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Ryan Trecartin

WHEN THE CHOICE BETWEEN lingering in front of a video projector or hitting a half-dozen other galleries is increasingly a cinch, the jolting energy, nerve, and intricacy of twenty-four-year-old Ryan Trecartin’s work in the medium comes as no small shock. An abiding interest in indie rock, goth, psychedelia, and other hot topics won’t distinguish his practice from that of other artists of his generation. But everything aesthetic about his videos—from the baroque screenplays that polish flippant teen slang into cascading soliloquies to the dueling fascinations with profound loneliness and extremely affected behavior to the swarming, jumbled, yet precisely composed shots that pack each frame to the rafters with visual stimuli—displays a near obliviousness to what’s going on in his field, whether it be the clichés of current video art or the signature styles of past experimental films. Trecartin does, however, share a penchant for full-frontal gayness and a love of extravagance with the movie directors his work most immediately brings to mind: Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, and early John Waters.

Trecartin was “discovered” last spring when a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art showed visiting artist Sue De Beer a few minutes of a crazy video he’d found on the dating/networking website www.friendster.com. Upon her return to New York, De Beer told writer and former New Museum curator Rachel Greene about her find. With only the artist’s first name to go on, together they searched Friendster’s database until they found Trecartin’s profile, then wrote to ask if he would send them a copy of the video in its entirety—a forty-one-minute work titled A Family Finds Entertainment, 2004. Floored by what she saw, Greene began showing the piece to enthusiastic artists, curators, and gallerists. Several months and much buzz later, Trecartin’s first solo show opens in January at Los Angeles gallery QED; the Getty Research Institute, an institution not exactly known for supporting young, unproven artists, has commissioned a new work that will be exhibited this spring; and AFFE, the video that started it all, will be in this year’s Whitney Biennial.

All of these Pecker-like details aside, Trecartin is not your classic recontextualized outsider. Raised in rural Ohio, he designed costumes and stage sets in high school before picking up his first camera at the Rhode Island School of Design. While there, he made a number of short films, including Yo, A Romantic Comedy, 2002, a messy, hypergay exercise in genre, and the heartfelt, bratty Valentines Day Girl, 2001, and helped form a multidisciplinary art collective called Experimental People. After graduating in 2004, he moved to New Orleans with the group, whose members were among the huge cast appearing in AFFE. Then Hurricane Katrina destroyed Trecartin’s elaborately painted, decorated home (featured prominently in the video) and with it virtually all of the nondigital artwork he’d ever made. Following a period of drifting and homelessness, Trecartin now lives and makes art in Los Angeles, thanks to the support of an admiring collector.

If A Family Finds Entertainment can be reduced to a thumbnail description, this might be it: Trecartin stars as Skippy, a clownish but terrifyingly psychopathic boy who has locked himself in the upstairs bathroom of his family home during a wild party. Ignoring his siblings’ and friends’ pleas that he come out, he paces the little room, cutting himself with a knife and musing opaquely on his existential dilemma in a kind of King Lear–style delirium. Downstairs, the partyers are experiencing wild mood swings and having complex, disassociated conversations (mostly about him) that are constantly interrupted by bursts of visual effects and animated sequences that disorient the cast of characters like so many lightning strikes. Eventually Skippy emerges, borrows money from his creepy, sexually inappropriate parents, and heads outdoors, where he runs into a documentary filmmaker who decides to make a movie about him—but then Skippy is immediately hit by a car and, apparently, killed. Back inside the house, a hyperactive girl named Shin, also played by Trecartin, gets a call on her cell phone with the bad news. She spends twenty or so hysteria-filled minutes trying to focus and construct a sentence linear enough to tell her friends what has happened. When she finally does, a band plays music that seems to magically raise the young man from the dead, and everyone runs outside and sets off fireworks. Then everyone runs back inside before the police show up.

A wonder of Trecartin’s videos is that his approach seems as intuitive and driven by a mad scientist–style tunnel vision as it is rigorous and sophisticated, grounded in his expert editing and inordinate gift for constructing complex avant-garde narratives. For this reason, his movies resist the kind of deconstructive analysis through which one normally manages to strip new, challenging art down to its nuts and bolts. It’s early yet, but the great excitement of Trecartin’s work is that it honestly does seem to have come from out of nowhere.

Dennis Cooper is a Contributing Editor of Artforum.