The core of David Conroy’s solo show, which featured new pieces and a curated selection of work by other artists, revealed itself via a single-channel video of a disquieting stand-up routine. It is an anti-comedy of sorts, in which the depressed comic’s downbeat skit feels close to a public suicide note. ‘Stand-up comedy is like therapy,’ he intones, ‘because you can be in therapy for years and not make any progress.’
This is Looking for Abraham (2005), a short, powerful video work by Bristol-based artist Katie Davies. The bleak purity of the comic’s public existential crisis in Davies’s video functioned as an effective link between the artworks on show. In its wake, all of the pieces were revealed as questioning, to some degree, the surety of their own existence, status or function. Looking for Abraham, then, became the key to deciphering Conroy’s inward looking, auto-fictional project, a cryptic display about self-analysis and the dry anatomy of his own artistic being.
Since 2012, Conroy has produced different versions of his ‘Broadway Flats’ series: large, upright, floor-based panels of varying surface design. At Seventeen, four new ‘Flats’ (all 2015) were on display, each made of wooden frames and sheets of virtually opaque privacy film (silvery synthetic material usually placed behind windows to make them reflective). Dehydrated McDonalds burgers, lighters, E-cigarettes and other materials were distributed across each Flat, perhaps functioning as the wretched, scummy detritus of Conroy’s unhealthy compulsions or, in the case of the non-alcoholic beer bottles, existing as a kind of self-refuting proposition in object form: can beer that is non-alcoholic really be called beer? Texts – written in the introspective style of Herman Hesse, David Foster Wallace or, latterly, Tao Lin – were attached to their surfaces recounting banal psychosocial episodes and personal neuroses.
This self-centred focus was compounded in Seventeen’s second gallery space, which contained 2010–2014 (2015). Across this wood-framed structure and arrangement of furniture Conroy’s clothes (listed as ‘the artist’s’) were flopped, trainers squeezed and books strewn, lent and stacked (Miguel de Cervantes, Søren Kierkegaard, assorted Marxist theory and, most signifiantly, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916). This was art about being, by all indications, a relatively privileged male artist (the furniture included a vintage Parker Knoll chair and a Le Corbusier table) – either the real personage of Conroy or his alter ego. But what is the value of such work? British author, and fairy tale revisionist, Angela Carter decided against writing about the bourgeoisie and their cleaning ladies. Should work about male Western artists and their everyday anxieties be similarly embargoed? Is it the most overexposed subject matter in contemporary art?
Thankfully, Conroy’s inclusion of other artists’ works pulled the exhibition back from the brink of pure postmodernist navel-gazing: it was the interdependence of his art and the well-chosen art of others on display that was the work itself here. Hung on a wall covered by red-brick wallpaper – Conroy’s Distinction (2015) – were, most notably: pages from Lucy Lippard’s Six Years (1973); Trying to Remember (2013), a video piece by Siân Robinson Davies; and a photograph of stacked supermarket aisles by Lyza Danger, The New Fred Meyer on Interstate by Lombard (2004), which is frequently misattributed to Andreas Gursky on the internet. But it was Davies’s Looking for Abraham, foregrounding ontological doubt and self-referential circularity, which was key. The comedian, who may or may not be performing a breakdown, became the real or fictional artist, who may or may not be performing male existential angst as a performance of male existential angst. But this ambiguity of intent threw a thin veil over the huge mirror that Conroy seemed to be aiming at himself. It was, in all, an uroboric exhibition as auto-fiction – a Kaufman-esque (both Charlie and Andy) portrait of the artist as a narcissistic aesthete – smartly layered, but hollow at its core.