PhiladelphiaThe Fabric Workshop And Museum
Jayson Musson: His History of Art
July 22 – November 13, 2022
In the second video of three in Jayson Musson: His History of Art at The Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM), a russet-colored-corduroy-suited, yellow turtle-necked, and well-meaning but supercilious art collector “Jay,” aka Jayson Musson, gently explains to his roommate, a pot-smoking hare, Ollie: “Art history isn’t that complicated. Whatever man fucks it kills and whatever it kills it fucks.” They sit on a sagging couch in the middle of a stage set littered with art historical replicas. We might spot Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991), clocks with the added text “OUT OF MONEY,” an unknown Frank Stella later leading to temporal portal, and a Matisse-style painting in which a dancing figure stabs another with the light ray of a star from the background. And perhaps we half-expect to see Musson’s Coogi-sweater “paintings” on the walls as a wry nod to the “organic” or “rhythmic” flow of splattered paint in a Jackson Pollock. This is the oneiric, absurd, yet accurate “art world” of Jay and Ollie, who educate us from the hallowed grounds of TV.
Musson begins his Mister Rogers-meets-Pee Wee Herman-and-Bob Ross sitcom by dreamily singing “welcome to my world,” regaling Ollie and audiences with the transformative potential of art in the first video of his solo exhibition debut as an Artist-in-Residence at FWM, supported by former curator Karen Patterson, interim director of exhibitions Alec Unkovic, and executive director Christina Vassallo. The videos gradually lead towards a backstage pass, as FWM exhibitions typically include sets of animatronic puppets and costumes—the fabric-oriented contributions—and scripts. Along the exhibition journey, we learn that Ollie is interested in the art that Jay describes and for the very same reasons: the “art world” attends endless openings to please the “cool popes.”
Musson matter-of-factly explains the dynamics of patriarchal, colonial, and capitalist power structuring the art world and instituted through strategies of cultural dominance, appropriation, resource hoarding, and perpetuation of the genius myth. Performances of art historical knowledge disseminate this power, an act Musson wielded with sardonic gold-chained aplomb in his viral YouTube feature “ART THOUGHTZ” featuring his earlier persona Hennessy Youngman. In How to Make an Art. (2011), for instance, Youngman, aka Hen-rock Obama aka the Pharaoh Hennessy, expresses his displeasure at “antiquated terms” such as talent in his practicum on artmaking. But the connoisseur Jay still critiques Ollie’s demure painting of tulips, leading them back through art historical time. Parodying the problematic yet curious professor or keen museum curator, Jay provides examples of subjugation from the brutal victory of the Akkadians in the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (2254–2218 BCE) to “something from Egypt” (1330 BCE) with the Pharaoh depicted as a god-like Sphinx, and finally Marcus Aurelius’s armor that, as Ollie illuminates, makes him look “like he comes from old money.”
Lauding such abuses of power, Jay pushes Ollie to feed the cool popes their own poison. Ollie usurps control over elites through branding and eventually assumes Jay’s place on a Christ-less Pietà throne, embodying the goofy humor that nevertheless performs the system to play it. It may not be overstepping to recognize resemblances between the storyline and Musson’s own quirky trajectory in the art world. He began on the artistic fringes in Philadelphia with his rap band Plastic Little and collaborations with Spank Rock and Amanda Blank, followed by graduate education at the University of Pennsylvania, and the creation of personae and exhibitions caustically riffing on elitist truth-telling. But Musson seems less interested in telling truth to power than he is at exposing the vacuity of the so-called truths that the art world tells itself, repeatedly, like a bad sitcom.
The bawdy adventures back in time with Ollie include vignettes speaking with the curvaceous Venus of Willendorf “Willa”—whom Ollie says resembles “something a divorced person would make in art class while they drink red wine.” They respond to a crit with the patriarchal figure we expect to see in His History of Art—Picasso—an incubus figure who destroys the flower painting to “attack mere normality.” And they engage in a studio visit with writer and collector Gertrude Stein, who declares the iconoclasm sacrosanct and worthy of a salon. Finally, Jay emerges out of the scene as if from a dream. Jay’s awakening breaks the fourth wall of the studio set, exposing the set-up and his arrogance. Almost as baldly as they emerged, Jay and Ollie leave us to peruse the props, production, and scripts interpreted through institutionally crafted labels explaining the art historical references, storyboarding processes, and the building of costumes.
While the scripts provide nuance to the research and collective production, the labels pander to the performances of standardization that this very review also runs the somewhat humorous risk of assuming. The exhibited time lapse and outtakes demonstrate the artistic process without repeating the grand-standing remove of the critic, the curator, the historian, the collector, and the viewer. Perhaps the takeaway here is avoiding this stilted distance and instead imbibing the ghosting that Musson values in his “Some Sorta Outro” statement at the end of the FWM exhibition—the (attempted) opting out of the system as a self-described “artist.”