Monday, March 1, 2010

One from the Crypt: Victor Man @ Gladstone

The NY Times strapped a veritable brodequin to Victor Man's Gladstone debut 1 year ago, laying down one of the meaner bits of mainstream art writing in (my) recent memory. After insisting that Man "stop pulling on our heartstrings and go back to the drawing room," Roberta Smith then goes on to encourage some "ground rules" for contemporary art to prevent it from adhering to Man's "generic recipe": "taste is not talent; obscurity is not meaning; and the heads and pelts of dead animals should be used sparingly, if at all." While Smith may have a point about the opportunistic familiarity of Man's motifs, the fact that Man's artistic output doesn't cohere to the idiosyncratic yet communicable work that Smith regularly praises is frankly intriguing.

Now, just to be clear, the 'Goo is not trying sing unsung verbiage in favor of Man; his "devastations"* are clearly bathed in cologne, outfitted with D&G briefs and square-toed leather while raving on Croatian shores or voguing some of Helmut Berger's butcher roles. Yet who, in questionable taste, wouldn't find that appealing? The "straighter" the role, the "better" Berger is. The very inanity of Man's show was its most appealing aspect: a predictably morose mixture of nth-gen Tuymans with nth-gen Beuys, topped off with a formerly-curtained "miami wice" patina. While I may be out on a limb here but Man's show seemed the perfect contemporary art analogue to the elegant, Eurocentric trashfests so common to the film work of Andrzej Zulawski, Walerian Borowczyk, Juan Lopez Moctezuma, post-Secret Things Jean-Claude Brisseau, Donald Cammell, Jean Rollin, pre-Caligula Tinto Brass, to name but a few. Perhaps the reason why Smith was unwilling to digest Man's generic cuisine is potentially due to the fact that American audiences understanding of B pictures is largely mainstream fare writ small fry, lo-fi spectacles that maintain an approximation of hollywood razzle dazzle as their bottom line. It is a rarity to find post-'60s American films that so wholeheartedly lollygag in the limbo between pretension and late-nite Cinemax—DePalma, Hellman, Downey Sr., Michael Tolkin and maybe Eric Mitchell's films being notable exceptions (BTW let's not bring Tarantino into the picture...). Is it any wonder Warhol's "Hollywood" films were produced in Italy?

*I put "devastations" in quotes as this is the preferred word that the Gladstone staff apparently uses to describe the similar work, attitude-wise, of Gregor Schneider

While mainstream film critics for sometime now have piled (with occasional reluctance) great value onto "bad" films, art critics—especially mainstream ones like Smith—are light years from ever generating such positive evaluations. Certainly the notoriety achieved by cult films is in part through their questionable relationship to formal quality, however their ever-valuable "success" is more importantly weighed on their ability to become a object of individuated cathexis, a revealing object of desire that exposes more the acculturated techniques of its viewing subject than whatever was dedicated to film. The evaluative relation between cultural object and viewing subject is, no doubt, at constant play within all cultural forms but finds one of its most explicit configurations in the deeply fetishized cult film genre—think only of the fanboys decorating their rooms and bodies with the films through which they find themselves.


When art insists on pulling your heartstrings, camp can't be too far behind. As viewers' tissues soak up Man's sob-stories, they may soon find themselves drenched in post-Ceausescu kitsch, surrounded by a farce of feel-bad manias translated into commercial goods. Given a fanboy's unrequited love, Man's highly emotive "devastations" may have some value beyond their ostentatious price tag. The visibility granted to such highbrow mawkishness by an imposing gallery like Gladstone stands indicative of the emotional prerogatives of a specific consuming niche, a niche that unquestionably laps up Man's sturm-und-drang alongside Gladstone's other benighted apertifs, regional flavors that stretch from Iran to China to Tribeca. When credence can be lent to some of the culture industry's lesser inanities, why not let ourselves toss some to the fatuous "winners" of such an industry's most gilded, lotus-eating branch? Especially when these winners are potential Ishtars (or BrĂ¼nos) that barely slip through the ire of mainstream opinion, a mound of turd so foul that the concealed social relation intrinsic to its commodity form reveals itself as plainly as a pikestaff.

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