BY Nick Irvin in Reviews | 13 FEB 16
Featured in
Issue 177

John Russell

Bridget Donahue, New York, USA

BY Nick Irvin in Reviews | 13 FEB 16

John Russell, Transformational Joy, 2014, wood, metal, mixed-media sculpture, 2.3 x 1.1 x 1 m

John Russell has made a video that is both singular and plural. SQRRL/BRUCE WILLIS (2015) grafts a new video on top of an older one: SQRRL … (2015) plays an illustrated story about 22nd-century interspecies brain transplants over Russell’s Aquarium Proletarium (2014), an animation of his essay ‘Bruce Willis, Irigaray, and the Aesthetics of Space Travel’ from the same year. Animated GIFs stutter over a scrolling text by the artist that plays on philosopher Luce Irigaray’s call for a non-binarized model of sexuality and, consequently, multiplicitous writing. The result is messy frottage: dense walls of excursus slide beneath crude animations of viscera, hybridized animals and Willis’s shiny pate, set to an ambient score of wind chimes and whispered narration. All is low-res and choppy. Periodically, a ghostly turtle glides through this ocean of signs, suturing visual information as it goes, anchoring our dive into hallucinatory fiction and bleeding-edge philosophy.

Before viewers meet this turtle, they first come across its corpse. It is impaled on a tall, knotted branch, at the mouth of the exhibition, caked in crude oil-evoking black enamel and resin. This lonely animal appears in silhouette, awash in pink fluorescent light. Like a crucifixion scene, it brusquely unites violence, desire and symbolic transcendence – a trinity scrambled by Russell’s delirious erudition, perhaps against what Irigaray calls ‘the one of form, of the individual, of the (male) sexual organ, of the proper name, of the proper meaning.’ 

A long, angular wooden structure, supporting a screen wall, bisects the gallery lengthways like a spine, its back covered with pink fluorescent light bulbs. If the turtle sculpture floats by the exhibition’s mouth, then its video counterpart drifts by the anus. Russell’s exhibition hinges on the interdependence of brains and bowels, eliding conceptual headiness with scatalogical headlessness. This climaxes on the reverse of the dividing wall, which supports a sprawling, backlit mural printed on vinyl (Mirror Mapping the Stars, 2015), a recurring format for Russell. It depicts a lurid, animistic scene: a coven of nude beast-people dance around a totemic seahorse whose tendrils tether their bodies like a symbiotic Maypole. A flamingo, a skeletal centaur and a canine warrior interlope. Though the scene is rendered through computer-generated modelling, Russell interrupts that medium’s claims to crisp hyperreality with inky outlines and other painterly intrusions. Here, the digital is anything but a zone of frictionless exchange.

The mural’s stark iconography, scale and narrative choreography perversely recall the stately populism of Enlightenment history painting. But, unlike the mythologies of classic history paintings, which were familiar to their viewers, Russell’s allegories are hermetic and inscrutable. Take the mural’s seahorse, at first glance a sinister puppeteer sporting phallic probe-like tendrils. However, it is the male seahorse that carries eggs and gives birth, aligning the tendrils with umbilical nourishment. Such slippery conflations abound, recalling Irigaray’s demonstration that bodies are more complicated than our schematizations of them.

As with classical allegory, text provides context for Russell’s imagery. The artist’s writings, present throughout SQRRL …, as well as a parasitic takeover of the gallery’s website, traverse the murky rift between his roles as reader and imagist. Online, the exhibition’s thorough footnotes elaborate his bibliography (Irigaray, Georges Bataille, Ray Brassier, George Grosz, Die Hard) and lexicon (‘SQUIRREL,’ ‘TURTLE,’ ‘MEAT’). Rather than parroting theoretical jargon, Russell’s texts are lucid; even when their legibility is obscured in the video, you get the sense they are meant to be read. Yet, accompanied by bizarro illustrations, the texts’ moments of straight-talk are self-effacing, even comically so. They stage the anxiety of trying to speak reason while aware that what speaks is a messy sack of viscera – a knowledge inevitably conditioned by sexuality, health and environment.

This coupling of anxiety and voracious intellectual appetite lies at the heart of Russell’s exhibition. The digestion of information yields nourishment as well as its byproducts, and Russell revels in its excesses. Unlike most contemporary art practices labelled ‘cerebral’, Russell’s orgiastic mode rejects visual sterility without trimming any conceptual meat.