PRINT Summer 2016


“‘My’ Masculinity”

Nicola Tyson, Standing Figure #6, 2016, graphite on paper, 39 × 25 1/2".

IN 1994, I WROTE AN ESSAY—“‘My’ Masculinity”—for Artforum’s “Man Trouble” feature, organized by Maurice Berger. Twenty-two years later, I revoke my earlier version and start the composition all over again. (Consider the two essays mismatched nipples.) Did anyone own masculinity in 1994? Aren’t we finished with possessiveness—its sodden betrayals, its puerilities, its cuts?

I only half-mean what I say; identity remains in the half-meaning, the ruse I fall into when I begin this odd dance called thinking. I don’t have an identity, only

a vast fatigue—
did I once call it
a vast summational
fatigue (but what
am I summoning
when I say “summational”)?

Summing-up is the enemy of staggered discovery, and yet I feel nostalgia for thinkers, like Siegfried Kracauer, who confidently strike final poses: “Like emigrants gathering up their personal belongings, bourgeois literature gathers the effects of a household that will soon have to vacate its current site.” Vacated up the wazoo, I seek new justifications for piecemeal introspection—methods for germinating a thought and then splitting the thought in half, as if the idea-morsel were to greet or devour itself. Vulnerability to self-division is a sufficiently stable platform for speech.

A house on a
horizon line has no
interest in adjudicating
debates. But we
are not a house,
we are a petty

“can I do this spiritual drag, collective agony wishful thinking,” wrote kari edwards. I, too, wonder if I can do this drag of speaking or thinking collectively, drag of not being singular, drag of shedding the rags of self. Adrienne Rich once excoriated these rags as “personal weather.” She opposed personal weather to “the great dark birds of history.” Syllables shamed by birds of history can intoxicate the ear. Remix, please, a consciousness, nominally mine, governed by its enthrallments, and hell-bent on squeezing cadence out of thrall.

Few poets today can rival the unstoppered perversity and brilliant heedlessness of Ronaldo V. Wilson. Seeking shelter from the brutal weather of the normative, I turn to his newest book, Farther Traveler (2015), for the comfort that only extreme language about extreme situations can give. From his poem “Multiply”: “Banged by 29 men, and you wanted some of them, / the red-ape, monstrous heaving, then sleep, / to wake, to be that cum bucket, filled.” I repeat, as an under-the-breath mantra, the words cum bucket. How can I express strongly enough to you the quietude that arrives by repeating cum bucket and delving into its sonic riches, the u and the u, twinned vowels, an effect I was taught to call assonance?

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s masochistic stances are a sweetly Christological template for cum-bucket consciousness—as when he writes (in the 1819 Prometheus Unbound, that proof-text of thralldom’s occasional potential to become exalted flight), “Insufferable might! / God! spare me! I sustain not the quick flames, / The penetrating presence.” Maybe Percy is impersonating a water goddess. An imploration arises from one person’s voice, but then the words acquire naughty, independent life, apart from their originator. “I sustain not the quick flames” is a phrase that fits any circumstance, any occasion in which you wish to assert ambivalence. “I sustain not”—nearly oxymoronic—asserts the possibility of sustaining antitheses, of preserving antiphonal cacophonies.

Saw Nicola Tyson monoprint portraits today in New York at Petzel Gallery uptown. She painted them more than a decade ago. A decade ago I didn’t know what a monoprint was. How could I claim to know what genders were, if I didn’t understand monoprints? Tyson’s procedure: Paint a glass plate and then press a piece of paper onto the wet original, which feeds its colorful essence to the recipient. The result is smashed identity. Try, from a Tyson monoprint, to figure out who someone is, and you’ll discover a lump instead of an identity. When I say “I,” when I say “my,” I am behaving like a fruitfully messy lump. A monoprinter passes identity through baptismal mediation. Dunk a self into the acrylic fount, and then drag out the remnants, unrecognizable, from the gunky morass.

In some of Tyson’s large graphite and ink drawings (of tall, skinny women?), I perhaps delusionally note the motif—near the pubic area—of a bone or codpiece, a tiny curiosity protruding or hanging down. Its non-binary oddity amuses and educates. I might be imagining this flash-drive bone chip, a glad specter near the groin. Graphite and ink, in Tyson’s expert hands, aren’t just servants of her subject; these materials become agents of change—of rippling, unsettling motion.

I like to exaggerate the elements of feverishness that exist within motionless artworks. Adam McEwen’s spartan graphite sculptures (of, say, mainframe computers) contain a secretly febrile enchantment, as if ideas rippled, bubbled, and wept inside the graphite mass. This strategy I advise you to learn: Figure out how to find the latently febrile tendencies lurking within reticent quiescences. A toilet-bowl plunger qualifies as a quiescence.

Anne Collier, Album (For Whom the Bell Tolls), 2016, C-print, 46 3/4 × 60 3/8". From the series “Women Crying,” 2016–.

Anne Collier’s photo series “Women Crying,” 2016–, at Anton Kern Gallery, set me thinking about crying. Women crying. W. C. Water closet? In Collier’s provocative acts of conceptual, emotional, and optical destabilization, copying intrudes. We welcome intrusions. Intrusions complicate our otherwise claustral existence. To wit: In one photograph, a pair of hands (a woman’s?) holds a movie sound-track album, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Its cover is a close-up of Ingrid Bergman’s tearful face. Another Collier C-print depicts a record cover with a more extreme close-up of the lachrymose Bergman; this LP, however, is an album called Men, by the “noise/grind/metal/what-the-fuck” band Burmese. Were Burmese’s members Burmese? Questions—needling, digressive—are not a tic; they are a tactic.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999) is a movie about the murder of trans man Brandon Teena. I don’t cry. My boycott against crying is complicated. “My” masculinity can be found somewhere between Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963, and Collier’s “Women Crying.” (The metaphoric chain connecting these two photographic series includes tear gas.) In rigorous and in fanciful aesthetic procedures begins the replenishment—through critique, through reenactment, through ritual, through kicky if sober-seeming detournements—of depleted resources.

If a secret agent wanted to find the historical residues of rigorously fey critique, this private eye might investigate the new paintings of Hernan Bas (in a recent show called “Bright Young Things” at Lehmann Maupin in New York); these paintings could teach the ferreting spy that “my” masculinity got lost—or materialized, or struck bottom—in the fin de siècle. Acrylic, the medium Bas reclaimed for these works, came of age in the 1950s. Bas’s acrylic marks look like oil marks (and indeed he sometimes incorporates colored pencil, chalk, and oil pastel); his colors are more cheerful, more superficial, than exclusive use of oil would allow. Secret superficiality camouflaged as oily depth permits the merriment of identity’s dissolution to surface, like bubbles above a sludge ellipse. See shredded pieces of “mine” and “my” disappear down the flushed toilet.

Went this morning to the Bowery’s New Museum to groove on Cheryl Donegan’s genius-y take on middlebrow design and on how gender gets fucked up when it collides with fabric. I stole the phrase “middlebrow design” from the succinct wall text of the exhibit. Middlebrow design is where masculinity (mine, yours, ours, hers, theirs) forgets what to do with itself and considers this memory lapse or misrecognition (am I masculine? Was I masculine? Will I be masculine tomorrow?) to be a new form of tepid exaltation—the tepidity itself the source of the excitement. Femininity, too, gets screwy, mine and his and yours, when it hits middlebrow design’s sober practicalities. I don’t know what middlebrow design is, but I wear it, create it, cruise it; it creams all over me. Three gas-mask fashion helmets (re-creations of chic headgear that appeared in Donegan’s “The Janice Tapes,” 2000) are not for sale, but I wanted to buy them in the exhibit’s smart and seductive Concept Store installation. Hanging out at the shop’s computer-monitor screen, I clicked on a pill-shaped ellipse because it said CLICK ME, even though nothing happened when I clicked. Nonetheless, I kept doing it, and enjoyed the experience of the repeated, futile click.

Confronting two of Donegan’s videos, Channeling in 5 Versions, 2001, and File, 2003, projected simultaneously one above the other, I stood mesmerized by the card-shuffled bricolage of middlebrow fabrics, maybe low- and highbrow ones, too. (Who can tell them apart?) The quick-splice rhythm prepared me, on my walk home afterward, to ford the city’s phantasmagorical battalion of rectangles and curves and in-betweens, squares and lines and triangles and parallelograms and unclassifiable other shapes—none of the tesserae precious because someone authorized them to be precious, but precious because an eye (Donegan’s, and now mine) had found a way to thrive within the nonce category of fabric that has no longer any purpose, fabric that now signifies dizziness itself. (Fabrics become paintings; three-dimensional scenes get compressed and reborn through virtual technologies, and we learn to live and love inside these compressed spaces—learn to treat compression as elixir, just as lyric poetry, not to mention sublimation, long ago taught certain souls to do.) In the past twenty years, I’ve learned that becoming dizzy and learning how to become educated by dizziness are worthwhile callings.

And then, this evening, wanting to change my mind about most claims I’ve made, I wrote:

Try to say
something lucid
and small about
the papery
quality of daffodils—

If that clause isn’t lucid enough, or doesn’t sharply retract the regime of false certitude, please substitute, for the word daffodils, another noun, any noun that will help you get through the night.

Wayne Koestenbaum is the author, most recently, of Notes on Glaze: 18 Photographic Investigations (Cabinet, 2016). A solo exhibition of his paintings took place this past spring at 356 S. Mission Rd. in Los Angeles. He is a Distinguished Professor of English and French at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and has been writing for Artforum since 1994.