PRINT January 2005

Adam McEwen

A furtive quality of the almost-there or phantom presence haunts Adam McEwen’s practice throughout, as he plays on inversions of context, reversals of fortune, and gallows humor. The first works that caught my eye were little signs such as one might see in store windows or on shop doors alerting visitors that the place was closed for business, but instead of “Sorry We’re Closed” they said things like “Sorry We’re Sorry,” “Fuck Off We’re Closed,” or “Sorry We’re Dead.” All of which suggest that whoever made these particular signs (or decided to use them) isn’t feeling terribly sorry for much. These signboards (realized in 2001 and 2002) are in fact little paintings, executed by McEwen in flashe on paper without the slightest hint of a brushstroke. Hung last year (and in the summer of 2003) inside the always-locked glass door of Chelsea’s Wrong Gallery, an exhibition space maybe a foot deep, “Fuck Off We’re Closed” did rather accord with the genius loci, where the attitude might be summarized as “Fuck Off We’re Cool.” It became site specific.

McEwen subsequently glamorized such “protosignature” post-Pop/post- Conceptual text pieces by rendering a “Sorry We’re Dead” on a large silver canvas (Untitled [Dead], 2002). The invocation of Warhol’s death-and-disaster paintings, not to mention the Superstar fog of the silvered Factory decor, skirts cynicism in the brazenness of its references; transferred to metallic canvas, the cheap-looking shop sign becomes visibly pricey, a gallery-ready chattel. Didn’t Warhol claim that he used the diptych format in his large death-and-disaster paintings because the monochrome half made it twice the painting, so to speak? He could charge more for it. Sorry We’re Expensive. Maybe this is related to another of McEwen’s store-sign paintings, “Come In We’re Cunts.” The artist remarks in an interview (in Wrong Times, a publication of the aforementioned gallery): “‘Come in we’re cunts’ is just ‘Come in. Fuck you.’ There are shops that have cunty people working behind the counter in cunty shops, but that’s more English. I like those shops where the customer is always wrong.”

McEwen did a four-year stint writing obituaries for London’s Daily Telegraph. “I actually wrote the obit for John F. Kennedy Jr.,” McEwen remarks. That’s the background for his series of obits for still-living celebrities—among others, Malcolm McLaren, Jeff Koons, Marilyn Chambers, Macaulay Culkin, and Nicole Kidman. In all respects adhering to the obituary format, these pieces relate the life stories and accomplishments of their subjects. Only one item is missing: cause of death. McEwen suggests that these artworks—black-and-white C-prints, or colorless color photography—have their own shelf life, as it were: “The one thing I know for sure about these people is that some day they will die, at which point maybe the artwork doesn’t mean anything.” In these faux obits, McEwen makes hay out of the etiolation of meaning around the otherwise seemingly replete figure of the famous person. I’m reminded of Thomas Crow’s comments about Warhol’s dead-celebrity art: “How does one handle the fact of celebrity death? Where does one put the curiously intimate knowledge one possesses of an unknown figure, come to terms with the sense of loss, the absence of a richly imagined presence that was never really there[?]”

Entering the artist’s recent exhibition at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in New York, one was confronted by a wall with a small doorway roughly cut out of it, leading into the gallery’s project room, which housed Shoegazer (Bonus Version), 2002–2004, a multipart installation. The “shoegazer” itself is a long, narrow strip of mirror leaning against the wall, like those one finds in certain shoe stores. But the look isn’t too flattering, as McEwen’s mirror has an icky brown tint. Above the mirror, McEwen hung a closeup of Michael Jackson’s feet, clad in superspecial dancing shoes and incandescent socks; a small drawing of a shoe-gazing guitarist from a very noisy band like My Bloody Valentine (a certain kind of low-frequency noise that can, apparently, trigger involuntary bowel movements is known as “brown sound”); and a purple-tinted version of an earlier piece, Untitled (A-line), 2002, where McEwen took the famous photograph of Mussolini and his mistress strung up by their feet and inverted it, so that they seem to be throwing their arms up as they ascend ecstatically. McEwen refers to “an unpleasant sense of exaggerated self-consciousness” at work in this piece, and the extremities of self-fashioning that went into the fairly ludicrous Italian dictator and our number one, off-the-hook pop star speak volumes of unpleasantness and exaggeration. The murky strip of mirror below might as well be the gate of Hell. Facilis descensus Averni, to borrow the words of the Poet. But why is the road to Hell easy? Because you’re walking down.

Sorry I'm Finished.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.