There’s a title, but no press release, wall text, or any other attempt at giving a reason why these five artists were grouped together in this exhibition. You can guess, of course: they are mostly young and mostly based in New York. And at first, it looks like any other show of Brooklyn artists (‘Brooklyn’ here used as an adjective meant to denote sameness, a certain New York cool which disguises a hyperawareness of the market). This leads us to ask the question: Do we still think in terms of the zeitgeist? If yes, it’s hard not to conclude that Ryan Trecartin is its embodiment.
Trecartin is showing an uncharacteristic work: a video on a small flat screen. Junior War (2013) was edited from footage the artist shot when he was a teenager in Ohio. The Blair Witch Project (1999) had just been released and Trecartin was fascinated by the night-vision camcorder. The grainy video shows his friends bumming around the American suburbs, looking for trouble: they drink, smoke, throw rubbish out of a moving car, run from the cops. It’s like a mini version of A Clockwork Orange (1962) but with a Trecartin-like reflection – the teenagers talk directly to the camera, and even if all they say is ‘damn right we’re fucking shit up’, it reads like a statement on youth and boredom in the US: all the components of a classic Trecartin video. But, unlike typical Trecartin, it isn’t shown as part of a large-scale installation, nor is it even a huge projection. The subdued presentation contrasts with the chaotic pace of the video and allows the viewer some space to really focus on a document that gives background to the development of his practice.
Though Junior War is modest compared to other Trecartin works, it still commands the most attention in this small show. However, it doesn’t overshadow the two vinyl-paint pieces by Henry Gunderson. A small blue canvas (Pure Energy [Blue], 2014) includes a leaf and a road emerging from it. A slightly larger painting, 8 Speed (2014), has a skull serving as a stick in a manual transmission gearbox where all the gears are marked N, though it’s far from neutral. The imagery in both paintings is inexplicable, but it resonates with contemporary viewers well versed in the proliferation of hard-to-pinpoint images. Another painting, Jamian Juliano Villani’s Rocky II (2014), depicts a broken version of Sylvester Stallone’s youthful face and, in the background, a piece of ham stamped ‘Villani’. Like the cute pun on the artist’s name, the internet-sourced material is familiar enough to make it seem like a joke the viewer is in on. Next to this is Frank Benson’s Fragment from proposed sculpture of Alexander Selkirk (2014). A Scottish sailor who was a castaway on a desert island in the South Pacific for four years, Selkirk is thought to have inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Benson’s monument to Selkirk is a work in progress and currently consists of a helmet made of crab shell complete with a plastic headrest. Placed on a pedestal, the empty helmet hints at the missing head, at the fragmented body that isn’t there. It’s a powerful monument to absence, in a way befitting of its subject. The broken-down body is also the focus of Dora Budor’s The Architect, Mind Falls Apart (2014). The wall-sized sculpture, made from two fuse-boxes connected with metal pipes, features stretched silicone swabs onto which Budor fastened pieces of skin – actually the lumps of special-effects makeup used to create scars on the actors in the movie 300 (2007). The sculpture looks human – the fuse-box a body, the pipes limbs – but its eerie similitude to real flesh enhances its Frankenstein-like artificiality.
When Selkirk returned to Scotland, his four years of solitude turned into a lifetime infamy. There is so much in these works about how imagery – whether created by a camera, mass media or popular imagination – shapes stories and our understanding of the body, its absence or enhanced presence, the anxiety about the way one presents oneself to the world. If only any of these connections were made more apparent in the space itself. Given the absence of text, the viewer is left scrambling for any understanding of what the works are or what they’re supposed to do together. It creates the lingering feeling that the exhibition failed while the works succeeded – but there’s something comforting in that.