PRINT April 1967

Fahlstrom: “The Three Faces of Oyv”

OYVIND FALSTROM’S EXHIBITION OF DRAWINGS, collages, and constructions at the Sidney Janis Gallery provokes some reflection upon the question of artistic function in a number of its possible meanings, particularly the meaning of the artist’s activities and products, the observer’s relationship to the latter, and whether the artist’s function (here defined as activities plus products) has, or ought to have, separate or even only differing meanings to various classes of observer.

Fahlstrom’s work precipitates these considerations by its pronounced even texture on most levels, rococo variety of form and format, and kaleidoscopic triviality of subject matter. Any one of Fahlstrom’s pieces of whatever technical description contains a wacky jumble of numerous specific images and fragments of images, drawn from three main sources: popular photography (including movies), comic strips of various kinds, and diagrammatic illustrations. In content, these images reflect, with an uncanny neutralism, the dynamism, violence, absurdity, materialism, and sexual preoccupations of modern life. Now and again, sequential analogies on these themes are drawn from the sources mentioned. Or else, the source material is used to illustrate, very hermetically, some private and perhaps non existent narrative or situation to which the title alludes. And too, the eccentricity of Fahlstrom’s productions as objects makes their very perception an exercise in serendipity. There is no technique stressed in any way that might be the subject of delectation in itself.

If the import of Fahlstrom’s work to him, in itself, or to any class of observer is as a “mirror” of aspects of contemporary existence, the reflection is obscure for several reasons. First, Fahlstrom’s choice of images to symbolize these things are already symbols themselves (e.g., comic book violence) and, if they are not actually abstracted from their comic strip source, they are contrived to appear as though they were. In this way, the experience presumably being dealt with is apprehended only through at least two intermediate steps, each of which muffles and distorts, rather than dilates upon it. The analogical possibilities of form, subject, and symbol with which Fahlstrom deals are prevented from forming any poetic metaphor by the same factors of obliquity and indirection. Fahlstrom’s practice of having adjustable parts that may be shifted about is perhaps the expression of his desire, or even his dare, that the observer might be able to do better with the elements given.

Fahlstrom as private and hermetic mythologer or narrator presents similar problems of expressive focus, from either the artist’s or the observer’s viewpoint. No matter how intricate the images or their sequence, it can only be a matter of time until it is clear that all possible combinations and permutations lead to the same nullity of invested meaning. And, if some or any of the images are engrossing separately, they must inevitably compromise the meaning and coherence of the larger configuration of which they are presumably a part. When this is the case (as it is in every such work except the K(razy). K(at). pieces, where there is a preexistent subject to which we may and must refer) Fahlstrom at least forces an issue, albeit a not very interesting one: we must either recognize and accept that the artist cannot, or does not, wish to stimulate the fantasy with evocative bits of imagery (for the reasons given just above) or we must pretend that we do “get it” and so affect a smirking sympathy for those who cannot make head or tail of the presumed invented subject.

Now if Fahlstrom is concerned, for himself or us, with felicitous inadvertencies in images he finds and uses, images he makes and uses, or in the nuttiness of the works as entities, or even all his work as a whole, one can only conclude that his idea of serendipity encompasses a very great deal that is commonplace and dull, in or out of any artistic context.

The possibility remains, I suppose, that the three aspects of Fahlstrom’s work discussed here together form some esthetic entity. It is at this point that the artist’s activity and products are considered together, since the amount of material on view here speaks for quite a bit of certain kinds of activity by, or at least under the direction of the artist. The tandem is then the obscured and blurred reflection of modern life, the completely closed or possibly nonexistent private myth or narrative, and the possible attractions of the things themselves, as objects. Considering the diffuseness and wooliness of the first, the real and/or potential swindle of the second, and the common ticky-tacky of the last, it is difficult to weld these three faces of Oyv into a coherent artistic identity, however multifaceted. The only way is to maunder on portentously about “alienation,” “anti-art,” the schism between creation and perception, and the high moral value of meaninglessness as an artistic credo. Perhaps all this is to the point, but if the artist’s sensibilities are numbed and numbing, and his production shows more stamina than comprehensibility, then his function in the broadest sense blends imperceptibly at the edges with the meretricious.

The gap “between art and life” has been closed by a Procrustean lopping off of extensions of the sensibility. The Surrealist device of an intentional derangement of the sensibility sought to recombine the elements of existence into different, alternate perceptive modalities, and Fahlstrom’s collage techniques and uses of photographic images derive from this practice. His aim, however, seems not to be the revelation of new orders of experience or poetic enlargement of familiar ones, but a short-tempered and gratuitous insistence that graphorrhea constitutes a metaphysical position.

Dennis Adrian