Sometimes I think I hate art.
Ok. It’s a little more than sometimes recently. Sure, realistically, I know I don’t hate art entirely. There are many artists I love and admire and I’ve devoted a significant amount of time and effort to art over the years. Lately, though, I’ve felt a little less driven, a little less inspired to schlep my way to museums and galleries, as you may have noticed from the dearth of art coverage on Filthy Dreams. And it’s not just because I’m spending a lot of my time considering if nuclear annihilation will be like Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return (So many pretty lights!). I mean, why bother exerting dwindling energy for an exhibition that will, at best, bore or, more likely, bother?
This aesthetic existential crisis has several causes. One is the overabundance of exhibitions that seem entirely reliant on the written materials—wall labels, press releases, artist bios—in order to convince the viewer that the art is, without a doubt, good. I don’t use good here because I’m at a loss for more vividly descriptive word choices. This type of exhibition is motivated by a need to reflect a specific type of “radical” politic, usually tied to identity politics, that is meant to telegraph an institution’s ethical stance, often as a way to deflect from their thoroughly unethical business practices or extensive history of ignoring artists that aren’t straight white men. The trouble here comes when reading the written materials only goes to further emphasize how the work itself doesn’t seem to live up to its own claimed values.
This problem came into focus for me when visiting London last October and attending the Hayward Gallery’s Mixing It Up: Painting Today on a not-so-glowing recommendation. In that survey exhibition of 31 painters, what became apparent was the attempt to bolster the art’s impact by laying bare every traumatic experience that the artists either endured in their lifetime or were tangentially related to because of their identity or nationality. This curatorial approach was almost laughably reminiscent of the impulse on American reality television talent shows to exploit and expose only the bleakest of contestants’ sob stories in order to play on the sympathy of the TV audience. It was as if the curator wasn’t confident enough—for a good reason, a lot of the work was hideous—in the paintings’ formal qualities or meaning on their own. Instead, they had to deflect from the rotten aesthetics by playing on the progressive heartstrings of the audience. Sure, she can’t really sing, but her mom huffed computer duster before they were living in a hovel in the woods. Sure, this painting looks like a mess, but after what they went through, who could deny its significance? An artwork isn’t instantaneously successful just because certain histories should be recognized.
Hopping back across the pond, New York exhibitions have recently suffered from similar issues. Some traded the harrowing stories from the Hayward for a laundry list of identities, as The New York Times’ Martha Schwendener pointed out in her refreshingly critical review (remember critical reviews?) of MoMA PS1’s Greater New York. She writes, “Every large exhibition trains you how to observe it, and here you quickly learn to look at the wall labels, which focus in many cases on the ethnicity of artists. This is interesting information but the hazard is that art is turned into a rhetorical instrument rather than a bearer of illuminating or speculative ideas.” And don’t even get me started on the college essay-length wall texts for the New Museum’s 2021 triennial. No, they’re just a collection of carpet squares…
But more than exhaustion with a specific type of buzzword-heavy, jargon-reliant, wordy radicality, the bigger issue influencing my lack of interest in visual art at the moment is just how aggravatingly repetitive all the exhibitions have become. Now, this, like the exaggerated written materials, isn’t necessarily the fault of the artists themselves. It’s not their problem that prominent curators don’t have the imagination or work ethic required to research and travel to numerous studio visits and instead, fall back on the same handful of artists that they know, love, and feel comfortable putting in an institution. Because of this, I don’t want to name names, but you know the artists who are in every group show or are given solo exhibition after solo exhibition. Many of these shows are also lauded as somehow widening the scope of the art historical canon, while still remaining incredibly and ironically restrictive as to who can slip through the frequently classist gatekeeping. I mean, how is it possible that all these artists seem to have Ivy League MFAs? And I’m not the only one who noticed. Danielle Jackson wrote about this specific phenomenon in her critique of the photography included in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, observing, “We might learn something from this roster about who has access to an education in photography nowadays, or at least, who has access to Yale. From the perspective of someone who works to expand access to photography among people without such accreditation, it was sad but not surprising to note how the same networks prevail.”
All of which is to say that a recent show (that I, unfortunately, caught too late to publish while it was still up) with thankfully very little overdetermined explanatory text from an artist I embarrassingly wasn’t familiar with until after her death allowed me to confirm that no, I don’t, in fact, hate art. That exhibition was Marlo Pascual, Remembering, a posthumous solo survey organized by the artist’s Estate and her fellow Tennessee-raised friend and inkjet printer artist Wade Guyton, at Casey Kaplan Gallery.
I should preface that I continue my glowing praise with some trepidation. I’ve hesitated to write simply positive reviews anymore because I can’t help but feel that I’m participating in the PR machine for commercial galleries and institutions. Unpaid, might I add. It feels like I’m writing a press release—or something that will one day be used as one. But, I’m prepared to make an exception since being awed by an exhibition is so rare for me nowadays.
Why did I love Remembering so much? It might be as simple as the piercing, disgruntled, and unamused glare of an over six-foot close-up photograph of a fluffy and prissy white Persian cat. Meowrr! While inherently campy simply by virtue of the long-haired beastie, the photograph, Untitled (2010), wasn’t exactly kitsch. This kitty wasn’t a tacky big-eyed painting cat nor was it the kind of overdressed cutsie pet photography we’re used to on Instagram. Given its size, incredible detail, and direct gaze, it was kind of intimidating. According to an Interview Magazine Q&A, Pascual too was gripped by the photograph due to its stare. “I liked the cat’s gaze,” she recalled, “and I just bought it off eBay, scanned it, and had it enlarged and mounted to Plexi.”
Like the imposing oversized puddy that mirrored, or surpassed, the size of the viewer, Pascual’s work thrillingly combined seductive imagery with playful and sometimes ominous formal experimentations, transforming photography into physical objects. The kitty wasn’t the only example. Before reaching the back wall to find the Persian pussycat, a pedestal blocked the viewer’s path, on the top of which is a photograph of a woman in profile, almost like a mugshot or more likely, a headshot. With her slightly bouffanted hair and winged eyeliner, there’s no mistaking this photograph’s mid-20th century style. A white conch shell was placed on the surface of the photograph, tracing the woman’s ear and jawline. Nearby, dual photographic prints of a woman’s ankles and heeled feet—her chipped painted toenails slightly exceeding the open-toed shoe—were hung like curtains on two dowels in a doorway. Elsewhere, a sculptural photograph of a brunette woman was ripped in half like an ex-best friend’s high school photo turned into a monument to destructive jealousy.
Even the works that didn’t quite push the boundaries between image and object were captivatingly cinematic. Take, for instance, Untitled (2009), a photograph of two hands with sharp cat-like fingernails, though this could have been the influence of the nearby fuzzer. The hands clenched into a claw were, at once, alluring and subtly monstrous as if a hand model was snapped by David Lynch. Around the corner, another more traditional photograph, Untitled (2017), depicted a photograph of an eye turned on its size with a single tear emerging from a tear duct, reminiscent of Man Ray’s glass tears. This photograph (within a photograph) sits horizontally in front of a window frame, which created an interaction between light and shadow from both the outdoor sun and the artificial light contained within the photograph. Pure surrealism.
Though I have a, probably quite tiresome, tendency to describe everything as Lynchian (and just did), Pascual’s work reminds me much more of Brian De Palma’s 1980s camp thriller films like Dressed to Kill and Body Double, which themselves reflect a deep reverence for Hitchcock and other film noir tropes. In fact, Pascual’s photograph of a woman’s nude torso as seen through gridded glass could be ripped entirely from De Palma’s voyeuristic Body Double, if you just traded the glass for Venetian blinds. Like De Palma, many of Pascual’s photographs derive immense influence from the height of old Hollywood. Sometimes this influence was not too subtle either in Remembering, as seen in the piece, Untitled (2009), which featured an appropriated photograph of a young Elizabeth Taylor. Pascual didn’t simply rest on the audience’s nostalgia but provided a twist—here in the form of Liz’s cheek pierced through with a tubular fluorescent light. Ouch.
Now, this certainly wasn’t the first time Liz Taylor became the subject of violence in art. From Warhol’s inclusion of his Liz Taylor paintings in his cataclysmic and gruesome Death and Disaster series to Kathe Burkhart’s painted scenes of domestic depravity with captions like “Blueballs” or “Prick,” Taylor emerges as a manipulatable pop cultural figure whose copious tabloid scandals can be employed for dramatic effect. Pascual’s representation of Liz, however, didn’t feel like a meditation on the dangers of fame or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? love-and-booze-and-pills-addled chaos. In fact, despite the fluorescent light puncturing her face as if one of the bright lights of Hollywood came hurtling towards her, the gesture was less about Liz Taylor herself and more about shattering our photographic preciousness, particularly in regards to these heavily romanticized Hollywood images. Pascual even gave viewers a rock, placed surreptitiously in the back of the photograph, ready to be weaponized in case you decided to enact your own image smashing.
While there’s a familiarity to Liz that can get in the way of understanding Pascual’s drive to, as she told Interview Magazine, “break apart the image, or…disrupt the image,” most of the other faces in the show were not as immediately recognizable, or had been obscured completely or torn apart. Even the works that didn’t block a woman’s entire countenance with stone, leaving only her blonde hair framing her now-nonexistent face, had an air of mystery and unknowability. Take Untitled (2008/9), which featured a 1950s headshot of, presumably, an actress who I feel like I should know, but don’t. Perhaps this was intentional, perhaps it had something to do with a gap in my own knowledge of Hollywood’s heyday, or perhaps the sconces stuck to the image, holding lit candles, presented too much of a flickering distraction. Nevertheless, looking at the work, there was an uncanny recognizability with her rolled bangs and silver screen smile, yet the name remained just out of reach, on the tip of the tongue.
Analyzed without the context of Pascual’s life, or more accurately death, the exhibition certainly resembled a Pictures Generation throwback, particularly with her interest in posed artificiality and the film noir undertones present in, say, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. But, this sole comparison didn’t seem to encapsulate the experience of the exhibition. Instead, as seen with the ever-illuminated candles on Untitled (2008/9), Remembering contained a strikingly melancholic and elegiac atmosphere, informed by both the work itself and the knowledge of Pascual’s death due to ovarian cancer in 2020. With a sepia-toned photograph of a hanging planter dangling from a chain in the corner of one room, the show reminded me of the subtle funereal décor in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance with the band surrounded by lilies and black candles, months before Kurt Cobain’s suicide. In contrast, Remembering wasn’t a morose death drive death wish. In true art world fashion, it was a meaningful yet much too late celebration of a female artist’s talent, ten years after her last solo exhibition in New York. Sigh…frustrating, but not surprising.
What Remembering proved—breaking through my own growing anti-art cynicism—was that there is a deep bench of artistic talent that is rarely shown or at least, not shown enough. Now, I don’t hold myself exempt from this criticism; part of this is my own damn fault for not knowing her work before. Which raises questions: Who are we not seeing? Who are we ignoring? Who will we have to wait until after their death to discover?