Galleries are where performance art goes to die. Ryan McNamara knows this, and does what he can to animate his work’s remains. His latest exhibition was full of what seemed like semi-monuments to past performances, as though they were commemorative gestures that got cut short halfway through, diverted to an alternate scenario. There were things that could have been statues, plaques or portraits honoring the live event that was, but dressed up with leftover costuming, they’ve become objects in performance drag. In Performance Plaque (White Gloves), all works 2014, gloved mannequin hands dramatically swarm a square surface, while in the “Hand to Foot” series arcing mutant dancer limbs, clad in printed tights previously worn by McNamara’s dancers, plié away from the wall. “Gently Used,” the exhibition’s name, coyly downplays what’s going on, pitching the gallery as a performance-art consignment shop; the transformations here might be better represented by a title like “Re-Animator” or “Death Becomes Her.”
I think McNamara has always approached the gallery as an archive that he needs to bring to life so he can have fun and get comfortable there. For his first solo exhibition in New York, “And Introducing Ryan McNamara” in 2010, he turned Elizabeth Dee into a photo album or a living room, pasting pictures from childhood, art school, and his first years in Brooklyn onto the walls, and giving guests guided tours. Many of the works in “Gently Used” referred to ME3M: A Story Ballet about the Internet (2013), which was commissioned for Performa 13 and restaged last year at Art Basel Miami Beach. ME3M is a mélange of vignettes based on dance videos found online, performed in staggered simultaneity as the viewers’ seats are wheeled around the auditorium to selectively focus their attention. The conventions of video documentation suggest that one or two camera angles are enough to capture the experience of a performance, but ME3M mocks that idea by exploding the viewers’ vectors of attention. There’s no video in “Gently Used”—though I wonder if there might be an MP4 on the memory stick grasped by two of the phantom fingers on Performance Plaque (White Gloves); instead, the photo collage ME3M (silver) offers a kind of faceted documentation appropriate to the piece. An assortment of performers dapples the canvas, their bodies tinted in different colors (lavender, yellow, blue) to underscore their disparate arrangements and angles of decoupage. Just as McNamara eschewed the proscenium’s frontal orientation in ME3M, sending dancers all over the place, the photo collage breaks the surface of the canvas into a myriad of mini-surfaces. Effects of multiplied perspective were enhanced by the exhibition’s lighting: a garland of black-box spotlights in the ceiling’s center, curling the white cube into a zoetrope.
Mary Boone is in a gilded fortress of a high rise near Central Park and seeing this weird and funny show there reminded me of an early photograph by McNamara, Where Babies Should Be (2006). It’s a portrait of McNamara and his mother, standing against a blank black backdrop. McNamara wears a serious Sears gaze and his open shirt reveals an abdomen discolored by bruises and pus. His mother, in a cranberry-colored turtleneck, is all matriarchal sternness as she sticks her hand into her son’s stomach wound. I couldn’t help but imagine Where Babies Should Be as the script for “Gently Used,” where Mommy was played by Mary Boone, and McNamara was his own gay zombie art.