There were just nine works in Julia Wachtel’s first solo exhibition in the UK: six in the central space of Vilma Gold, one around the corner, one in the office and one sound work, which was discreetly turned off when the gallery was empty to save the staff from going insane. You Disappear Me (1987) comprises a two-minute looped piece of a sobbing woman, intercut with cries of ‘He loves me’, which had the melodramatic tenor of an American talk show. Puncturing the main space, the work introduced the central concern of Wachtel’s practice: namely, how material from popular culture can be appropriated, manipulated, repeated and juxtaposed in order to irk and unsettle the visitor, encouraging a reflection on the all-pervasive power of the media. As the artist commented last year: ‘My work is very much about how subjectivity is constructed, how we view ourselves and […] the media constructions of that. We had certain talk-show hosts on television at that time that would interview people and it was a forum for [them] to expose themselves, crying’.
The time Wachtel refers to is the early 1980s, which witnessed a boom in talk shows, because they were cheap to produce and, thanks to new satellite technologies, could now feature call-in speakers from virtually any location in the world. The proliferation of satellite channels and the invention of infra-red remote controls, created the possibility of ‘flicking’ between dizzyingly different content – a precursor to the experience of ‘surfing the net’. This collision of ‘high’ and ‘low’ was captured best in Narrative Collapse I and II (1981/2013), both of which feature six posters arranged in a four-metre horizontal line. Here, repetition bound together otherwise divergent images: the backside of a pig, a curious otter, the same pig, a bikini-clad Raquel Welch, a fierce Mussolini and then back to the otter again. Drawn in marker pen over each series of posters was a crude silhouette – an invitation, perhaps, for the visitor to shape their own view of the content, or the deathly shadow of the author.
The title of these works alludes to Jean-François Lyotard and his advocation in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) of ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’ – a reference which was reinforced by the exhibition’s title, ‘Post Culture’. I was reminded of Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), in which Babette is addicted to confessional ‘call-in’ programmes while Murray Siskind presents a pastiche of the Postmodern academic. A strident defender of television – ‘look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of life commercials, the products hurtling out of darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions’ – his students, meanwhile, consider it to be ‘the death throes of human consciousness’. Wachtel seems to respond to this ambivalence in a work like I’m Ok, You’re Ok (1992), in which a paunchy male face is silk-screened twice, one image upright and the other inverted, and set within two oblong panels, one mustard yellow, the other a dank brown. Caught mid-speech and bisected by a horizontal bar, he has clearly been culled from a daytime talk show, while the canvases, which dramatize the 4:3 aspect ratio of television, are painted in colours lifted from corporate logos and fast-food restaurant uniforms.
Although the exhibition at Vilma Gold spanned from 1981 to 2013, the concerns of the 1980s predominated. This was the decade when Wachtel emerged in New York as part of the recently expanded ‘Pictures Generation’. Coined following Douglas Crimp’s ‘Pictures’ exhibition of 1977 (which featured five emergent artists, including Sherrie Levine and Jack Goldstein) the term was extended by Crimp in his 1979 essay for October to encompass artists such as Cindy Sherman, who were similarly invested in the politics of quotation in a media-saturated age. Wachtel has remained overlooked (a fate shared by others of this group, notably Philip Smith, who featured in Crimp’s original exhibition but was absent from the Metropolitan Museum’s 2009 ‘Pictures Generation’ survey), especially in the UK. Last year, however, Wachtel was included in the group exhibition ‘Remote Control’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, which took the digital switchover as an opportunity to reflect upon the impact of television on popular culture. Now, with this show, one would hope that some momentum might be building.