Endearing, vivacious, and hyper-self-reflexive, Wyatt Kahn’s Work is a charming addition to this year’s Performa biennial. In the puppet-mocumentary, Kahn’s hard-edged, sculptural paintings come alive as plush pillow sculptures with the aid of puppeteers actually visible on stage, and Kahn himself appears as his own puppet master.
The plot, co-written by Kahn and Veronica Gonzalez Peña, is simple: Kahn tries to finish a piece. However, the performance isn’t really about the artist’s struggle. It is a metaphorical coming-of-age story for the piece in question. The incomplete artwork is made of four panels who are wily, youthful, and not “united.” These panels then meet two of Kahn’s actual pieces (or puppets of these pieces), Amigo and Seascape, and the veteran paintings guide the younglings, for better or worse, through the maturation process.
A debate over the merits of contemporary painting takes the form of a yelling match between Seascape and Amigo, in response to a query into the origin of Amigo’s name. In a posh British accent, Amigo professes—quite proudly—that he’s a continuation of the formalist conversation of the 1960s and ’70s. Seascape responds with a snort. The situation escalates. Amigo calls Seascape conceptual trash. Seascape retorts that he’s not garbage but an energetic attempt to reconcile the modality and multifaceted nature of 20th-century culture and people. (At one point, one of the panels of the incomplete work shouts, “I wanna grow a concept!” to which Seascape responds by pulling out a selfie-stick.)
When asked about the absurdist nature of the show, Kahn told me, “If there was one dialogue about my paintings that may not have been discussed before, I hope it is the use of humor.”
Of all the characters, Kahn is onstage the least. When he is onstage, he can be seen fidgeting with the painting at play, signing about what he’s doing, or answering his phone. The phone is a point of access into Kahn’s professional life. He receives calls about various aspects of his career, scheduling a pick-up date for an upcoming art fair and a lunch with someone named Ben. These phone calls seem to depress Kahn (the character), with his responses consisting of somber yeses. He also curses out both Ben and the idea of lunch itself.
This is not to say Work is all witty self-deprecation. At the end of the performance, the painter emerges and successfully finishes the piece he spent so long fretting over, for the audience to see.
This was Kahn’s first attempt at live performance, and the transition between mediums was seamless, with the painter able to navigate the new structural elements with deftness and grace. This ease could be attributed to what Kahn sees as a similarity in process between the two mediums. “A lot of the creation of the show was a solitary effort, similar to the creation of a painting,” he said. “I made puppets, designed the set, and came up with concept of the performance. The collaboration began when working with Veronica on the script and then directing and working with the performers.”
“The real challenge for me,” he continued, “was to work with the performers. In the beginning, I didn’t want to direct them, but it became clear that my way of understanding that process was different than how [the actors] were used to working. So, I needed to adjust, making them feel more comfortable and confident.”
Work will be performed next on December 10 and 11 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, alongside Kahn’s solo show there, titled “Object Paintings.”