Ron Amstutz: Right Roads & Wrong Ways
Wallspace September 5–October 11, 2008
By now we’re all versed in the complexities of the “performance document.” While a single photograph can refer back to a primary action, it can never quite recreate the reality of that moment. It cannot bring a dead thing back to life. Yet in its marooned state, cast off from the juicy narrative to which it once belonged, it can still become a surprisingly potent marker. And it can become so loaded over time that its mysteries sustain and outlast the emotions of the moment from which it was dislodged. When I think of pictures of Chris Burden’s 1971 “Shoot,” for example, I no longer bother to imagine what lies beyond the mummified image of a frightened-looking dude in a white T-shirt, clasping his bleeding arm. I am fine with knowing that I’ll never really understand what went on.
Ron Amstutz’s show of medium-scale color photographs and one half-hour video, currently on view at Wallspace in Chelsea, challenges this assumption by exploring the interstices between performance document, performance, and performer. In the course of action, his role teeters between that of the document maker and the performer as he attempts to balance these two opposing conditions, and to, in a sense, confirm or interrogate each other’s authenticity. What we wind up with is a chicken/egg conundrum: a camera working to capture (and substantiate) a performance; and paradoxically, a performance working to capture (and substantiate) a camera (or the affect, the machination, of taking a picture).
The exhibition’s knock-out piece (some ten years in the making) is an approximately thirty-minute video called “Right Roads & Wrong Ways” (2008). In each of its chapters, the artist is seen in a hand-painted Op Art set. He’s wearing a colorful “neo geo” bodysuit (with reversible fabrics attached to a Velcro liner) complete with matching customized sneakers and an odd jester-like skullcap. Throughout the video, we see Amstutz engage in a variety of exhausting tasks that are suggestive of make-believe fraternity hazing rituals or initiation ceremonies for a secret society of one. While the edited piece shows Amstutz fluidly performing these confounding, rote tasks, it is easy to overlook the fact that the video has been spliced so skillfully that every few sequences the artist’s costume changes colors, in tandem with a laborious and meticulous repainting of the set—so as to flip the figure and ground in their duo-toned motifs. These kinetic, topsy-turvy optics unexpectedly call to mind some fucked-up, inverted version of Joseph Albers’ famous mid-century color studies.
It is important to note that the constant color shifts, executed with excruciating attention to detail, have been achieved manually—and not by the simple click of a mouse. In this sense, the video has a rewardingly retro vibe, like an old school stop-animation film made cell by cell. While potentially jarring, this technique creates just enough traction to demand complete attention from the viewer.
The relationship of the set to the camera is technically fascinating. Amstutz employs what I might call “reverse tromp de l’oeil,” using color and line to extend through and thus diminish the depth of the space, creating (in the lens of his camera) the illusion of flatness. Eyeballing it, as they say, Amstuz places the camera in one spot, builds the set, and paints and repaints it—all with one fixed point of view in mind, so that lines that are angled and receding in real life appear to be flat and graphic when they are lined up parallel to the frame of the camera’s viewfinder. Seen through the lens of the camera, the space of the set becomes the space of the image.
There is a certain level of sincere and obsessive dedication to this work that could make anyone laugh. For me, it calls to mind the image of a suburban father, out in the garage well past his bedtime, overly inspired to help his daughter complete a sixth grade science experiment in 3-D perspective that he never should have gotten involved with in the first place. Cheating, yeah, but he can’t seem to stop himself from taking over. In this sense, the video is a little bit embarrassing. And yet, it provides us with something so unusual and earnest that we are simply obliged to marvel.
At the same time, Amstutz’s hermetically-sealed environments produce a distinctly disturbing sense of claustrophobia that is equally provocative. By orchestrating his sets strictly for the camera, Amstutz alludes to the fact that the viewer is intruding on a performance that is taking place, by design, for the camera alone. And since Amstutz creates his work without any outside assistance, he must resort to a somewhat schizophrenic practice, wearing every hat—from painter to cameraman to pratfalling actor.
And it is in this last category—via his raw, practically inexhaustible physicality—that the real drama of Amstutz’s half-hour brigade of jump-cut, rapid-fire edits lies. Perhaps he has taken cues from Matthew Barney’s “restraint” drawings, or from Paul McCarthy’s early, entranced body works, or from some Trisha Brown dance. As we watch Amstutz overexert himself—climbing up stairs that taper in size with every nonsensical step; collapsing again and again as he crawls across the floor on homemade elbow–and–knee stilts; or opening and shutting doors to nowhere with maddening repetition—one can’t help but feel a bit worried and nauseated, as if watching a sympathetic OCD character performing his thought processes after a fairly wholesome speedball of Redbull and NoDoze.
As Amstutz works through his performance, the viewer becomes aware of his increasingly labored breathing, the beads of sweat breaking out on his face. At any moment, he might evoke the vaudeville comedian, the obedient and super-hard-working employee, or the average post-collegiate compulsive exerciser with some serious calories to burn. Regardless, it is impossible to ignore the underlying sadomasochistic exchange of pleasure and trauma, shock after shock. There is an overabundance of competitive spirit, channeled inwards, alongside an overwhelming sense of the desire to “do it for the coach.” In sports parlance, Amstutz doesn’t leave anything on the field. This sentiment precisely sums up his work ethic.
One can, of course, disassociate while remaining transfixed by Amstutz’s hyper-physical procedures, as though watching a pro. Perhaps he is depicting exhaustion for exhaustion’s sake, or channeling some new activities for endorphin junkies with a gear fetish. Yet at this point of pointlessness, one can identify the work’s true formalism and rigor. Isn’t it true that painters have always dealt in such athleticism as they record their actions and entomb their gestures stroke by stroke—also for an audience that is inanimate, a frozen picture plane staring back? (And while we’re on the topic of painting, can’t Amstutz’s work be viewed in the lineage of Synthetic Cubism? There is something to his relationship to Picasso and Matisse, in their simultaneous treatment of forms as both volumetric and flat, and in the way that they crammed the figure into a plane of clashing patterns. Amstutz, while never setting out to make “paintings” has perhaps inadvertently pumped some much-needed vigor back into the medium.)
At any rate, while the combined chapters of “Right Roads & Wrong Ways” successfully articulate the doing of a daunting series of tasks, it is the artist’s sisyphean ethic of absurdity—the stacking of lime green bricks that hopelessly fall, the climbing up of steps only to climb back down—that reminds the viewer that Amstutz is well aware of what he is building and fabricating, even as he runs himself down. His oddly protean rituals, no matter how self-abusive and inchoate, are designed to spawn shapes and tell stories. While claustrophobic and exasperating, they bring us out the other side of a very particular and peculiar passage, where we are all left mentally exhausted. Spent.
All this being said, Amstutz’s first one-person show really is a show of masterful photographs. The main gallery space, is, in fact, filled with 19 medium-scale color photographs, which cannot be considered “performance documents” in the traditional sense. On the contrary, the photographs present the very specific, pristine images that Amstutz was going for all along. Each picture is an autonomous work that occupies a confounding and dizzying space that is as terrifying as it is hilarious—part Samuel Beckett, part Albers, and part M.C. Escher. Expertly crafted and expertly shot in 35mm, 4×5, and digital, the photographs are actually the polished things of desire. They are also some of the weirdest spatial constructions I’ve ever seen.
The flattening of space, the misperception of figure and ground, the diagonals that travel from floor to wall, that tease the eye and subvert our ability to read space—these are, in a sense, all camera tricks that take advantage of the lens’s ability to square off and flatten the world. And by employing these tricks, Amstutz leads us through something of a retro-futuristic funhouse, even as he demonstrates that the photographic representation of the performance (like a snake eating its tail while shedding its skin) is never anything more than an arduous and baffling staged and restaged photo-op for an audience of none.
Amstutz performs ridiculous, ritualistic tasks in constructed environments in order to place himself within a very controlled documentation. By painting the sets the way that he does (by rigging their geometry, so to speak), he removes any real-life atmosphere, and thus strips the images of clues to the actuality of his “being there.” He seems to exist outside of time or place, evoking a creepy, vacuum-sealed sensation a la Star Trek. Yet, in the end, as with Chris Burden’s staged performances and their documents, there is only that unobtainable, mythologized, encapsulated No-Mans-Land—the myth vehicle. Like Beckett, Amstutz draws the viewer into a relentless predicament composed artfully at the edge of disbelief, tenuously at the edge of masturbation.
At their worst, Amstutz’s work at Wallspace offers up a series of rote, pointless, time-sucking and compulsive fiascos, lost episodes of mannered, Van Doesburgian dogma and tropes mixed with Canal Street workout tapes made by a jester midget in a Velcroed tuxedo in outer space. At their best…actually, no. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Jeremy Sigler is a poet, critic and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. His long-awaited analysis of the poetry of Carl Andre is forthcoming from Sternberg Press.