Sam Pulitzer might be one of New York’s most controversial young artists, in part because he takes an aggressively critical stance toward the art world while navigating some its more arduous conventions with a rare self-awareness. His first institutional solo show, “A Colony for ‘Them,'” enacted a struggle between the legacy of Artists Space and Pulitzer’s own evolving artistic identity. The exhibition assembled a constellation of images and cultural references, that, even though many were in the register of the fantastic, nonetheless pointed to a worldly tension: the uneasy joining of the highly collaborative and oppositional scene from which Pulitzer emerges and the commercial art world that has recently welcomed him (and some of his colleagues) into its gilded chambers.
As organizing principle, Pulitzer chose the Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD, a text-only, multiplayer computer game genre in which heroes plunder labyrinths in search of treasure to salvage and abominations to destroy—Dungeons and Dragons sans the real-life social aspect. Pulitzer’s dungeon was a maze of walls adorned with seven murals. Each based on commissioned illustrations from a different artist, all of them male, the murals evoked gloom and employed vague systems of cultish symbolism. In an illustration by Matthew Adis, for example, a hand forces a pitchfork through a crescent moon—the latter a recurring symbol in the show that seems to suggest nocturnal freedom, a liberation from the order of day. The pitchfork bleeds the moon. In the foreground, a youthful body lies prostrate and bleeds in sacrificial pose. From the darkness and bramble enveloping this body, wrinkled faces emerge. One looks down on the body with a pleased half-smile, reflecting a familiarity that perhaps implies ritual convergence. Another face—harder, more stern—glares emotionless.
The wall texts throughout the show guided visitors on an allegorical journey laced with terror and whimsy, but also grounded in cultural politics. Written with poet Jeff Nagy, the dense prose borrows the parlance of MUD and cyberpunk, but is fattened by crafty injections of contemporary tech jargon, 18th-century utopian philosophy and 20th-century Surrealist fiction. There are invocations of “legislative art” sanctioned by a Fourierian phalanstery; discussions of “zero-knowledge hermeneutics”; computer scripts executing “pleas for funds”; and a description of an elderly woman with anuses for eyes that our second-person narrator (“you”) tries desperately to tongue.
The exhibition walls themselves meanwhile reinstate those that once partitioned Artists Space into offices and galleries, and which were removed by director Stefan Kalmár following his 2009 appointment in a celebrated gesture toward institutional transparency and openness. Where the former director’s office stood, Pulitzer installed an austere bedroom inspired by Rene Daumal’s 1938 Surrealist novel A Night of Serious Drinking, replete with items sourced from a “rustic” ornament supplier. Other walls re-created those built for popular shows mounted since Kalmár’s arrival, such as “Frozen Lakes,” “Macho Man, Tell It to My Heart: Collected by Julie Ault,” Zilia Sánchez and Sean Snyder.
In another section of the gallery was a group of wheeled room dividers, each printed with greeting card imagery and slogans that oscillate between cloying sentiment and sinister implication. “We’ll miss doing your work for you,” says one, possibly intended as a euphemized send-off to a departing colleague. Produced with artist Bill Hayden (who also worked extensively on other parts of the exhibition), these dividers presented an ambiguous vision for what a “space for artists” could mean: a porous coworking area, or, as the “get well”-themed imagery suggests, a kind of hospital or convalescent home.
Five years after Kalmár’s arrival, Artists Space is indeed where artists gather—as its historic mission prescribes—as much to see each other as to be seen. Pultizer’s walls and dividers complicate some of that visibility. One can more easily hide in the catacombs here. Pulitzer’s collaborative efforts likewise seemed to have afforded him a measure of self effacement, however incomplete. Ten names were credited as “contributors” to the show—Pulitzer among them. Still, only one appeared in the largest type, lording above this list, emphasizing the limits and institutional ritual of the solo exhibition.