Jordan Wolfson’s Hypnotic Abuse At Zwirner

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I have a feeling Luc Tuymans must be pissed. Or maybe the Belgian painter — whose characteristically bleached-out, glowing canvases currently fill one half of David Zwirner’s West 19th Street outpost — has a healthy sense of humor. Healthy enough to withstand the competition that his paintings face, in the form of a cacophony of clanging chains, mixed with aborted snippets of Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” blaring from the adjoining gallery. What the hell is going on in there? There’s no easy answer to that question. It’s a Jordan Wolfson show. Wolfson, 36, is doing that you-kinda-have-to-admire-it thing that relatively young artists can do when nuzzled against the bountiful teat of a blue-chip gallery: Produce a work that is massive, technologically complex, expensive to engineer, and almost completely unsaleable unless the buyer is a large museum or a small nation.

Here are a few negative things you could say about Wolfson’s show: It’s dumb. It’s a spectacle. It’s loud. But you know what? This dumb, loud spectacle is one of the more thoughtful, oddly contemplative experiences you can have in Chelsea right now. During my visit the kinetic piece (titled, with sarcastic nonchalance, Colored sculpture) attracted a small crowd of hushed spectators. We stood, somewhat awkwardly, as Wolfson’s doll-like assemblage (“Chuckie!’ yelled out one ’80s-nostalgic viewer) was hoisted, jerked, and dropped; a dopey marionette thanks to a series of automated metal chains.

The marketing photo for this exhibition shows Wolfson in the studio, placing a blessing on the factory-shiny nose of the just-fabricated boy’s figure: A benediction before degradation. The poor kid doesn’t fare well at Zwirner. His commercial paint job has chipped and weathered; the feeble joints holding various limbs together don’t look long for this world. Try not to wince when Colored sculpture plummets head-first onto the gallery’s grey, industrial-chic floor (which has itself become a process-based drawing, an apartment-sized slab that, maybe, Zwirner could excavate and sell?) The dumbness of Wolfson’s piece comes flush against its pathos. This isn’t uncanny valley territory  — Colored sculpture‘s face is less human than cartoon, an amalgam of Dennis the Menace and an underage, ginger Satan. It looks more like a toy than a plausible attempt at realistic representation. Watching it take continual abuse (smilingly so, and with that goddamn Percy Sledge song lurching in and out sporadically) is painful, and sad, but because we’re experiencing violence to a toy, it’s the same sort of sadness of witnessing someone’s stuffed animals, disemboweled curbside and waiting for the trash collector. (SEE ALSO: Mike Kelley.)

“I don’t want to think and think and think and think because thinking doesn’t do any good,” Wolfson told Thea Ballard in this month’s issue of Modern Painters. Colored sculpture works because it can shimmy around this supposedly anti-intellectualist stance. The hit-you-in-the-face, blunt appeal of its theatricality — I’m not sure if anyone is keeping track, but I imagine people on average spend a solid chunk of time in here, hypnotized as if watching the confounding, endlessly looping prologue to a horror movie — is countered by its deeper allusions: the masochistic beatings of endurance art; the body-as-drawing-tool of Carolee Schneemann or, later, Matthew Barney; the Minimalist scaffolding enclosure itself, which gives the marionette’s platform the air of a concert stage or wrestling ring. Or, hell, it could just be an embarrassingly personal self-portrait: The artist as flagellating sucker, the punching bag in someone’s toxic relationship (a friend, a lover, the art market.)

—Scott Indrisek (@indrisek)

(Photo: Scott Indrisek)