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Brooklyn Dispatches: Performance Anxiety

As a painting snob, I’ve always held performance art at arm’s length. I do appreciate the Feminist tactic of using its designation to elevate the drudgery of “women’s work” to an aesthetisized level, subverting the elite realm of high art. (Witness the glorious Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution at P.S. 1—my nominee for one of the top five shows in New York in 2007—which included many such paradigm-shifting works.) On the other hand, there’s an element of spectacle in much performance that borders on schmaltz and publicity stunts, like David Blaine wrapped in critical theory. When asked specifically about the difference between “performance” and publicity stunt during his 2007 sculpture/performance piece “Flatland” ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sUPYptuzNU) at Long Island City’s Sculpture Center, Ward Shelly stated “The context is actually the only real difference, and the intentions of the person doing it. Whether they want just to get attention or whether they want people to think about the subject. It’s really kind of a subtle difference. In a way it all depends on how it’s being presented and what we’re asking you to do with what we’re doing—not just what we’re doing, we’re asking you to think about it.”

Though “highbrow” syllogisms like these are what chased me out of the cafés and back to my studio, recent permutations of performance have become unavoidable, even for me. Perhaps it was Seven Easy Pieces, Marina Abramovi’s series at the Guggenheim Museum in November 2005, which recreated seminal works from the 1960s and ’70s by five different artists as well as two of her own pieces, that indisputably proved that performance might have a life beyond its fleeting moment of origin (and that it had been legitimized in the eyes of the bigs as a practice whose crowd pleasing bankability might one day match its purely aesthetic value). In this way it has been as influential to a younger generation of performance artists as the Saatchi Gallery’s Triumph of Painting exhibit was for new painters.

Young galleries have taken to using “performance” as a come-on to entice visitors to drop by an opening. The inevitable late start also gives the cash bar a chance to squeeze a few extra bucks out of a thirsty crowd. And so it was in early August at Fresh Meat, a mixed bag of a group show at Factory Fresh, on Flushing Avenue near Morgan.

At the entrance my hand is stamped by an affable, thick-necked “bouncer,” an affectation adopted from the club scene that seems a bit pretentious, even in this scruffy up-n-coming neighborhood. After perusing the works on the walls I hear a wave of whispers circulating the space. An area is cleared in the middle of the floor; rows of youngsters sit or squat in a circle. “Dream Story” by performance artist E. Greem is about to begin.

A figurative painting is laid out on the floor (ironically, a lot of performance work alludes to “Action Painting,” but that’s another essay). A heavily orchestrated classical musical number starts pumping through the sound system. E. Greem, cloaked in a white organdy veil that draws up to a recessed orifice over her still-shrouded face, whisks through the audience. She wears layers of blue and green undergarments, white tights and high heels wrapped in rough burlap. She kneels in front of the painting and, in sync with the musical flourishes, folds it in half, only to reveal another image on its back. Over the course of about five minutes she repeats this action several times, pausing at intervals to circle and observe her handiwork; each folding exposes another picture until the canvas (which by now has been replaced by smaller props) is reduced to the size of a saltine. As the music crescendos, she dramatically raises the bite-size painting and pops it in her mouth. Then, escorted by gallery assistants, she beats a hasty exit to a side door.

Despite the explanations I’ve received from the artist via e-mail (the pictures represent, among other things, various relationships and situations from the artist’s past), what stayed with me was the faux-mysteriousness and unexplained ritualism of “Dream Story.” Though masked, there was no question as to Greem’s gender, and, as I’ll discuss later, this allusion to the classic witch, sorceress or muse relates “Dream Story” to Essential Feminism and avoids the all too easy tropes of burlesque and hard core porn that infects much of today’s post-Feminist performance work.

Maximum Perception: Contemporary Brooklyn Performance at English Kills Gallery is the kind of late summer shindig that deserves mid-season primetime (except cold weather might require more clothing). Co-curated by performance artist Peter Dobill and English Kills director Chris Harding, Maximum Perception is conceived as an environment in which performance works could be seen in an ongoing context: four weekends, with performances all day from 1 till 9 pm, an all-encompassing block of action. To this end, the main gallery is surrounded by a battery of continuously running video monitors with headsets on plinths showing examples of the work. Documentary photos and artworks are hung nearby. Over the course of the show’s run, the project space is transformed for each piece, with some works spilling out of the gallery proper onto the sidewalks in front and Forrest Street as well.

As I peddle to the gallery on opening night, I nearly drove over Rob Andrews lying on the sidewalk against a dumpster, his ankle chained to a curbside lamppost. His stained yellow shirt, a couple of sizes too small, exposes a pudgy midriff; his tattered black slacks could have been ripped off a Bowery bum; his feet were bare. The only thing that cues you in that this isn’t just another homeless guy chained up in the street is the cobalt blue bull mask Rob wears. This is “Minotaur,” a signature endurance piece that the artist has performed at various locations. In this Brooklyn incarnation, among garbage cans and dumpsters, this recumbent ox seems somehow appropriate. Lying motionless for minutes at a time, the artist would occasionally stir, shake his head, scratch his crotch and rattle the chain like a cowbell, exuding a bovine petulance. I was told he started this action around 5 pm and continued it till way past dark.

In the main gallery, a sweaty, beer-lubricated crowd huddled around “hee-hoo / he who Meets Us will adore us,” a lengthy piece by Holly Faurot + Sarah Paulson that combines elements of dance, endurance and video. Two bare-breasted performers in gold satin miniskirts, accompanied by a third, clad in red shorts and top, who seems to lead the other two in a kind of movement call-and-response. Sometimes the dancers mimic a male figure that appears on one of three video monitors set up in the performance area. At other times, the monitors show a live feed from an overhead camera. As the piece progresses, the skirted dancers pick up thick slabs of stone and repeatedly lift them in front of their bodies until they’re so fatigued they nearly drop them. Then, setting the stones in front of the video screens, they retreat to platforms at the rear and to mimic the leg lifts of the red dancer. Catching only a brief part of the two-hour performance, any interpretation on my part would be a stretch, but the athletic exertion, the odd repetitions, the legs lifts in seeming supplication and the glistening perspiration on proud young breasts has a primitive erotic force that was stark, unignorable, and riveting.

A ladder leading six feet up to an open window in a black plywood wall is the entrance to Marni Kotak’s “Slumber Party,” another Maximum Perception offering. Climb up a few steps and peek through the frilly green curtains; inside is an over-scaled bedroom with a huge bunk bed (recalling Lilly Tomlin’s character Edith Ann’s giant rocker), a soda-and-chip-laden table, and a stereo blasting bubblegum hits. Several female performers lounge around in their jammies, interacting with visitors, joking and yakking like pubescent Valley Girls. Viewers are invited to climb in, join the party, and become part of the show.

Though I didn’t have the opportunity to experience all the performances, there are a few commonalities worth pointing out that seem to establish precedents and hint at future directions.

As with “Slumber Party,” the much discussed “retreat to infancy” is in play. This trend has analogous forms in painting and music and was a popular theme at the recent Whitney Biennial. It mixes childhood fantasy with pop culture and a dose of adolescent Surrealistic sexual angst. These can be potent subjects, but some works lose their bite and drift into a sweet blandness and a gutless aversion to the pathos of maturity.

A more macho vein is the endurance piece, like Andrew’s “Minotaur” or perhaps the work executed on the closing day by Mark Lawrence Stafford, “Temporal Exchange.” In “Exchange,” Stafford, dressed in a white, long-sleeved shirt, black slacks and walking shoes, spends eight hours trudging clockwise in circles on a field of granulated salt. He’s tethered to a black pole in the center of the space by a ridiculously long tie. References to punishment, dog runs, the mindless grind of office work and endless repetition are obvious. I calculated he’d walk about eighteen miles that afternoon.

Though I missed co-curator Peter Dobill’s performance, while speaking with him a few days later, he proudly displayed a series of small gashes running up the length of his arm (and further I assume) that he self-inflicted during his routine. Through video documentation and photos, I could detect the influence of the Austrian Actionists like Rudolph Schwarzkogler and Hermann Nitsch, as well as their American progeny, Chris Burden and Kim Jones. Much of this work is immersed in a grotesque infatuation with, and distortion of, the body’s forms, fluids and functions.

But perhaps the most disturbing and challenging are the post-Feminist works employing hardcore XXX-rated porn. Breasts, hips, thighs and buttocks are the universal eye candy that we’re saturated with daily. It was the degrading exploitation of these female attributes that so much consciousness-raising was focused on during the nascent phase of Feminism. A reaction against this kind of esteem-building (or perhaps an opportunistic glomming on to these same exploitive tendencies) is exemplified in the work of Leah Aron, stage name Amber Alert.

In a darkened gallery, dressed in high camp hot—platinum wig, skimpy satin bustier, garter belt, panties, high white stockings and platform high heels—the voluptuous Alert performs a bawdy pseudo-striptease to the soundtrack of a classical duet. Bumping and grinding, she removes article after article of clothing while applying white greasepaint to her breasts, then stomach, arms and thighs until the front of her body is covered. A video is projected over the performer, creating a visual frame; in the video, a crouching woman masturbates while her face is assaulted with ejaculate from a seemingly endless line of multi-racial penises. With each application of white paint (and each male orgasm), Alert seems to dissolve into the projection. Watching the audience, I couldn’t avoid wondering how many found this “artistic” presentation simply a convenient, guilt-free way to view porn on a balmy Sunday afternoon. Initially, I shuddered for the video porn queen, feeling her degradation, but after a while a desensitizing occurred and this all became pathetically, depressingly funny. While a performance like this can raise profound questions, is there a danger of pushing this genre too far? Will we move on to kiddie porn and snuff films next? Is the sensational and shocking just an attention-grabbing gimmick for the lazy or untalented? Should artistic ambitions or “aesthetics” trump decency and morality? Are there any limits? Should art care?

A video of "Fresh Meat" with E. Greem's performance can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tolMg7ETQ90

A brief our of the "Maximum Perception: Contemporary Brooklyn Performance" opening can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7uBsa2zqMw