STUART SHERMAN: Nothing Up My Sleeve


Participant, Inc.,
November 8 – December 20, 2009

The comedian Andy Kaufman famously quipped “What’s real? What’s not?” in describing his own challenging, ingenious, and highly subjective form of comedy. “That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality.” Testing reality and the limits of public understanding through humor, performance, illusion, and spectacle is the subject of a magnificent group show at Participant Inc. Jonathan Berger, who organized the exhibition, includes the work of Andy Kaufman and a number of ground-breaking performers, entertainers, collectives, and artists in a multi-disciplinary exhibition, Stuart Sherman: Nothing Up My Sleeve.

The image is from “Stuart Sherman’s Eleventh Spectacle (The Erotic).” Photo Copyright © 1978 Babette Mangolte All Rights of Reproduction Reserved.

Stuart Sherman was an under-recognized, New York-based artist who experimented in film, video, and performance for three decades until his death in 2001. The photographs and videos on view, dated primarily from the late 1970s, chronicle Sherman’s “Spectacles”— ironically-named performances that mimicked the design and set-up of a small magic show without the show-stopping delivery. He performed on a portable tabletop, propped open on the sidewalk—or in the park, or someone’s apartment—displaying an array of everyday household items, like plastic cups and rolls of masking tape. Sherman arranged, stacked, and manipulated the objects, creating his own system of logic and timing without any punch line, sleight-of-hand, disappearance, or conclusion. His performances were non-sensical, driven in part by the artist’s desire to show, even when there was nothing spectacular to see.

The most transparent part of Sherman’s act was his dedication to his practice, creating his own visual language and pushing its form, working for an audience with little concern for popularity or acceptance. His attitude is echoed by the other performers and artists in the exhibition. Andy Kaufman is a fascinating case in point, an artist who turned a successful TV sitcom career into a series of intellectually disarming, frustrating, offensive, and widely misunderstood appearances and events. He mined literature and gender politics, reading from F. Scott Fitzgerald and wrestling women, acts that made him deeply unpopular, even shunned, until his sudden death from lung cancer in 1984. Items from his personal archive are displayed in the show—photographs, notebooks, transcendental meditation materials, and a box of 45” records that includes late-1950s teen pop stars like Fabian, and Brenda Lee—demonstrating Kaufman’s genuinely idiosyncratic personal vision, far outside of taste or fashion.

The combination of music and gender politics is overtly addressed in the work of Vaginal Davis, whose drag-queen performances humorously and aggressively attacked racial and sexual taboos. “The History of Vaginal Davis” is a series of framed photographs and letters spanning two decades, from 1980 to the present, documenting Davis in elaborate get-ups, wigs, ball-gowns, and Army fatigues, personifying outrageously polarizing figures, like white supremacists. Here the “history” of her career is complicated and contested in letters written by the leaders of the 90s underground music scene, notably riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna, who weigh-in on Davis’s hilarious fake-band Black Fag. It is impossible to discern “what's real” through multiple layers of fiction and parody, yet questions of identity are broached through the act of erasing all traces of the self.

Spectacle and performance serve as a path to the self, and an escape from it. The greatest escape-artist of all time, Harry Houdini, makes an appearance in black-and-white photographs on loan from the Library of Congress. The images capture the beloved entertainer defying death, dangling straight-jacketed from a window, or shackled in a crate floating in the New York Bay. On the opposing wall, a jacket and trousers complete a luxurious, gold-spun suit—an outfit that the artist James Lee Byars wore to practice his own death. It is a smart juxtaposition of two performers separated by generation and genre, equally dedicated to craftsmanship, skill, and aura, perfecting the art of disappearance. 

As just one of many masterful surprises in the show, humor and illusion pop up in architecture. Three different “BEST” department stores, designed and built in the 1970s by the collective SITE Projects, are documented in color photographs. The buildings’ elaborate designs were commissioned by the chain’s wealthy, enterprising, and art-collecting owners. SITE created facades that, amazingly, simulated each store in a state of entropy—crumbling, peeling or with a cracked foundation. The story of BEST owners and their unquestioning support of their architects is described in the pages of the exhibition catalog, a significant document containing essays contributed by Molly McGarry, Bérénice Reynaud and Mark Bradford. Additional works by Carol Bove, Matthew Brannon, and many others are summarized in Jonathan Berger’s thoughtful, well-researched, and intermittently personal accounts of each artist's practice. Nothing Up My Sleeve reveals an esoteric visual and cultural history, and is nothing short of extraordinary.

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Jen Schwarting