ways: he wants to be bad and good at the same time, just as he would like to have the pathetic fail only to succeed.” Neither is Susan Kandel (Arts Magazine, Nov. 1990) entirely convinced by Rugoff ’s text, as she picks holes in his contention that this art is relatively free from historical precedent (a claim the curator bolstered with citations of Kurt Schwitters, Hans Bellmer, Piero Manzoni, Vito Acconci, and others) and suggests that he has missed or ignored its deadpan irony. That the curator’s all-too-credulous tone might be selfconscious and, furthermore, a necessary extension of the artists’ is a possibility that Kandel does not consider.

“Work in Progress? Work?” at Andrea Rose was ostensibly an exhibition about process, but in featuring projects by Kilimnik, Landers, and Laurie Parsons (as well as Liz Larner, Matthew McCaslin, and Linda Montano), it also functioned as a beginner’s guide to abjection. Most of the show’s run was devoted to its participants’ completion of a series of tasks that referenced—or actually constituted— the most humble of day jobs (including, in Parsons’s case, that of gallery assistant). This resulted in a focus on the mundane and the humiliating and ensured that what objects were left behind were banal and beat up. Landers “worked” at home, documenting his activity (or chronic lack thereof ) in the form of a series of unscripted videos. In these he discusses, at great length and often under the influence of alcohol, his numerous hang-ups and missed opportunities.
Landers also contributed a screenplay, Art, Life and God, which anticipated the release of his abject-art bible [sic] (1993).

“How can I tell you that I hate my own book?” writes Landers, in the poorly spelled, handwritten tirade that covers [sic]’s 454 pages. “It’s a stinking open wound that mercylessly exposes people whom I love and care about.” Nevertheless, Artforum saw fit to devote three articles in its April 1994 issue to the artist and his willfully half-baked conclusion, cited by critic Jan Avgikos: “I’m banal. We’re all banal, that’s the point right? Yup, I think that’s it.” Avgikos justifies her attentions by pointing out Landers’s superiority as an idiot, his masterful unreliability. A testament to this unique status, [sic] is not even true to its purportedly confessional mode.  Like reality television (a decidedly abject entertainment), it plays fast and loose with the distinction between the staged and the accidental. Landers’s continual obsessing over the possibility of his “genious” ever being recognized (or, for that matter, achieved) surpasses even Warhol’s celebrated insecurity.

“Stuttering” revolved around a similar conceit, a self-doubt that precludes efficient
communication. Presented as a collection of works arrested between conception and execution, it argued for the virtues of garbled speech and blurred vision. Adding insult to injury, David Rimanelli, in his contribution to The Mourning Stutterer—the mock newspaper that accompanied the show—proposes Tourette’s syndrome as an alternative model for this “stumbling, shuffling, fractured” art, characterized as it is by “histrionic perorations of hatred, disgust, nausea.” Reviewing “Stuttering” (Flash Art, Apr./May 1991), Rhonda Lieberman joined a number of other critics in aligning abject art with arte povera as much as with Pop, endorsing Cézanne (Maurice Merleau-Ponty has described the painter’s self doubt) as the tendency’s forefather. “Without romanticizing the unconscious as the privileged realm of libido and liberation,” she writes, “ ‘Stuttering’ is about its truth as the lapsed act, not the act of control, misfiring rather than mastery, nonencounter rather than misrecognition.”

At Stux, Cary Leibowitz deliberately forced this issue, not only through a mass of collages and paintings cataloguing his comprehensive self-loathing (loser line
forms here, reads the text of one floor piece), but also by placing himself physically in the center of the whole morass. Seated at a table in the gallery, Leibowitz handed out warm cookies as a last-ditch gambit for appreciation—an entirely appropriate gesture for an artist whose résumé included his weight. (“The truly abject part,” Leibowitz says today, “was that artists would come in and ask if I was Mr.  Stux and if I could look at their slides. Even after they learned that I wasn’t the gallery owner they wanted to know if I would do a studio visit. It definitely put me in my place. I was trying to be so funny and unimportant, and here were these sad sacks making me feel like Prince Albert of Monaco—or at
least Desi Arnaz Jr.”) Leibowitz’s Kick Me (Green Pants), 1990, an XXL pair of pale green polyester trousers featuring the words of the title spelled out in multicolored appliqué across the XXL ass is further testament to its creator’s generous but lamented proportions, though it never became a must-have item. As Lieberman points out, Leibowitz is as much in thrall to the market as Koons is (he proves it with a line of cheap multiples that includes a please don’t steal my radio, i’m queer! windshield visor), but rather than represent himself as another perfect product, he fixates on the unlikelihood of his ever measuring up.

Of all the abject artists, Karen Kilimnik was, and remains, the most accomplished
poet of misrecognition. In “Stuttering,” it was her alter ego Jane Creep who suffered on our behalf. Jane’s misadventures are documented in a series of text drawings in crayon on paper, each of which recounts in crude block letters a tough-luck moment worthy of Homer Simpson: jane gets a serial killer annoyed, jane trips & falls into the tiger pit at the zoo just before feeding time, pizza with glass is delivered to jane’s office for lunch. Kilimnik is also obsessed with hard luck’s opposite—the fabulous feats of untouchable Hollywood celebrities and society and fashion high rollers. In High Cheek Bones, 1993, she juxtaposes a
loose crayon sketch of Kate Moss with a handwritten screed that shifts from a
detailed rundown of the model’s outfit (a shirt-style body suit with built-in black bra by karl lagerfeld, top hat by house of nubian, lace choker by karl lagerfeld, just-a-kiss lip gloss in ambrosia) to an intimate narrative fragment (the more she willed herself to sleep, the more wide awake she became, overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of the refrigerator-white room). Surrounded by clusters of red, pink, and white hearts, the “dungareed tomboy”–turned–“New York’s hottest model” is the object of an adoration that is nonetheless shadowed by ambivalence.

Writing about Kilimnik (“Revenge of the Mouse Diva,” Artforum, Feb. 1994),
Lieberman describes a group of installations combining various modes—starstruck, psychotic, amused, and amusing—in “trauma scenes” that play out personal psychodramas on the pop-cultural stage in a style at once distanced and hysterical. For example, in Me as Sean Penn, 1992, the smashed camera of a paparazzo signals the conflation of artist and actor. And in Fashion Shop, 1991, an array of crumpled clothes hangs against a sloppily handpainted backdrop of theatrical curtains—a child’s fantasy of an uptown boutique as gawked at, palms pressed to the glass. If, as Lieberman concludes, “the loser becomes a participant by being an observer, by being left out,” this slipshod allegory of the troubled intersection of public and private realms perfectly conjures the mutual dependency of the idealized and the abject.

Image: Cary Leibowitz, Kick Me (Burgundy Pants), 1990