In his solo show at Etablissement d’en face in Brussels, New York-based artist Sam Pulitzer toys with the tension between responsibility and escapism, figuring himself somewhere between sardonic, socially engaged artist and neo-romantic flâneur. Made whilst on, or inspired by, long walks through the outer boroughs of New York, the works here take the form of poetic prose installed as large, black vinyl wall-text, coloured pencil drawings on gridded paper placemats and A4 semi-documentary colour photographs. An enormous adhesive mural taken from a cartoon about retreating from society, which depicts a wave crashing onto a rock on the West Coast of the US, watches over the untitled exhibition.
Pulitzer’s semi-diaristic walking method seems innocent and somewhat surprising from an artist well known for engaging in institutional critique. But his meanderings around the frayed periphery of New York mirror other socio-political and economic movements away from the old artistic and financial hubs that nonetheless reinforce the importance of those cities. As artists and others are pushed further and further away from the centres of cities in order to find affordable accomodation and studio space, the outer rims of places like New York increasingly represent the norm rather than the exception.
Across the walls of the ground-floor gallery, Pulitzer’s cryptic aphorisms seem to be directed at both the artist himself and the attending reader: ‘Haunted by homes that refuse to die? Is it that you felt badly about it but never bothered to protest?’ Touching on subjects as varied yet interconnected as housing, mortality, the law, finance, pharmaceuticals, anxiety, customer service, misery, crime and complicity, these nine serif-font texts amount to an oblique commentary on the dozens of photographs lined up in groups of eight in the basement space below.
There, the borderless clip frames carry associations of cheap functionality or of local history exhibitions held in town halls. But this aesthetic is belied by the careful composition and editing of the photographs, not to mention the museum-grade non-reflective glass purchased to replace the standard. We find images of capsized boats left to rot, a ‘Bernie’ (Sanders) badge placed on Harry Houdini’s grave, holes in fences, birds’ nests, rubbish left in a driveway, mismatched home repairs, a rotten banana atop a box-TV, a war cemetery and a sign for ‘post-disaster housing’ set up after Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012. Though there are few people in Pulitzer’s photographs, he is drawn to their silhouettes: abstract signs of humanity, rather than specific individuals.
The drawings in the adjacent room are stand-ins for signs or symbols that indicate a boundary or edge – points at which change may occur or where judgment is suspended. There is a screeching cat that signifies a workers’ strike without union agreement; a sign in Greek saying a cattle fence is electrified; a generic symbol for short-circuiting; the logo for an electric motor; or allusions to the morally ambiguous fable of the ant and the grasshopper.
It is unclear whether Pulitzer fetishizes the edge or challenges the moral judgments heaped on the socially and economically marginalized. As a successful, young, white male artist, Pulitzer’s position in relation to what, in the exhibition text, artist Peter Wächtler calls the ‘vanishing point’ of the city, is complicated. If the horizon supposedly ends at the edge of New York, who decides where this point is? Who is able to walk away from it all? And does the assumed despondency of those living at the fringe not reveal, perhaps, something about the perspective from which the artist approaches his subject? Pulitzer is aware of the limits of his own viewpoint: ‘Images fuelled with scorn, maybe envy and, undoubtedly, complete misapprehension, ague without fever. Cast a stone, think twice of guilt and blame: childhoods, choices or luck?’ But is it enough just to implicate oneself?