‘Not So Subtle Subtitle’, a group show assembled by the artist Matthew Brannon that suggested a hall of mirrors rife with reflections and reversals, was nothing if not subtle. Brannon’s own work has become more delicately insinuating as his investigations into graphic design and fragmented narratives have become more oblique and less Gothic, and fake B-movie posters and silk-screened and embroidered tapestries have given way to more austere letterpress prints and quietly troubling installations. Books are a recurring fascination – a novella he wrote appeared in his sculpture Rat (2008), bound in unmarked covers and placed on an absurdly high shelf – so it’s hardly surprising that writers as well as artists played a role. An integral part of the show was a slim volume containing texts by Tom Burr, Bret Easton Ellis, Liam Gillick, Isabelle Graw and Philip Monk, along with Brannon’s sole contribution, a smattering of elegantly deadpan silhouettes of typewriter keyboards and teacups, ending with a skeletal hand reaching into the final page from the binding – as though creeping out of one of his imaginary horror flicks.
The playful title was taken from Monk’s text, a dialogue between a man (perhaps a humorous version of himself) and a woman involving a discussion of Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982) and its ‘mirrored and bifurcating series’. Graw’s text, meanwhile, worries away at the implications of what she sees as the current ubiquity of the word ‘amazing’ in the art world. One explanation she offers is that it functions as ‘a symptom of the current absence of criteria […] on the art market’. But she goes on to write that ‘amazing’ simultaneously reflects a continuing need for value judgements and sheds light on market processes by serving as ‘an empty formula, seemingly legitimate and perfectly adapted to the sphere of economic circulation’. The vacuous cocktail chatter and Madison Avenue-style hyperbole that preoccupy Brannon are thus connected to consumption of art in a complex fashion.
Many of the art works Brannon selected – all two-dimensional – included incorporated text. Two were by Guy de Cointet, the mercurial Frenchman obsessed with alphabets, codes, products, brands and mirror-writing who relocated to California in the late 1960s, galvanizing artists from Mike Kelley to Allen Ruppersberg with his plays in which letters, numbers and geometrical forms functioned as props. Like Brannon, Graw and others, De Cointet was intrigued by the riptides of vapid small talk. In You Don’t Know the Russians (1983) an arrangement of jittery red lines is captioned ‘But You Don’t Know the Russians as Well as I Do’ in De Cointet’s copperplate mirror-writing, suggesting a subtle dissimulation. Another work, A Page from my Intimate Journal (1974), seems to be entirely in code.
Other selections didn’t include text but echoed those that did, such as Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Coniglio appeso (Hanged Rabbit, 1973). This gruesome serigraph on reflective stainless steel, which signals a porous boundary between the work and the spectator, fitted well with Monk’s theme of doubling and repetition. Eileen Quinlan’s moodily glam photograph Dark Star (2007), depicting crumpled sienna and black surfaces shot with scribbles of light, could be imagined as an image of writing that has slipped into illegibility; it resonated with Nick Mauss’ untitled panels in scratched aluminium leaf over black gesso, resembling cryptic palimpsests on an ancient Etch-A-Sketch toy. And like a dignified guest who, one suspects, is politely reining in his eccentricities, Matthew Higgs’ austerely restrained framed book pages with barely detectable text apparently on the obverse – such as the four leaves, each with black stripes on the right or left side, in Primitive Art (2008) – were perfectly at home in such company.
Works by artists whose influence on Brannon is especially clear included a Lari Pittman with the usual intoxicating brew of coded images and ornately layered styles. Jack Goldstein’s A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records with Sound Effects (1976), brightly hued records accompanied by sleeves with evocative labels such as ‘The Burning Forest’, perhaps inspired the look of Brannon’s silkscreen-and-foil-stamp framed ‘gold’ records, such as Soft History (2006) and Cold Dinner (2006), although unlike the Goldsteins the latter aren’t playable and don’t aim for menacing rigour, evoking back-stories redolent of limp insecurity and social embarrassment. Brannon does follow in Goldstein’s footsteps in hinting that the art world is a mini-Tinseltown, albeit to different ends.
Brannon’s own dark territory, which Monk has aptly called ‘décor noir’, is littered with knives, wine bottles, sushi dinners, cigarettes, credit cards and fashionable mid-century bric-à-brac – everyday images transmuted into emblems of class, consumerism and potent impulses such as shame and ambition. Some of the kindred spirits in this show may not share his obsession with the Cold War era, with its sleek certainties and anxious underpinnings, but they evoked similar pathologies, whether distinctly American or native to the art world.