“I know you worry
Baby, sometimes – maybe baby
You were right”
–Perfume Genius “Grid”
“So, perceiving culture and society entirely in visuals, and before my eyes, I am up against my limits,” says Ezekiel Hooper Stark, the image-obsessed cultural anthropologist and protagonist of Lynne Tillman’s most recent novel Men and Apparitions (136).Reading society through its found vernacular photographs, Ezekiel is a character filled anxiety, from the precariousness of masculinity in the age of what he calls “The New Man” to the perceived limitations inherent in his life dedicated to images. Through the text, Ezekiel emerges as an apt representation of our nerve-wracked and visually driven era, looking to the past through well-curated photographic documents to avoid peering into that uneasy and increasingly unstable future.
Does that make you feel a little, well, tense? Need some relief? Maybe like the effervescent Alka-Seltzer bubbling in Michael Stamm’s painting Causes, which was one of the first works I saw in an enormous current group exhibition This Is Not Here: RE 21 held in the former Pfizer factory in Bushwick. “Causes cause causes to cause causes,” reads Stamm’s painting as a hand reaches down to stir the medicinal tablet into a glass of water with a dull grey spoon. Nauseated, queasy and just maybe a bit hungover, the figure, identifiable only by their hand, distracts themselves from this endless chain of causation. Even though the causes that cause causes remain ambiguous, it’s hard not to look at Stamm’s work without thinking of the stream of seemingly unstoppable events that keep occurring over and over again when turning on the news or logging onto social media (I mean, do I need to get into specifics?).
A similar palpable and relatable anxiety hangs over the entirety of This Is Not Here: RE 21, the twenty-first installment of Re: Art Show, an evolving group exhibition program headed up by Erin Davis and Max C Lee. With this installment curated by artist, curator, writer and occasional Filthy Dreams contributor Efrem Zelony-Mindell, the show brings together a staggering 57 artists, a feat that for someone, like me, who has curated shows seems like an insurmountable task. Many of these artists were culled from an open call that prompted artists to engage with the “ever-changing environment” of the Pfizer building. Naturally, with so many artists who make up this incredibly diverse roster, it’s difficult to articulate one precise theme, thesis or point to the exhibition.
And for me, that’s a good thing. Rather than imposing some strict or simplistic theme on the exhibition, laying it all out in an all-too-explanatory press release that just gets plagiarized by lazy critics, Zelony-Mindell challenges viewers to rely on their own imaginations and interpretations, leading to a more active engagement with the works. As Zelony-Mindell told Forbes’s Adam Lehrer, “I think people need a supportive opportunity to make up their own decisions and to be affirmed in knowing that their own feelings and interpretations of things, art specifically, aren’t wrong.”
But even though Zelony-Mindell pushes viewers to find their own connections between the works, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t themes that emerge throughout the show, namely that of precarity and fracturing. Whether a chair poised on a fragile leaf in Raul de Lara’s installation, the fragmented multicolored and folded abstractions by Jessica Thalmann or the body represented in vibrant bits and pieces as in Justin O’Brien’s included painting, the prevalence of tension and eventual shattering seems to gesture to both an overwhelming sense of foreboding and the breakdown of various repressive structures whether industry, capitalism, strict sexual identities, gender binaries and even, the body itself.
However, I certainly acknowledge that this is my own take, one among others. Like Tillman’s Ezekiel, “I narrate through images, what they appear to represent, with my thoughts working as subtitles. But it’s false in a sense, because they are all essentially UNTITLED, OHNE TITEL, incapable of being captioned or captured” (136).
But, before I get into the work itself, there is something inherently dystopian and thematically appropriate about holding art exhibitions in a former Pfizer factory. A transitional space between the industrial American Dream and…whatever it is we do now, the cavernous building, which holds Re: Art Show, itself indicates an economic or production breakdown. Two years ago, I visited the first Re: Art Show, which was held in some of the more factory-esque floors of the building, ones with enormous abandoned machines that David Lynch would unquestionably fetishize and photograph. But two years later, the building has consistently changed and evolved, as has Re.
This Is Not Here: RE 21 is held in what was formerly an employee’s cafeteria and men’s locker room, resembling more of a traditional white cube exhibition space than my initial encounters with Re: Art Show. This doesn’t mean, however, that the ghosts of the building’s past don’t still haunt the space. Pipes and air ducts proliferate on the ceiling and down around the rooms like organs. But above all, attending Re: Art Show always feels as if you’re trespassing, apprehensively and sometimes, timidly wandering empty, darkened halls and hoping that these pink arrowed signs are, in fact, taking you to the right spot. I’m always waiting to get thrown out or at least, yelled at. It’s exhilarating and exudes the ethos of the former ABC No Rio space and other D-I-Y art shows that tend not to happen too often in New York anymore.
This postindustrial dread that washes over viewers inside the former Pfizer factory is reflected in the work itself. On one wall, a volcano explodes in a black-and-white photograph by Athena Torri, which reminded me both of the repeated imagery of an atomic bomb blast in Twin Peaks: The Return and the continued eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano that is currently spewing green gems into the island’s atmosphere. Some of the tension-provoking visions represented by the works in the show aren’t quite as apocalyptic, but this doesn’t mean they’re no less worrisome. Take, for instance, Rodrigo Moreira’s wall-mounted fluorescent work, which transforms the word “Data” into “Date” and vice versa. Like a Bruce Nauman work for the age of cruising apps, Moreira’s piece engages with the permissive and submissive relation to surveillance when engaging with dating apps that are so much a significant part of today’s sexual culture. The work questions the notion of intimacy when a hookup includes potential hacking, data mining and information gathering.
This same disquiet extends to the portrayals of the body in the exhibition, including even possibly the most straightforward rendering of the body. Daniel Rampulla’s photograph depicts a contorted half-nude male figure who looks over his shoulder in apparent shock at an invisible source or person behind a door frame, just beyond visibility. With his hunched chest and extended hands, the figure is the quintessential representation of fight-or-flight, adrenaline-flooded terror. Rampulla’s figure is not alone. Returning to Stamm’s Causes, this painting gestures toward the body’s ills, pains and bundle of nerves all reflected by the swirling mass of bubbles inside a glass.
Like the disembodied hand in Causes, the body in This Is Not Here: RE 21 is also frequently fractured, a refusal of the full figure that leads to easy cooptation or commodification. For his part, Zelony-Mindell has been interested in an abstraction, refusal or complication of the body previously, as seen in his prior exhibition newflesh at Rubber Factory and in his included essay for This Is Not Here entitled The Futile Orgasm, which reads “Your body is inconsequential.” As he explained to HAF NY’s Jon Feinstein, “I’m always simultaneously trying to get past the expectations of the body, while still acknowledging and accepting its existence as this thing that seems to wildly complicate so much in the world and individual lives..”
Fragmenting the body can be employed by artists as a form of refusal of normative constraints being placed on the figure as exemplified by KC Crow Maddux’s installation, which reveals two apparently gender non-conforming torsos–one in a multicolored spectrum (it is Pride) and the other, in greyscale. Without revealing their face or identity, Maddux, by using their own transmasculine body, in some ways, rejects the mainstream fetishization of trans and gender non-conforming visibility that proliferate in both clickbaity publications and “political” (read: coopted) art exhibitions. Instead, by using just their torso, highlighting its hair, curves and tactile flesh, Maddux powerfully inserts the anonymous trans body into both a white walled gallery space and a formerly pharmaceutical one on their own terms. While the Pfizer factory may not have produced hormones used for gender affirmation, it certainly did create pills that regulated the body, whether mood stabilizers like Zoloft or erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra.
Yet, while cutting up the body can be a means to maintain agency, this fracturing can also reflect the overarching anxiety in the exhibition. Fracturing can also act as a reminder of of Lacan’s foreboding notion of the “fragmented body,” which threatens the fragile singular ego. A part of the mirror stage, Lacan theorizes that the fragmented body, manifested in “images of castration, emasculation, mutilation, dismemberment, dislocation, evisceration, devouring, bursting open of the body,” continues to haunt the ego through dreams and nightmares. This notion of uneasy fragmentation can be seen in works like Patricia Voulgaris’s installation that juxtaposes a cloaked figure with only a bare leg and hand exposed with a stand from a rope barrier that is similarly draped with a cloth. Not only does Voulgaris’s installation conflate the animate with the inanimate, but her photograph, with its eerily aesthetically dismembered limbs, recalls Lacan’s fragmented body.
Not only is Lacan’s fragmented body in reference to the physical, but it also deals with an unsettling amalgamation of desires. As he writes, “He [the subject] is originally an inchoate collection of desires–there you have the true sense of the expression fragmented body,” which is reminiscent of Meredith Sands’s painting. Her work portrays disembodied hands, like Stamm’s Causes, but here, they grab at a lump of blemish-riddled flesh, which may be breasts. Sand’s painting is nearly abstract, abject and strangely unnerving. The opposite of erotic, the work instead exudes a sense of the infantile–a return to childish things like an infant desperately reaching for its mother’s milk.
However, this fractured precarity and anxiety, whether about the body or society as a whole, that pervades the exhibition doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of transportation and transcendence, even in unlikely places. They can be found in the glittering pieces of kitsch (not to mention creepy dolls) captured by Gregg Evans and the fringed fantasy of Fabrizio Albertini’s photograph. In particular, Sarah E. Brook’s inclusion gestures toward a more pleasurable and calm elsewhere. A wall-mounted work, Brook’s installation is, on its surface, wholly simplistic–a multilayered triangle with a ruddy red circle in the center that appears like a sunrise or sunset in nature. And yet, it introduces a welcome sense of relief within the frantic exhibition. You find yourself, dreaming of escape and taking utopian visions where you can get them, even if it includes staring through to a blank white wall.