'We're wasted and have no fucking idea what the fuck is going on.' This carefully considered manifesto was issued to announce a performance by the band Actress at PS1 Contemporary Art Center in 1999. Since scoring their 15 minutes in support of Will Oldham, Actress - and the knowingly unpolished subgenre to which they belonged - have dissolved. 'Conceptual' pop is a tough act to swallow at the best of times, so it seems unlikely that anyone will be too dismayed to learn that singer Crystal (aka Amy Gartrell) is once again concentrating on her solo, non-musical, career.
Well, sort of. Her recent show 'She's so Bright She's Dark' is filled with references to the icons of Punk and Goth, from Darby Crash to Siouxsie Sioux, incorporated into a series of tightly rendered drawings and paintings in which the repeated fragments of lyrics become the bricks from which figures and faces are built. Gartrell's palette of fluorescent pinks, greens and yellows evokes cheap gig posters and trash glam fright wigs, while her
elaborate floral borders would make great tattoos. Then there's the lace: a tattered floor-to-ceiling swathe painted on the gallery wall in grey acrylic. The whole ensemble has a pronounced air of teenage bedroom idolatry; overwrought, pretentious, slightly obsessive, too utterly preoccupied with cool ever to achieve it.
On the subject of cool, it may be more than 20 years since the suicide of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis, but he is as present as ever in current art. In apparent emulation of Julian Schnabel's Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis) (1980) a current generation of New Yorkers continues to mythologize the brooding Mancunian. Earlier this year at Term, Slater Bradley presented his own tribute to Curtis' edgy stage presence in the form of a lookalike live video, while a recent group show at Daniel Reich filched its title, 'Unknown Pleasures', from Joy Division's first album. Gartrell gushes that the band have been her favourite since the age of 13, but whether Blue (Ian in Window) (2002), a portrait in silhouette, and Pink (It's Hard to Live When There Is No Love Lost) (2001), an image of Curtis's gravestone, contribute to, comment on or simply trade off their reputation is debatable. The danger is that fans will simply nod in conspiratorial recognition while their friends remain nonplussed.
Crucial to Joy Division's austere style was the immaculate graphic identity crafted for them by Peter Saville (Schnabel based Ornamental Despair on an appropriated cover detail), so it is worth noting that Gartrell's images share a smart 'designed' appearance. The clean compositions of Green (I'll Give You Something to Shout About) (2001), Jane and Sadie (2001) and Turquoise Hillary (Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Probably Forever I'll Miss You) (2001) are typical. Gartrell's laboured precision is effective in suggesting lovelorn hours spent poring over the original photographs and illustrations from which her images are derived, but the resultant smoothness also keeps us at something of a distance. Like any serious fan, Gartrell imagines her attachments as exclusive, obscuring them behind a protecting veil of conspicuous time and effort. If we regard her stance as ironic, then this is a logically consistent ploy. Anything less and she begins to seem mired in the very attitude of adolescent self-absorption that she depicts.
Untitled (It Requires a Lot of Energy to Stay Centered) (2002) is constructed from a sequence of images of antique borders and scrolls, arranged one within the other in descending order of scale towards the middle of the canvas, where the text of the title is spelt out in Gothic type. Gartrell's take on the motivational poster, it performs a similar task to Red (Scientology Chart) (2002), which plots its subject's personality as unstable and depressed. (You were expecting perhaps happy-go-lucky?) Here the artist distinguishes herself more clearly as an observer of, rather than a mere participant in, a self-consciously styled withdrawal.
The only sculpture in the show is Wishing Well (2002), an three metre tall model in painted wood and plastic roses that is intended as an allegory of unattainable desire but looks more like a mildly surreal stage set. Ironically, given its exaggerated scale, Wishing Well feels half-hearted in comparison with Gartrell's two-dimensional work. With a neat metaphorical explanation ready to roll, she has for once paid insufficient attention to formal finish. The flavour of high kitsch is intentional, but its flimsy-looking realization dilutes its aesthetic and weakens its effect. Yet if it seems as though she can do no right - defeated either by her own high production values or by an all too thorough immersion in her theme - Gartrell may take comfort in the fact that a state of victimhood, whether real or imagined, is nothing if not consistent with the sensibilities that fascinate her.