PRINT January 1999


THE THIRTY-THREE-YEAR-OLD performer/artist Claude Wampler boasts a résumé that reads like something out of one of those David Lodge novels about trendy, internationally peripatetic intellectuals: domestic studies in theater, dance, and opera; immersion in butoh in Tokyo; shows at places with such edgy-cutesy names as SlimFit and Fourth World A.W.O.W. Not surprisingly, Wampler is the kind of artist critics go on about glowingly without ever managing to put their fingers on what exactly she does. Kim Levin wrote in The Village Voice that Wampler’s work is “about primal relationships.” (Right. And Jason Rhoades’s is about “stuff.”) Bruce Hainley said, in these pages a few years ago, that, “more than any other performer I can think of, Wampler explores tension: between fluidity and rigidity, lonely mania and calm, esthetics and obsession, and, perhaps most fascinatingly, between art object and performance.” (That’s nice writing, but it doesn’t get me any further in understanding her work than, say, square two.) To be fair, Wampler herself says, “All my work is pretty open. I don’t hold people responsible for their interpretations.”

But it’s not so much our interpretations we’re interested in, as Wampler’s—that is, her treatment of her specific subject matter and of the discipline of performance art as a whole. On the videotapes of her performances, Wampler is petite and cat-faced. She moves around semirobotically in a shiny dress, dances nude in what looks to be a freight elevator, and tries to climb aboard a huge, Donald Lipski-ish chair. In one of her most noted pieces, Blanket of Myself (one part of a larger 1977 performance, Blanket, The Surface of Her), she performs actions dictated to her by colleagues Richard Foreman, Julia Scher, Sylvie Fleury, and others. Richard Kern, for instance, bids her raise her dress and piss onstage. In Wampler’s most conventionally scripted event, The Surface of Her, she’s wheelchair-bound, pushed by a nurse in slow circles in front of a screen displaying slides of women in traction. A voice-over intones a sad saga of a sexless honeymoon followed by a car crash. And in Cake Fur, 1995, she retrieves her eponymous little dog from the barrel of a giant revolver while lip-synching stilted noir movie dialogue. Much of Wampler’s work is meant to be funny, and (on tape) the live audience laughs a lot. They laugh with Wampler, not at her. And the parts that aren’t funny? They pay rapt attention, as do we, to Wampler’s ability to blend irony and melodrama into something that might be called post-tragedy.

Jumbo Shrimp—the featured piece in Wampler’s most recent New York gallery show, at Postmasters—is a studio tape; it would be impossible to appreciate the action live. Wampler, close up, stares into a fish-eye lens. Her erstwhile pleasant features become a chinless doppelgänger of Arnold Stang. (Look that one up, kids.) Her hair is wrapped, steam-bath style, in white, and the piece’s title is Magic-Markered on her forehead. Something resembling jellied cough syrup hangs from her nostrils. “Why are you acting so weird?” she says over and over in an irritatingly adenoidal voice. “What made you think you could get into an Ivy League school?” “You said you wanted a hatchback. Why are you wasting time looking at that car? It isn’t a hatchback.” Because the piece has to do with the artist’s actual dealings with her mother, Jumbo Shrimp might seem to constitute as much a personal tragedy as public comedy. Wampler says that, when her mother came to the gallery to see the work, “she laughed at parts, which worried me a lot more than if she’d really gotten mad.” The gargantuan scale of the video projection, its sweaty color, and the graininess of the piece all contribute to a compellingly enervating effect. Jumbo Shrimp is also appended by a little mechanized jack-in-the-box, which is stationed behind the video projector. The puppet pops up, receives mom’s harangue, curls up, then springs back for more abuse. This is truly scary.

Wampler’s Postmasters show also included a couple of monitor-bound video pieces, which she calls “poor traits.” In Moneypants, Wampler, playing father, laughs at some kind of whoopee-cushion sounds while a dog—taking the part of Wampler—plays with money on the floor. Moneypants is a lite whack at Dad (who’s referenced by some hospital-green pants suspended in front of the screen), his wealth, and capitalism in general. Peach Tree has Wampler singing in a sari while two Indian musicians play their instruments. The whole thing—not just a particular part—is a portrait of Wampler’s boyfriend.

OK, so maybe it’s not the weightiest commentary around. But most of what Wampler does errs nicely on the side of art over propaganda. It’s also entertaining, in that everyday-grotesque way so popular in today’s art world. And Wampler’s art is haunting: You remember mom’s taunts and the dog in the dollars long after you’ve departed the gallery. Yet her work isn’t whiny, in that slacker, see-what-society-made-me-do manner so common to much art made by members of her generation. It also has a commendable austerity; it feels like most of the extraneous material has been edited out. She makes you feel almost at home while you float in her field of postmodernist contingencies. The (unfortunately false) assumption—which most performance soloists make—that the performer is somehow magnetic the moment she or he steps on the floor or appears on tape isn’t all that unreasonable in Wampler’s case. She can speak, sing, and dance pretty well. And she’s got a nice bod. (Wampler performs some pieces clothed, some nude, and the unclothed turns seem less a matter of philosophical necessity than showbiz opportunity. Here, I merely acknowledge her perspicacity in this matter.)

The smallish downside has to do with the nagging sensation that I’ve seen a lot of Wampler’s shticks before: the unresponsive “performing” dog (on The Ed Sullivan Show), the tragic accident after a marital argument (any number of B movies), even urinating in public (a guy named Wolfgang Stoerchle did it, from a ladder, decades ago, in LA; doubtless there were precursors). Of course, these cavils flit futilely against my overall reaction to Wampler’s work: Quite simply, I like it. But only for a visit. I sure wouldn’t want to live there.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum and the art critic for Newsweek.