‘This performance is disgusting,” Jack Smith tells the viewer in his 1974 video Kino 74. Wearing a feathery hat, a red safari shirt, and a flowing robe, he plays an amateur actor playing a part in a bland experimental theater production. He is pretending to act badly—and doing it well. His lines, which still resonate today, are about how making art is a lot like being imprisoned by those in power.
Kino 74 is one of many objects included in “Art Crust of Spiritual Oasis,” a noisy, compact, and essential Smith retrospective currently on view at Artists Space in New York. (The exhibition is on view through September 16; a series of Smith’s films ran at Metrograph last weekend.) In his wide-ranging work—from amateurish-looking drawings to long-form performances, videos, films, drawings, and notes—Smith investigated the act of acting. He was interested in what kinds of performances are considered acceptable and which are not, and what constitutes a successful portrayal.
In his productions, Smith played with the conventions of classic Hollywood movies set in exotic locales—perhaps the Middle East or South Asia—but cast them with weird hybrid creatures. Crab ogresses abound, as do mermaids, vampires, and divas. The films flaunt their low production values and inscrutable narratives: the exotic locales are flimsily recreated, and interspersed with shots of dusty floors strewn with empty Domino sugar boxes and light bulbs. They are satisfactory neither as entertainment nor as “good” filmmaking; instead, they short-circuit Hollywood methods. One of Smith’s favorite tactics is to add an obviously homoerotic touch, such as in one film of a performance from around 1970 included in the Artists Space show, in which the camera lingers on a performer whose hand keeps caressing his own glittery penis. (One faux ad in the show proclaims Smith, who was gay but insisted his sexuality wasn’t the reason for his campy style, an “erotic theatrical genius.”) He also threw into high relief the racism and xenophobia inherent in Hollywood filmmaking.
All of this would come off as smart-alecky irony if Smith hadn’t been so utterly sincere. He had a genuine contempt for capitalism, believing that the system could only work for so long in a society held together by “plaster,” by which he meant material that papers over a decaying system, like advertising, movies, and mass media. For all of their intentional shoddiness, Smith’s films have moments of real beauty. In I Danced With a Penguin (1983), Smith shares a pas de deux with a penguin doll. He and the doll spin around an empty stage to a velvety string score—a poor man’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but somehow just as compelling.
When Smith died in 1989 of AIDS-related causes, he left unfinished Sinbad in the Rented World, which he intended as a feature-length film that sets the tale of Sinbad on what he called “Roach Crust island.” Smith himself was to play some of Sinbad’s personas, one of whom would have been called the “oily actor.” Smith made the “oily actor” a professional-looking headshot in which he (that is, Smith) reclines with an arm behind his head. Appended to it is a handwritten note in a teardrop-shaped form: “I would act in…………. anything.”
Smith’s interest in performance continues to be influential today, with numerous younger artists examining how identity manifests in our actions, clothing, and speech. One is Genevieve Gaignard, a Los Angeles–based photographer who is having her first New York solo show at the FLAG Art Foundation in Chelsea (through September 22).
Gaignard’s best works are her self-portraits, which feature the artist donning an array of outfits and performing a set of vaguely recognizable types—a gaudy suburban matriarch, a city slicker, a devilish temptress. At first glance, they might seem like tired riffs on a mode pioneered by Cindy Sherman and carried on by artists like Nikki S. Lee. Like Lee, Gaignard is dealing with race, gender, and cultural identity, but in her case she is doing so as someone who identifies as mixed-race. In one photograph she lounges on a floral-print couch while wearing a face mask, drinking a Fanta soda, and doing a word-search puzzle. At her feet is a magazine splayed-open to an advertisement featuring the actor Donald Glover. The title? Blackish.
Many of Gaignard’s photographs seem located in 1950s or 1960s suburbia, possibly as a way of pointing out suburban American culture’s many ways of flattening people’s identities into easy-to-digest types—white man, black woman, etc.—and yet these works, with their potent blend of narcissism and confrontation, could only be made now, in the age of Instagram, and they occasionally loosely gesture at the cultural climate that produced them. Keep It 100 features what appears to be a ’50s woman staring at the camera and smoking a cigarette, its title millennial-speak for knowing one’s worth. No iPhones are present, but we sense somehow that this picture—a selfie of sorts—wouldn’t have been possible without them.
A less likely successor to some of Smith’s ideas is Eckhaus Latta, a Los Angeles– and New York–based fashion line that is currently the subject of a Whitney Museum exhibition (through October 8). Founded by Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta in 2011, the übercool brand has developed a following in the art world, thanks to their many artist collaborators (Torey Thornton, Martine Syms, Amy Yao, Jeffrey Joyal, and Jessi Reaves are present in the Whitney show in some form or another). Eckhaus Latta’s production values are far higher Smith’s, but they are as invested as he was in trying to understand how consumers of mass-produced objects are a lot like actors.
I liked the first part of the show—a gallery of super-slick fashion photographs—the best. Hung on the unfinished side of a gallery wall, these strange pictures feature models doing things like standing on onions and wearing bags on their heads. Some are cropped in unusual ways, such that all we get are a pair of eyes or a foot, or maybe an image set in a gallery corner such that it’s spread across two walls. Each picture is backlit like an advertisement, though we’re left to wonder what, exactly, is being sold.
Indeed, something is being sold at the show in the following room, where viewers are suddenly turned into shoppers in a showroom peddling hip—and ugly-looking—clothing (prices run from $60 for a T-shirt to $7,200 for a sweater). Through a side door is a darkened room with a wall of monitors, each of them showing CCTV footage of people passing by the Whitney, Galeries Lafayette in Paris, and Ssense in Montreal.
By this point in the exhibition-cum-boutique, we’re meant to realize that its title, “Possessed,” is a double, or perhaps triple, entendre about how, in the process of accumulating possessions, people get so caught up in shopping (i.e., in acting out capitalist rituals) as to seem possessed (as in, by an evil spirit). And once they are captured on CCTV, their images become a company’s possessions. Unfortunately, the message doesn’t quite hit home, and Eckhaus Latta’s ideas end up feeling like a cynical retread of similar ones proffered by such artists as General Idea, Barbara Kruger, and Jeff Koons.
Then again, Eckhaus Latta is treading in tricky territory, the murky terrain where art and fashion intersect. They are indulging the consumer culture they appear to critique: You can drop more than $7,000 on a sweater in their “exhibition.” It’s a tendency common to other young artists today, including the collective DIS, which used to peddle conceptual stock photography through a website called DISimages, and Amalia Ulman, whose Instagram-based work foreshadowed the techniques by which fashion corporations sell their brand through social media.
The problem is that there are ethical issues in that murky territory. Remember back in 2008 when Takashi Murakami was criticized for having a Louis Vuitton boutique set up inside his Brooklyn Museum exhibition? If we accept that Eckhaus Latta are artists, would it not be acceptable for the Whitney to set up a cash register outside, say, the Mary Corse exhibition upstairs? As New York Times art critic Martha Schwendener pointed out in her review of that exhibition, “The wall labels in these shows are clotted with the names of galleries vying to represent Ms. Corse. A museum show raises an artists’ reputation and visibility—and their market value.” Maybe we are already there.