PRINT November 1991


IN SLACKERS, 1991, RICHARD LINKLATER'S vision of adolescence gone rancid, he trains his camera on a mundane milieu—the postgrad, between-semesters doldrums of a middle-American university town (Austin, Texas, to be precise)—and introduces us to a new casualty for the ’90s. A subject without a mission, a fate, or even a subjectivity (at least in the superadequate Modern sense), the slacker inhabits an atomized universe: everyone speaks a debased or hybrid argot, worships at their own jerry-built altar, proselytizes for a private religion. Master narratives, in short, do not inhere. The slacker is the flip side of the hyperfunctional persona Madonna presents in Truth or Dare. Both are prone to New Age mystification, yet, as the ineffectual counter to Madonna’s working version, the slacker is doomed to wander an affectless void unredeemed. Anarchy percolates in this dysfunctional landscape but never exceeds a slow boil; conspiracy theories abound, yet authority remains simultaneously monolithic and curiously beside the point. Slackers are beatniks without a beat—a lost generation minus a sustaining poetics of loss. What just may earn the film the status of the newest zeitgeist tremor, and makes its title a resonant moniker for an unexpected plenitude that has surfaced in the galleries, is the fact that it celebrates this condition as a series of Zen intensities, as opposed to a good laugh at the expense of the hopelessly dispossessed.

Zen and the Art of the Spill

The beauty of Linklater’s film is that his camera is as hapless as the subjects on whom it focuses. Just as the movie’s structure mimics the chance texture of lives randomly traversing each other, the particular grain of slack art depends on self-consciously courted chaos. Indeed, in the work of all the artists who might be said to practice it, the notion that there is very little art in the matter is rather “artfully” suggested. Whether it is the craft-corner flux of Karen Kilimnik’s crackpot allegories of mastery; the palpable, still-warm traces of a subject just departed (cigarette butts in the ashtray, the T-shirt stretched across a chair back) in Jack Pierson’s installation; or Laurie Parson’s desktop disorder, cropped from the face of reality and transplanted intact to the gallery, chance is the animating trope.

Where the art of the ’80s intoned “plug in or expire,” slack art tunes out. Ever since Cady Noland laid a series of cheesy ornamental furniture panels on the floor and titled it Dirt Corral, 1984–85, opening the seamless ’80s object to an odd register of the temporal (anticipating the dust that would inevitably collect in the nooks and crannies), it’s as if a whole generation of artists had gone David Letterman one better, following his famously restless camera offstage and forgetting to come back. Jeff Koons, Meyer Vaisman, Ashley Bickerton, et al. celebrated the penetration of art by the rhythms of capital, fueled by the electronic circulation of information; the slacker has a nose for the fissures in this dream of surface.

What makes Noland’s gesture significant, and what, in fact, makes her the pivotal figure en route to these new “subjective” intensities, is that her work has nothing to do with the widespread and reactionary taste swing in favor of conventionally distressed facture or with the impossible old-timey subjectivity it signals. In Noland’s Celebrity Trash Spill, 1989, formal disorder butts up against culturally saturated detritus. The art of the ’80s taught that we were all constituted under television (and that all else was pathetic denial), just as, a half century before, Marcel Duchamp revealed that we were made by or against “the demands of the shop window.” What the slacker reminds us is that while TV may be all determining, a disjunction persists between our corporeal selves and the ceaseless flow of images and information. As “objects” of TV’s gaze, we each remain, in a very real sense, the slob in front of the set with a bag of chips, fingering a greasy and obdurate remote.

One Man’s Opinion of Moonlight

Bickerton’s logo-encrusted objects spoke to the absolute coincidence of the subject and his consumption (just as the price tickers, changing with the fluctuating “value” of the object, monitored the self-evidence of art’s ideological, economical, and institutional determination); Pierson’s work is all seams. He invites us to experience the messy intensities of a hypersubjective universe. In his recent installation One Man’s Opinion of Moonlight, 1991, we are ushered into a simulated bohemian walk-up, replete with a “junk drawer” full of what junk drawers are typically full of—empty matchbooks, coasters, a dead battery, pencils—the residue of daily existence. The palpable feeling of rooting around in someone’s effects, of constructing an identity on the scanty evidence of this curious psychic dig, leaves us with a poignant, oddly liberating sense of the individual as a nexus of semi-accidental determinations. If Bickerton is in perfect sync with his product-saturated age—the man who drinks Deer Park, brushes with Close-Up, and banks at Citibank—Pierson is all idiosyncratic remainder: the stray lyric, the fleeting atmosphere, an ineffable memory. He is the person who consumes an esoteric volume of New Age mumbo jumbo, reads and rereads a dog-eared copy of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, listens to a worn Dusty Springfield record (not a CD). These are the sentimental, affect-laden moments that converge to make the man.

Bickerton and Pierson do share the revelation of subjectivity as an accident, as an intersection of extrasubjective circumstance rather than a steady revelation of essence. But where, with Bickerton and his peers, there was a sense of Futurist celebration in our mutation as subjects—an elated bon voyage to the subject-centered Romantic model of experience—Pierson seems to have relinquished the functional fantasy of information-age adequacy in a relaxed and liberating free-fall. This is not to suggest that he, any more than Noland, is beating an escapist retreat to a tin shack in the mountains; rather, he seems to ask, How do we live faced with our incommensurable technologies? Not as hell-bent yuppies on a margarita-fueled fin-de-siècle joyride, nor as furiously active late-enlightenment-age egos, nor as charismatic and extra-adequate super subjects (all those vain and pathetic attempts to reinvent the Modern artist-hero). Pierson seems to acknowledge the logo as inherently fractured, and from its cracks bleeds a crazy texture of bohemian intensities—the beatnik, the stoic loner, the kitchen chemist, the “serious” drinker, the shiftless homosexual. Style, of course, is always a logo of sorts. What makes Pierson worthy of attention is that he has transcended his signature by delving into it so completely. With One Man’s Opinion of Moonlight he has taken a project that initially seemed to be all sensibility (pure cult of personality) and has made of the myth of determinate identity a pale and malleable construct.

Several Types of Realness

With a beautiful ear for the disparate, Parsons describes the loose tangle of junk in Stuff, 1990, which she culled from a closet in her mother’s house. The pile includes “a Brazilian arrow given to me by an old boyfriend, my highschool yearbook, a photograph of two childhood friends, one of whom will be spending the next two years in a self-contained Biosphere 2 habitat in Arizona, the ‘pro-Fritz and Ferraro’ banner I painted to protest Ronald Reagan’s visit to a Hoboken church, my French hiking boots, and many other odds and ends.” The clutter in Pierson’s installation suggests a seedy universe; Parsons’ rubble screams “hippie.” When she talks about her work/life, her language is littered with icky humanist sentiment. A lucid something begins to emerge and then, wham, she comes up with an adjective like “honest,” or, in response to queries about her most recent project in Germany, she will pull out a snapshot of an aging gentleman, describing him with a mixture of reverence and affection as “really amazing, as a poet.” Parsons insists that she wants to make art outside the gallery, outside the institution of art. It all sounds familiar, eerily familiar—a mix of archaic vanguard sentiment and countercultural utopianism. Yet the accumulation of stuff—nonequivalent ideologies, mutating beliefs, random pressures, and plain accident—is strangely moving. We bliss out on the web of intersecting yet incommensurate meanings; it’s the gesture rather than the revelation of autobiographical detail that ultimately counts.

At a standstill in her reluctant negotiations with the institution of art, Parsons resorted to the slightest of gestures, adding three slides to a blank sheet in the binder that her gallery keeps as a record of the artist’s work. One is a still of a face from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing; another is a close-up of the back of a tie-dyed T-shirt snapped at a Woodstock reunion; and the third, a plain blue transparency, is a cropped portion of uninflected sky. It is all a matter of pressuring the frame; indeed, Parsons is worrying the art/life boundary with a new urgency (I’m tempted to say mania).

In 1912 Duchamp told himself to get a job; 52 years later Marcel Broodthaers inverted the conceit and became an “artist,” or rather moved his activities into the sphere of that institution in order to enjoy the security and sustenance that the nomination “art” provides—in other words, he gave himself a job (as an artist). Ever since, artists have been crisscrossing the art/life border to various and even illuminating effect, constituting themselves by how they do, don’t, almost do, or almost don’t make art. Perhaps it is the Broodthaers model rather than Duchamp’s absolute and pristine gesture that has become the more persistent and vexing trope. With characteristic prescience, Duchamp acknowledged that he had been one-upped by Warhol, precisely because Warhol kept “painting” despite his insistence that he would rather do virtually anything else. The artists of the ’70s (remember the phrase “subversive complicity”?) and ’80s (they dropped the residue of political anxiety registered in the ’70s slogan) reanimated the conceit, playing their cards even closer to their chest. The ’80s bad boys ran their objects through the system in a beautifully transparent gesture of self-marketing as artistic self-contribution. Vaisman’s speculation that the artists of his generation who will be remembered are the ones who were also their own dealers is revealing as a figure for the successful monitoring and penetration of the art institution. When a disgruntled artist ripped a toilet seat from a Vaisman sculpture and flung it out the gallery window, it wasn’t another example of the age-old outrage at the heresies of the avant-garde, but precisely an inversion—an outburst of frustration in the face of the seamless machinations of power that brought this work so swiftly to center stage.

If the ’80s artists played the airtight system and covered their tracks, Parsons coaxes the old vanguard rupture back to visibility. In her work, the pivotal avant-garde gesture is itself already a readymade. Indeed, as in the ’60s (seen through the idealizing mist of two-and-a-half decades), it functions as a kind of lost object that comes back in the work of both Pierson and Parsons, invested with all kinds of crazy affect. Like Noland, who professes a taste for the nicks and scrapes that a quarter century’s art handling has left on the classical Minimal artifact, they are trained on the gap between various overdetermined moments in the past and their own elusive presents.

For a moment, the uninflected repetition—the seamless double—became a moving heresy in the work of Sherrie Levine; her gesture triggered an encounter with the repetition as such. It’s this uncanny experience that lends Parsons’ negotiations with the art of the past their power. Parsons tells her story like this: “While in college I became fascinated by the power of an historical aerial photograph in a book sandwiched between fine art photographs. This picture, taken for purely utilitarian reasons, had a markedly stronger presence for me than the others. It felt necessary, unalloyed by the self-consciousness of ‘art.’” Hear the echo of Tony Smith’s famous experience on the New Jersey Turnpike? From the rubble spills to the photo-as-nonsite, Robert Smithson’s site/nonsite dialectic animates Parsons’ project; indeed, her recent show in Germany called for her Hoboken bedroom to be reconstructed in the gallery. With ten weeks of Berlitz under her belt, Parsons moved in.

Parsons says her art is all about the exchange, the connections with people that cross her path. What she wants to do is set up the conditions for a real encounter—for an encounter with the Real. Indeed, when she worked as a gallery assistant for a month as her part in a group show, the structures may have revealed their self-evidence, but the experience was strangely blank, very different from Andrea Fraser’s more normative parody of the institutions of art. The queer texture of her project—part nostalgia, part vanguardism, mostly local color—gets under the skin of Duchamp’s mandarin gesture, deessentializing it at its core. Like Parsons’ own story, his depends upon the convergence of a million different determinations that he and we have conspired to make exemplary.

Art still happens in galleries (or around, or through them), even in New York, but a little at a time. You don’t need to know what art is. You know it when it hits you.

Jack Bankowsky is associate editor of Artforum.