Saturday, September 19, 2009

L'Enfer, C'est les Autres

Sartre's famous dictum could be the title of a current show at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston. Sartre's words are usually translated, "hell is other people," but in this case you'd have to say, "hell is other animals." Maybe there's not much difference.

Jon Pylypchuk uses bits of junk and "scrap," as he terms it, to make paintings and sculptures about a horde of little ferret-like animals who all hate each other. They are constantly fighting and cursing at each other, in the most painful way imaginable. In this dystopian world, fighting is mainly what the inhabitants do, physical fighting that is, interspersed with bouts of insults. Very occasionally, one of them comforts another one with a touch or word, but this is very rare.

The paintings are well-composed. Other than that, they are very ugly. Garish, clashing colors and revolting textures created by disgusting bits of mangled fur are the order of the day. One almost feels as if one needs a bath after seeing this show: it feels unhygienic.

I remember once I found a dead rabbit on my farm. Whatever had eaten the rabbit had left its head. On a whim, I put the head on a stick, a la Lord of the Flies, and paraded it around the neighborhood. I sneaked up behind a neighbor and patted her on the bottom with the rabbit's nose. She jumped, but she didn't scream, to her credit. After this exercise, another neighbor said, "Go wash your hands!"

That's how I imagine Jon Pylypchuk must feel after working on his pieces. Or maybe not. He seems to take pleasure in rubbing our noses in the ugliest sides of human nature. Because in fact animals are rarely as mean-spirited as his little cartoon animals are, or not for long anyway. The worst thing I've ever seen a dog do is take a bone from a smaller dog. Animals don't engage in exchanges like this:

"Cut the act you phony cripple."

"You try living with your legs bent up."

That's the dialogue that goes with the following sculpture:

I can't imagine why the Blaffer gallery decided to exhibit this work. Apparently Pylypchuk has a bit of an international reputation, but that doesn't make it right. The Blaffer has repeatedly shown a preference for "confrontational" (read: ugly and offensive) work like this. I suppose that's because fifteen years ago, ugly art was kind of fashionable and a new idea. But now it has become the academic art of our time. Witness Jessica Stockholder, who also had a show at the Blaffer four years ago. Stockholder teaches sculpture at Yale.

Stockholder's work, while deliberately ugly, at least doesn't add the element of interpersonal abuse that Pylypchuk seems to revel in. I suppose he sees this as progress in the pursuit of ugliness.

Now, it is true that there is a certain representational bent to all this ugliness, particularly in Houston. Houston is ugly. People in Houston frequently treat each other in very ugly ways. It's a Hobbesian, dog-eat-dog kind of world, and Pylypchuk's little and big animals could represent the ids of Enron executives and other gangsters. But Pylypchuk doesn't seem abhor the violence of their interactions. He not only records them; he revels in them. He's much worse than Weegee, photographing a crime scene; he's not just a voyeur; he's a participant.

So what's wrong with this? Weegee was a reporter. Maybe Pylypchuk sees himself as a reporter of sorts, but he's also a dramatist and a fabulist, creating sordid fictions to add to the pile of sordid truths. Worse, he finds himself cool because he's so "honest" about the way humans interact. He identifies with the little furry self-pitying animals; they are his alter egos.

The above painting is in fact titled, "my life would be good if I didn't have so much to complain about." One of the little animals in the painting has a piece of white paper emerging from his mouth with these words written on it, like a scroll emerging from an angel's mouth in a Renaissance painting. Obviously, this is meant to demonstrate some self-awareness and wry humor. But this one moment of irony can't outweigh the preponderance of self-pity in the rest of the show.

The real irony is that artists get recognition, fame, and sometimes even money for indulging in their "complaints." One would think that after almost twenty years of artists doing little else, they would be tired of it. The fact that this show is in an academic gallery, though, maybe reveals the bankruptcy of this aesthetic of complaint and ugliness: it's academic art, encouraged in MFA programs, but it's old, it's tired, and it's time for it to go.

No comments:

Post a Comment