AGAPE ENTERPRISE | MAY 5–JUNE 3, 2012
Insofar as any development in contemporary art can be considered new, a newish sensibility in performance-based video has been gaining momentum over the last five years or so. It is propelled by artists who share a kind of absurdist impulse and deviant sense of humor that plays out in disjointed character-driven vignettes set in hand-built alternative realities. Ryan Trecartin, Tamy Ben-Tor, Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, Kalup Linzy, and Brian Bress all fall under this designation, with curators taking note of their similarities and including them in exhibitions together. A 2008 exhibition series at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art dubbed a variation on this grouping the “New Absurdists.”
Performance and video artist Shana Moulton might be counted among these artists. In early May, she performed “The line where your appearance flips over into reality” (2012) at the new Bushwick gallery Agape Enterprise, with her performance set, props, and video documentation remaining on view through Bushwick Open Studios weekend (June 1 – 3).
Here, Moulton fixated on the imagery and paraphernalia of healing remedies: from home treatments like neti pots and heating pads to the graphics used to market prescription miracle drugs. In her piece at Agape, the artist performed as the human embodiment of the logo for Miramex, a drug for restless legs syndrome. After screening a commercial for the drug, the artist emerged to perform ritualistic movements in a bodysuit with attached limbs in alternating green and yellow swipes of color, mimicking the logo’s minimalist corporate design.
Moulton’s constructed environments are critical to her concept. “The line…”features a shrine-like assemblage including a touch lamp, yoga mats, kitschy figurines, and an electric toothbrush, all carefully arranged around a cheap bathroom shelving apparatus—the kind that extends over a toilet to save space. In the context of the mystical ambiance that Moulton conjures, complete with new-age music, these items seem to possess talismanic powers.
Like other artists working in a similar mode, Moulton makes use of props, costumes, and D.I.Y. sets to build a distorted version of reality in tune with the idiosyncrasy of her character. But unlike Bress, Trecartin, Linzy, and Ben-Tor, who draw on a repertoire of caricatured personae, Moulton remains committed over the course of her oeuvre to only one. Moulton’s character is her own alter ego (“I’m sort of into crystals and I’m sort of into yoga”), a wide-eyed hypochondriac recluse in constant search of spiritual and bodily transcendence.
Moulton and her contemporaries could hardly be credited with inventing a new form. Michael Smith’s “Baby Ikki” character, Bruce Nauman’s video installation “Clown Torture” (1987), and some of Paul McCarthy’s multimedia efforts all serve as precursors to the 21st century iterations of frenetic absurdism in time-based media. With bizarre invented characters and constructed environments, those artists working in the 1970s and 1980s departed from the dominant aesthetics of early performance and performance-based video, in which the stripped-down rawness that erupted in defiance of high modernism took the form of bare bodies and spare environs. This body-centric conceptualism is so firmly entrenched in the performative medium that a version of it can be recognized today.
It could be said that the so-called New Absurdists have splintered off into their own territory, just as their predecessors did decades before. The phenomenon cannot truly be described as new; like most trends in contemporary art, it is part of a cyclical revisitation of historical occurrences. Only perhaps it is more exaggerated this time around—and with the vastly greater quantity of artists working today, there are simply more artists participating.
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