PRINT April 1995


Young artists tend to be ninety percent nerve and ten percent whatever else. They rise and/or flop depending on the complexity of their cleverness. Vincent Fecteau is different—not that he’s not exceedingly clever, etc., but he seems strangely unsure of himself. So unsure, in fact, that unlike other “Slacker” artists such as Sean Landers or Jack Pierson, he doesn’t flaunt his feelings of inadequacy. Instead he fumbles, nitpicks, and beautifies away, lost in a blissful if nerve-racked daydream. Fecteau makes art the way kids build backyard spaceships, with meticulous attention to detail, a grudging respect for the trash he works with, and no real hope of re-creating what he sees when he closes his eyes. He’s shooting for the sublime, albeit in a backhanded way. His collages and sculptures are exquisitely calculated, goofily designed, emotionally weird low-tech containers for the ineffable, whatever that is. He’s not sure what he’s getting at, or even how best to express his confusion, which is why his work constantly shape-shifts.

Fecteau’s obsessive search for meaning (or whatever) takes him to some unlikely places—cat calendars, E. T., content-free celebrities like Dan Aykroyd—but he can’t quite translate the unusual effect these things have on him. Actually he’s not even sure his art is the right place to try to manifest his private search, but it’s not like he has any choice. All he can do is fine-tune his ambivalence and hope that if he’s enough of a perfectionist on the surface, the work will communicate what he can’t. A strange unfocused beauty, specific but indefinable, radiates from his art’s cautious comedy of errors, as scarily familiar as it is tingly on the eyes as it is amusing to deconstruct. “For me, art is all about frustration,” says Fecteau. “It comforts me to think of my pieces as models or diagrams for other pieces . . . not artworks in and of themselves. But they suggest the possibility of other artworks. That makes me feel better. Otherwise I’d feel like I was trying for something that’s impossible. It’s like the thing in pop music that’s so intangible yet magical. There’s something there, and I can’t figure out what it is. And I’m trying to look for it in all these different places.”

Fecteau’s work has similarities to that of other artists/foragers of pop culture like Richard Hawkins, John Miller, Jessica Stockholder, and Nayland Blake, all of whom he admires. But his art has just as much if not more in common with self-consciously modest visionaries like Vija Celmins and Richard Tuttle. Incorporated in his witty toying around with abstract forms and found imagery is both a kind of awe at people’s ability to find meaning in the banal and a melancholic resignation to the peculiarity of his task. “My continuing struggle is that I want to express this cheesy emotion that I know isn’t cheesy,” he says. “And I don’t know how to do it.”

When Fecteau was an undergraduate, he interned for one intense summer with the late Hannah Wilke. Though there’s little evidence that her work directly influenced his, her contentious relationship to the art world opened his eyes. “I was doing these drawings that were really bad. Hannah used to say, ‘Don’t be an artist. It’s no fun. Go into interior design or something.’ And I saw how difficult it was for her, just on a day-to-day basis. She was a real artist—she had this conceptual basis she was working from. But she did all these other things that were coming from her narcissism and whatever else she was going through. So I think she did influence me in the way she structured things, and in other ways.” Wilke’s process provided a sobering contrast to the agenda being promoted at the time in Wesleyan’s art department: “Talk about p.c. The conceptual work being done there was really emotionally vacant. And whenever I’m confronted by something like that, I just want to do something horrible.”

Fecteau moved to San Francisco on graduating, and soon thereafter he had his first one-person show, at that city’s late great renegade gallery, Kiki. For “Ben”—the show’s title was lifted from Michael Jackson’s love song to a pet rat—he lined the walls with silly, eerie photocollages, mostly made of eat’s heads scissored from magazines and organized into towering piles of various sizes and shapes. Some of the cats’ eyes were both emphasized and partly obscured by a layer of glue, simultaneously paying tribute to the creatures’ mysteriously monotonous stares and parodying—with Fecteau’s characteristically strict yet reticent delicacy—our tendency to project meaning and reciprocal interest into things that are essentially functional. The cats became advertisements not for their own indecipherable needs but for our neediness; they remained harmless and innocent even as our projections crystallized on their surfaces.

Other works combined Fecteau’s own photographs of cats with appropriated images of E. T., that universal-by-default symbol of sanitized horror. One of these pieces grouped the images in a circle that seemed at once decorative-wreath-like and defensive, like a wagon train geared for enemy attack. On the floor were small sculptures resembling comically inept rat traps or pet-hamster houses built out of shoe boxes. Again, Fecteau’s designs emphasized the touching and ridiculous ways in which we salve our terror of the unknowable by attempting to capture and disempower it in its most palatable forms.

Fecteau’s newest pieces broaden the range of his references and reveal an even more poetic formal approach. They are deeper and more mysteriously comical, and the relationships they create between found imagery—including such complicatedly resonant items as Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the Anne Frank house, and liquor bottles—are simpler, less overtly theatrical, and capable of housing greater indecision. Physically, they’re increasingly insecure and vague, as though they longed to exist in a form somewhere between the second and third dimensions. Even more than in his previous work, one feels Fecteau’s inordinate complicity with the objects of his fascination. As the work loosens, its mazelike internal world materializes, and the artist’s touch grows ever more enigmatic and inconsolable.

Dennis Cooper is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. His most recent novel is Try (Grove Press, 1994), and a film version of his earlier book Frisk is in the final stages of production.