BY Andrew Gellatly in Reviews | 01 JAN 04
Featured in
Issue 80

Joseph Grigely and Ellen Cantor

FA Projects, London, UK

BY Andrew Gellatly in Reviews | 01 JAN 04

Stories photocopied from this summer's New York Times 'Metro' section and included in this exhibition note that veteran New York prostitutes are being driven out of Manhattan by 'crackstitutes' who work longer hours and turn tricks more cheaply. As a result the veterans have decided to move to New Jersey and set up where they can be left to get on with it in the pedestrian-free anonymity of semi-trailer parks and highway exit ramps. This, it turns out, oddly echoes what artists were doing ten years ago.

Jersey City in the early 1990s was, as this exhibition reveals, home to a strange pool of organic life. Wallace Stevens described it as a place where 'the deer and the dachshund are one', an antidote to New York City, a romantic wasteland where people would end up without really knowing why. Ellen Cantor and Joseph Grigley's collaboration is a vividly personal account. It records a time when both artists were working among the matzo factories and the Maxwell House coffee plant. 'Lost in Jersey City' documents their return visit to the fugitive city. The exhibition sees Grigley and Cantor's friendship evolving over a period of ten years, their lives bumping along in a series of encounters at the Flamingo Diner, in photographs and paintings but mainly in an extended written exchange. Grigley, who is deaf, has since 1994 been archiving his everyday conversations with pieces of paper on which are written the flustered, random sentences of his friends. Around the same time Cantor abandoned oil painting to develop the subject of her intimate life in drawings on paper or directly onto the wall, with peeled-consciousness honesty.

The exhibition includes a raft of curling, handwritten notes with formal gallery text introductions. In Untitled Conversation (I Hate Undertipping) (1995) Grigley notes, 'I met Ellen C a couple of years ago, and one of the things that I really liked about her is her uninhibited way with words [...] a lot of people aren't afraid to speak their mind, but to write your mind takes a different kind of effort.' Grigley, it turns out, is rioting in understatement as Cantor goes on to scribble in a don't-know-where-to-look way: 'I am his wife and I wish he brought you home for me to fuck.'

Central to the exhibition is Cantor's 'The Cinderella Syndrome' (1994), a series of 64 drawings that set out the progress of an art world girl who wants not only to go to the ball but also to get balled. It is a disconcerting mix of identifications, embodiment and emotional signposts. In a scene of ardent triple fellatio the thought bubble notes, 'She loved him carefully + skilfully as lovers from long ago had taught her to do.' Over the years Cinderella has been through a lot of reinterpretations by the porno industry. Cantor's version is what happens if you give her a Don Juan complex, take out the choice of either/or and replace it with a bar-hopping search for a prince. It is also lambent with regret, on one occasion noting: 'I think of you often. I do, you were wonderful, you still are.'

Cantor's work unsettles assumptions about pornography, annexing a graphic language of iconic Disney figures such as Snow White and Bambi and then embodying and personalizing them to the point where characters take on the role of emotional substitute. In New York terms this is like excavating the new, improved 42nd Street, where underneath the sanitized studio-owned malls lurks the relics of a suppressed sex industry. Cantor's work is prickly for a lot of viewers - anti-censorship but itself threatened with censorship. There is a repetitive imagining of penetrations and cum shots, a re-engineering of female representations of eroticism. But the ongoing dialogue with Grigley has a broadening and expansive effect.

There is a third voice in this exhibition, provided by Grigley's The Battcock Archive (2003), a stash of papers belonging to the 1970s New York book publisher, author and the star of Andy Warhol's films Horse (1965), Drunk (1965) and Eating Too Fast (1966). Grigley discovered Gregory Battcock's archive when he shared a warehouse building with the splendidly named Shalom Moving and Storage Company at 111 First Street, Jersey City. Battcock was murdered in his tenth-floor condo in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1980. In the abandoned archive, strewn across the floor of Shalom's offices, were the manuscript of his bitter, unpublished, art world novel and three issues - the only ones produced - of Trylon and Perisphere (1977-8), an unfeasibly funny culture magazine that features male swim-suited Hispanic cover models who write forewords for each issue, full of useful domestic advice on house cleaning, car maintenance and cooking rice and beans. Each issue rates galleries with a star system for décor, canapés, cleanliness, lighting and attire of personnel. Its tone is so displaced that, if it were not written in Jersey City, it should have been. So while Robert Smithson's essay 'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey' (1967) romanticizes the outfalls and the dumps, making it the eternal city to succeed Rome, one side-effect of this exhibition is to enshrine Jersey City, Passaic's neighbour, as the capital of the temporal.