NO ESCAPING THAT
Cheryl Donegan Takes the High Line
“What is art?” asked Baudelaire. “Prostitution?” His question underlines the tenuous power dynamics between artist and viewer in the modern age. Such dynamics have been fodder for Cheryl Donegan’s work since the early 1990s: her videos, in particular, process the histories of modern art and postmodern pop culture, exposing the often unsavory or hidden actions and relationships that drive their production and reception. In Craft (1999), nude against brightly colored backdrops and a synaesthetically paired punk soundtrack, the artist chews through a cheese sandwich, making playful shapes with the bites along the way. In Guide (1993), similarly bare, she stamps her paint-covered hands on a surface, only to smudge her images seconds later.
Projected beneath an overpass near the High Line’s 14th Street entrance every night from April 28 to June 29, Your Plastic Video features five of Donegan’s video works—Guide and Craft, plus Sunflower (1993), Scenes + Commercials (1997), and Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before (2008)—as well as her ongoing VINES PROJECT. The videos present a wide range of aesthetic approaches yet a fairly consistent investigative thrust, all while sardonically conversing with the surroundings—the commercial buildup shadowing the pathway, the hordes of would-be viewers walking by unfazed.
In part because of its variety and ambiguity, Donegan’s early work is often considered an indirect precursor to uncomfortably personal YouTube-era content (Showry comes to mind). In pieces like Guide, Craft, and famously, Head (1993), Donegan films herself making a mess in her studio. By cloaking context and motivation, she retains the cryptic immediacy that makes contemporary viral videos so watchable. As, for instance, with 294tv’s viral An experiment (2008), Guide and Head depict nothing overtly radical but nonetheless suggest something transgressive via their irreverence. Donegan leaves the psychoanalysis to her viewers—a tactic that Guide’s eerie Cagean silence only enhances.
Craft’suse of a punk soundtrack points more directly to the inherent sexual dynamics at play in the artist-viewer relationship. Songs like Wire’s “12XU” and The Stooges’ “Cock in My Pocket” promote hormonal anxiety, as the camera zooms in on Donegan’s mouth smearing her red lipstick on white bread and American cheese slices—a gesture both nostalgic and present, loaded but not always clear with what, much likeInstagram’s @breadfaceblog. When The Modern Lovers’ “Modern World” gets to the line “Put down your cigarette / And act like a true girl,” Donegan becomes, moreover—in her oral fixation—a non-“true girl.” She’s an artist. Are those the same? How should we receive her?
While Craft’s title makes a play on America’s beloved cheese manufacturer, it also underscores the compromised position of the artist (more, the female artist) within performance and history. “Craft” itself is an artistic trait—a measure by which we judge artists and “Art.” In Craft, Donegan, listening to decidedly craftless music (three-chord punk), “crafts” hilariously simplistic “sculptures” out of food, then abstracts the images using fuzzy, primitive computer processing, thereby undermining decades of fine-artistic “craft” bit-by-bit. By pixelating her video and flipping its color to negative, Donegan acknowledges both the capabilities and limitations of new media platforms. What, in an age of digital reproduction, constitutes “craft”?
Although it takes place outside in an open field, Sunflower, with its silent footage of Donegan scattering yellow matter around herself, helps to push this line of questioning further into the art-historical realm. After creating her “artwork”—the large yellow ring—Donegan collapses and lies on the ground. The “artwork” took mere seconds to make and doesn’t look like much; as such, what’s left is the performative process of production and the laboring (then resting) body of the artist—an echo of action painting. But Donegan’s girlish clothes forecast a disjunction between action painting’s robust masculinity and the blasé artistic actions we see in Sunflower. Her outfit may also present the question, again, of how we view female artists: Jackson Pollock is “rugged,” whereas Helen Frankenthaler is “delicate.” Lying in the grass (her “arena”), circumscribed by her “painting,” which adjective describes Donegan?
Scenes + Commercials, which gave its name to Donegan’s recent show at the New Museum, relocates Donegan’s quizzical look into the presentation and reception of twentieth-century culture. As the camera roams back and forth along a nameless gas station awning (a wavering horizontality that interestingly reflects the act of roaming the High Line), we hear The Beach Boys and their manager Murray Wilson in the studio recording “Help Me, Rhonda.” Through the band’s tense dialogue, the mythological status of the pop song dissipates into the petty realities behind something seemingly perfect. The effect is similar to Donegan’s treatment of action painting: she shows us how naïve viewers can be, how self-important artists can be. In Guide she paints images of feet using her hands as stamps. If action painting is considered an index of the body, Guide wipes those considerations away.
Stop Me similarly demystifies artistic hierarchies. Referring to The Smiths and Andy Warhol, whose Nude Restaurant (1967) provides Donegan’s script, Stop Me quickly broaches an interaction between pop song, film, and “art,” framed as a confessional YouTube video. Having prefigured YouTube with Guide, et al., Donegan embraces the 21st-century vlog and uses it as a platform to suggest the dissolution of artistic hierarchies. After all, one can now hear a Smiths song, watch a structural film, and see a girl talk in her room, with a few clicks and keystrokes. But Stop Me gains its greater power on the heels of something Scenes + Commercials probes: patriarchy, as manifested by familial relations within artistic production (the Wilsons’ volatile relationship to their father Murray).
Throughout Stop Me, a nude Donegan sits next to a nude longhaired boy (presumably her son). Until the video’s final minutes, she recites a loquacious monologue from the perspective of a young Warholian—talk of clothes, clubs, money, art, and daddy issues abound. “What is art?” we might wonder again. The Baudelaire quotation serves as an epigraph to Julia Kristeva’s “Baudelaire or Infinity, Perfume, and Punk,” first published in English in 1987, in which Kristeva makes a case for Baudelaire’s “dandy” and the “punk” as psychologically empathetic towards the mother’s loathed status. A keen surveyor of both modernism and punk, Donegan appears to posit a similar psychological shift.
Wearing noise-canceling headphones and rarely looking at the camera, Donegan, a mother, shuts out the viewing public; the monologue becomes, even in the presence of her son, a defiantly internal action. For Baudelaire, writes Kristeva, “it was the process of writing that produced [. . .] the very possibility of his jouissance.” Obsessively caught in recitation, the Donegan in Stop Me—as in Sunflower or Craft—finds similar ecstasy through process. “It is there that [Baudelaire’s] individual difference,” Kristeva continues, “his spleen or suffering, can be experienced, not as ossified but as elated—a burning crest between infinity and nothingness. It harbors but a single enthusiasm: that which accompanies the advent and recasting of signs.”
In her early videos, Donegan displays an excited nihilism that foregrounds her difference and suffering—as a woman in the male arena of painting, as a punk in the realm of high art. In Stop Me, she aims to recast different signs: of age, domesticity. As she speaks like a teenager and appears like a mother (encumbered by Oedipal tension), we hear and see moldable bodies and identities—is her son a dandy? Is she? Nothing is ossified: age and gender are fluid, and Donegan, cut off, stakes out her “difference” as an artist whose process is publicized and privatized in ways many (male) artists aver.
Set in the kitchen, Stop Me’s final scene finds Donegan joined by her son again, plus another child. She aimlessly rearranges the objects in the kitchen—bananas, kids—as if composing a picture. Is she an action painter? Is she proudly displaying the artistry of motherhood? Throughout her career, Donegan has worn masks (if not literal masks, then she’s blurry, shown from the mouth down, etc.). At the end of Stop Me, though, a maskless mother, aimless yet assured, she appears to have internally reckoned with Baudelaire’s question, “What is art?” Then, still gleeful, she echoes another: “On the vaporization and centralization of the Self,” Baudelaire wrote (and Kristeva used as a second epigraph). “There is no escaping that?” On the High Line, under Donegan’s projection—well, no.
Joe Bucciero is a writer born in Chicago, based in Brooklyn.