“My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola
My eyes are wide like cherry pies
I fall asleep in an American flag
I wear my diamonds on skid row”
–Lana Del Rey “Cola”
Through her music, as well as her videos, Lana Del Rey defines a distinctive bittersweet nostalgic Americana–an idyllic yet irreversibly corrupted fantasy. Del Rey’s America is a beautiful California landscape marred by the revving of the Hell’s Angel’s engines. Not only imbued with a sense of darkness and danger, Del Rey’s American romanticism is also inherently vacuous. Even though many malign Del Rey’s music for its superficiality or label her as “fake,” Del Rey reflects a definitive emptiness in the American imaginary.
Although Lana Del Rey’s narcotic anthems may seem at first to be the exact opposite of artists Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s hi-frequency Adderall-induced video installations, they all revel in the void of Americana. Even Del Rey’s lyrics could come right from the endless spew of verbal vomit captured in Fitch and Trecartin’s films. I mean, how different is “My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola” from “Give me your least confrontational wine”?
However as seen in the current exhibition Fitch/Trecartin at Andrea Rosen Gallery, the duo’s immersive video installations–rather than pine for America’s heyday like Del Ray–celebrate the 21st century cacophony of digital self-expression and vacant conversations. Move over Richard Hell, this is the true Blank Generation.
The artists’ first show with Andrea Rosen, Fitch/Trecartin transforms the gallery into a maze-like progression of rooms, each resembling theatrical sets related to their corresponding film. From a tree-lined deck with two rafts for viewers to sit on to a pontoon boat with tacky white seats to surprisingly comfortable boulders and a jungle gym, each “sculptural theater,” as the artists term them, centers around the act of viewing. With headphones connected to each inventive seat, purposefully turned on just a smidge too loud, Fitch and Trecartin essentially construct intimacy, allowing the viewers to feel as if they are participating in some way.
Not just their emphasis on innovative viewer experiences, Fitch/Trecartin furthers their now well-known and critically lauded overstimulated aesthetic. Working closely with Rhett LaRue for these films, collaboration continues to drive Fitch and Trecartin’s art. As they have in the past, the duo use their friends and fellow artists as both actors and inspirations.
Appearing and disappearing randomly, the numerous characters populating their films are covered in paint, passionately discussing everything and yet nothing at a feverish pace. They have no gender, no sexuality, no stable identity, no motivation or purpose. Even though the films are supposedly scripted, all dialogue seems completely impromptu, adding a tangible realism to the bizarrely costumed characters.
While many of the tenants of Fitch and Trecartin’s past work emerge in their new exhibition, they did add a Coors Light chaser to their normal 5-Hour Energy Drinks. Rather than resume mining the slick yet vapid consumerist sprawl of suburbia, Fitch and Trecartin set their sights on rural Americana–the America of lake houses, backyard barbecues, American flag T-shirts and too much corporate-produced beer.
Shot during a road trip, which must have startled the locals, particularly with the crew wearing shirts emblazoned with the word “Witness,” the films jump from vast desert landscapes with rocky canyons to deceivingly quiet–well, not too quiet–houses in the woods. Perhaps due to this rural scenery, the artists toned down the effects in the films with less sped-up dialogue and rapid computer-animated digital intervention.
Much of the redneck flavor of the films derives from the only character to appear almost continuously in the films–Mark Trade. True to his *wink wink nudge nudge* name, Mark Trade is certainly rough trade. He’s even performed by Murphy Maxwell, a musician and porn star–a fact conveniently left off of the Andrea Rosen press release.
With a wardrobe that appears as if he bought out a Cabela’s, Trade spews out dialogue or as he says, “dangle[s] my balls of wisdom in your face.” Trade stumbles, poses, dances, spraypaints walls, breaks plates, sings about wine and frequently howls through his scenes. Describing himself as “post-terror,” Trade becomes a strange sort of drunken guru figure who could probably lure some voters away from Donald Trump.
Not only does Trade seem patriotically unhinged, many of the other characters in the film indicate that their best days are behind them. A frequently reoccurring theme in the films is the loudly proclaimed assertion that last summer was so much better. As pointed out by the artists in the press release, each character is either looking back or forward. As the artists describe, “no-one is actually having experiences. There is a fear of being.”
In his essay on Trecartin “Situation Hacker” in his collection My 1980s & Other Essays, Wayne Kostenbaum writes, “His cosmos, not a tranquilizer, presents a terror-spiked forecast. Of apocalypse-as party. Of psychological evisceration as spiritual exuberance” (208). Like Kostenbaum’s astute observation, there is a lingering unease in the films, which likely relates to their surprisingly realistic depiction of contemporary America within unmistakably surrealistic film.
I have to admit, for a long time, I had trouble with Fitch and Trecartin’s work, which I blame mostly on the high-pitched vocal cadence. As Kostenbaum writes in “Situation Hacker,” “Digitally virtuoso, his work excites me, but also causes stomach cramps” (206). I certainly felt the cramps as well as searing ear pain.
And yet, the current Fitch/Trecartin exhibition thoroughly captivated me, motivating me to sit for an inappropriate amount of time in the gallery glued to the screens. An utterly terrifying explanation, I suspect that Fitch/Trecartin’s work seems more palatable today because our society has finally caught up with them. Are the conversations in their film that far from conversations overheard at coffee shops, on the subway or watching the Kardashians? Even a couple years ago, Fitch and Trecartin’s hyperactive dialogue seemed jarring, but now it seems de rigor–a testament to both the artists’ vision as much as the potential degradation of our culture.
Fitch and Trecartin’s America is an America both numbed and defined by technology. It is a virtual world of emojis, tweets, texts, Instagrams, Snapchats. It is a world of person as brand–Mark Trade’s name can be turned around to read “trademark.” Their tactical move to the countryside proves that not only is suburbia a vast wasteland, but the entire country is also doomed. Like the America as seen in Idiocracy, Fitch and Trecartin construct an unsettling world entirely appropriated from the popular culture that drives us.
In his feature on Art 21, Mike Kelley explained his use of popular culture and thrift store trinkets in relation to his video installation “Day Is Done,” which draws from found imagery of high school performances and mid-century Middle America youth culture. Kelley states, “Popular culture’s really invisible. People are really oblivious to it. But that’s the culture I live in and that’s the culture people speak. My interest in popular forms wasn’t to glorify them because I really dislike popular culture in most cases. All you can do now really is work with the dominant culture I think and flay it–rip it apart and reconfigure it.”
Like the ongoing conundrum surrounding Mike Kelley’s work, the real question with Fitch/Trecartin’s vision of Americana is: are they celebrating our perpetual shallowness or are they harshly critiquing it? Are they reveling in this 21st century trash or outright rejecting it? Possibly they are doing both.
There is, however, another possibility, which I partially hope is true as it would be deliciously subversive, that the duo are just fucking with us. With the sheer amount of beer consumed in the films, they could all just be hammered. Watching Andrea Rosen try to explain the visual assault to a couple of serious-looking, suit-wearing collectors through the gallery space certainly added to the exhibition’s transgressive ridiculousness.
However as a character says repeatedly in one of the films, “I tried reacting but I had a hard time paying attention.”