New York-based artist Dave McKenzie makes performances and installations that exploit prosaic symbols of pop culture – a statue of Paul Bunyan, for instance, or a Bill Clinton mask – in order to stalk the ghosts in the ideological machine of identity. While past works such as Self-Portrait Piñata (2002) and While Supplies Last (2003) – in which McKenzie hands out bobble-heads of himself while wearing a giant papier-mâché bobble-head – confront identity through the theatre of social engagement, with McKenzie often starring as the stooge, the works in this most recent show, ‘On Premises’, reconsider social engagement as a Brechtian theatre of alienation. A handful of installations and paintings served to reify one’s innermost feelings through the production of unstable social situations. In Proposal (2007), two identical paintings read with the same black sans-serif text: ‘This painting is a proposal. I propose we meet once a year every year until one of us can’t or won’t.’ As the paintings proposition the viewer, they shatter their proposal with the emptiness of the language; in the end, nothing is enacted but an exterior dialogue between two inanimate squares.
There’s no promise of emancipation from social identity quite like death, and it served as the show’s leitmotif. The Proposal paintings were juxtaposed with two works referencing Princess Diana (Valley of the Shadow of Death and Untitled, both 2009), while On Premises and Fear and Trembling (both 2009) were a consumerist repackaging of faith, with dry-cleaning bags and clothes hangers printed with the pleas: ‘Jesus loves me’ and ‘Love me Jesus’.
The most compelling works were those that seemed to implicate the viewer from the inside out. Preamble (2009) reorganized the gallery’s main room as a video studio – with lights, a camera and a blue wall – and allowed visitors to listen to the late rapper The Notorious B.I.G.’s début album Ready to Die (1994). A television screen alternated between the blue wall and a clip of comic Bill Cosby saying to his TV son on The Cosby Show: ‘I brought you into this world, I can take you out.’ Attunement (2009), a five-minute video of the same Cosby Show episode, began with The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ (the final track on Ready to Die) and fast-forwarded to stirring father–son moments shorthanded for immediate consumer recognition and consumption.
McKenzie’s attention to social conventions and obligations suspends the questions of being an artist – or a teenager, or a princess – at the level of public performance. Albeit imperfectly, ‘On Premises’ attempted to undermine those social identities. The difficulty, however, is getting beyond the performance.