Commissariat: Christopher Eamon and Anke Kempkes
A rictus grin connotes a communication that does not express interior emotions. Instead, as a metaphor, it can be said to summarize a particular state of affairs such as paralysis or rigidity and yet the grin is received affectively as a smile none-the-less. The artists grouped in this exhibition have each created incisive positions in, and attitudes toward the milieux that they have chosen to inhabit, using public space and the symbolic sphere of mass communications as their media. Changing circumstances in the current art world in relation to the broader culture suggest a need for a return to historical forms and artistic approaches, today, in more subtle and fragile ways than ever. The contemporary world cast as a seducing cadaver is dealt with in this exhibition by artists who have worked with mass media and publicity in the past in intuitive if not analytical ways and by younger artists who relate specifically to the space opened up by artists of the 60s and 70s, while managing to escape the pitfall of an exhausted nostalgia. Public space and institutional politics or, the street as a target, have been notoriously exploited as a site by artists throughout the decades since 1968. In the course of this evolution art as “intervention” has become yet another form of the acceptable in art, or even an ultra-sophisticated pastiche. How do artists today approach the political sphere through public space? How do we look back at artworks that dealt with these issues in the first wave of the genre from the distance of today’s vastly more commercial context? Should we be fulfilled merely by a sentimental look back? Is our longing for the (politically) relevant in art to be satisfied only by a nostalgic return to the 1970s, via black and white footage, documentation, cinéma vérité, etc? And can, or should we, fully and seriously resist this embrace? How much should we ‚forgive‘ this ‚innocent‘ material by historicizing it as the primary effort of a previous avant-garde, thus unwittingly emphasizing its potential lack of relevance today as a cultural expression? Artistic and intellectual sentiments for historicism is all around us now, at times unchallenged and/or uninspected. At the same time as there seems to be strong urge to reassess work of the 60s and 70s among younger artists. Just as there are, and have been, artistic moves in the area of mass media and other public spheres, some attempted, as they now do, to deal simultaneously with the doublebind of avoiding nostalgia while retaining an urgent sense of engagement. (...) An outright criticism of nostalgia and sentimentality for the past as cultural regression may at times seem short-sighted, since there is a reason for the intensity with which contemporary artists address these forms with a silent urgency of their own. One of the subjects of this exhibition is a need for further interference in this zone—a knowing one—an insightful look into practices at times when they were not fashionable. Many of the artists included here look back to art forms created for the first time while at the same time test new forms adequate to expression today. The reflex by some artists may be at once fairly formalistic and yet, on another level, acts on the psychological behind the political, being more than a literal take on former or even current political agendas.
Webster’s defines rictus as a grin or grimace, and it usually implies an expression that’s fixed, as in paralysis. This serious little mystery of a summer group show, organized by Christopher Eamon and Anke Kempkes, touches on all of this in an oblique, conceptual way. Its essayistic press release is framed as a series of questions that are being asked about art today. Like, how do we revisit and reuse avant-garde art of the recent past — the 1960s and ’70s — without dropping into nostalgia or turning into archivists or copycats? How do we make an art engaged with ideas that can maintain rigor under the softening, flattening, cute-ifying, but here-to-stay pressure of the market? And how, while pondering such matters, do you prevent yourself from coming to a dead stop, thinking, “Well, I guess the only future is figure painting after all,” and then heading in that direction? This show has no answers, which may be the best thing about it. When you talk of the past, you talk about time, as several artists here do. In a strange, choppy, abstract, four-minute video, “1933,” the interesting Canadian artist Joyce Wieland (1931-1998) goes back to that year, for no apparent reason except that film allows her to, over and over again, though she never stays there long. A 1966 video by Oyvind Fahlstrom records a fictional demonstration he staged in New York that year with “protesters” carrying pictures of Bob Hope and Mao, and a “newscaster” asking passers-by if they were happy with their lives and why. The British artist Duncan Campbell sends us to the late 1960s and early ’70s in his 2008 documentary about the Irish activist Bernadette Devlin; and it’s great to see her, so unpretentious, fearless and smart. Eustachy Kossakowski’s photographs of defaced street posters in Paris that leave film stars and pop singers grinning and grimacing takes us to 1976; and Miklos Onucsan’s framed poster of an art exhibition derailed by right-wing popular politics in Bucharest, Romania, lands us in 1990. Work by other artists — a necklacelike sculpture by Maria Loboda, and carefully marked-up photographs by Haris Epaminonda — are less date-referencing. But Sam Lewitt’s funereally dark 2007 print of ads for designer watches brings us back to the show’s starting-point themes: time, market, pleasure, inertia, forward, backward, and how art can partake of, and stand back from, all of these.
T. J. Carlin:
The various pieces in “A Rictus Grin” highlight the struggle artists often face in pitting revolutionary spirit against the constraints of media; much of the work in the show engages the problematic of documenting or archiving public gestures of dissent. There’s no better example of this than the exhibition’s centerpiece, Bernadette, Duncan Campbell’s assemblage of documentary clips about ’60s Irish activist Bernadette Devlin, the youngest woman ever elected to Parliament, at age 22. While the discrepancy between the woman’s impassioned speeches and the distance imposed by time, the technical imperfections of archived film, and the artist’s hand in editing the footage all make it difficult to allow her fiery vision to fully resonate with the viewer, there’s inspiration aplenty in Devlin’s story. This work is the most resonant item in the show; some of the other pieces are effective though a bit lacking in emotion. Sam Lewitt’s offset print of magazine watch ads is a reminder of the onslaught of time; his obsessive visual repetitiveness recalls Quentin’s in The Sound and the Fury. Eustachy Kossakowski’s photos of defaced Parisian posters of cultural icons from the ’70s highlight one of the more immediate methods of response against the tyranny of cultural pressure. Overall, the unflagging attempts to manipulate popular means of communication in service of expression are admirable.
Andrea K. Scott:
Expressions devoid of emotional content—like the eerie fixed grin on a corpse or the insincere smile of a glib politician—inspired this intriguing sleeper of a show, curated by Christopher Eamon and Anke Kempkes. A cynical world view predominates, as seen in Öyvind Fahlström’s delightfully unsettling 1966 film, in which bystanders watch fake demonstrators parading by with posters of Bob Hope and Chairman Mao. But some works break ranks. Duncan Campbell’s Godardesque video portrait of the feisty, cigarette-wielding Irish activist Bernadette Devlin, who was elected to parliament in 1970, at the tender age of twenty-one, is surprisingly poignant.