New York

“Narrative 2”

John Gibson Gallery

The artists David Askevold, Didier Bay, Bill Beckley, Robert Cumming, Peter Hutchinson, Jean Le Gac, Italo Scanga, and Roger Welch, working with a variety of photographic and text mixes, show a definite post-Conceptual disregard for the primacy, or the separation of the visual and the verbal. They provide a good model to discuss what has been variously called autobiographical, diary, narrative, journalistic, or as I prefer, the more casual title of the first group show held last year: “Story.” With a lightness of touch similar to that established last year by virtually the same group of artists—with the notable exceptions of John Baldessari and William Wegman—“Narrative” continues the exit by Conceptual artists from certain didactic dilemmas, such as objects or no objects, words or images.

I’m a bit reluctant talking about “Narrative” as a sensibility, let alone a movement, for fear of putting a theoretical straightjacket around it. A glance at one work of several artists confirms this. David Askevold in P. E. I. Occurrence uses domestic interiors as an excuse to play meaning games with fantasy and language. Everyday objects are irrationally and enigmatically conditioned by differing information, both photographic and written. Didier Bay in one of his albums uses randomly photographed car windows to hang quirky classification ideas, again about mundane objects—from umbrellas through maps. Car windows as a cultural framed display are seen, by Bay, as a 20th-century “window on the world” to man’s foibles and fancies. Bill Beckley in From 10 to 20 Disguised As the Ends Of The Rainbow uses personal, sometimes sexy stories about rainbows in Wales and Stonehenge, as catalysts to imagination. Blocks of text, longish stories generated by trips to England, are butted against huge starkly lettered photostats and a sumptuous color photograph of a rainbow. Are the stories at the ends of the photograph of a rainbow, at the ends of a title about a rainbow, or just stories geographically locating the ends of the rainbow in England? Robert Cumming in Predictably Enough Some Overshot The Mark And Embedded Themselves In Trunks Miles From Centre uses black-and-white photographs of what look like trajectories of bullets passing through nighttime palm tree scenarios. Emanating mystery, Cumming’s storyless photographs still stress a past, present, and future. They ask: what’s happened? what is happening? what’s going to happen? What is left to you. Peter Hutchinson in Stripes On Spots And Spots On Stripes uses zebras and leopards to concretize abstract jokey hypotheses. In ambiguous color photographs showing the possibility of spotty zebra and striped leopard, Hutchinson reveals the particular fantasies of a genuine eccentric.

Jean Le Gac in The Anecdotes introduces a Claire’s Knee sensibility of anecdotes in a beautifully written Robbe-Grillet series of panels, as a poetic catalogue raisonné of his earlier work; he reminds himself what to say to critics, and ironically makes them redundant by his own delightful criticism of and in his work. Italo Scanga uses a madonna in a story about a crying one. Crying madonnas are just not my game. And Roger Welch in his Alexander Lieberman wall tableaux of photographs, tape transcript and wooden model, uses an old man as an archetype for all old men. Reconstructing the ninety-six-year-old Lieberman’s childhood memories of his home town in Poland, Welch also gets nice dialogue from him.

People are permissive in real life about the variety and interdependence of the signs they use to communicate. Communicating with clothes, gestures, writing, and objects, they move with freedom from one sign system to another. The specialized desire to use only one model persists, encouraged as it is by the commercial need for product recognition. Yet this single model prejudice persists at more sophisticated levels. For example, when I wrote “Things and Theories” as a defense of the beleaguered model of painting, it was misconstrued, by some, as a rejection of all other models, particularly Conceptual art ones like text, photography, video, or whatever. I defended painting in all its proliferation, not as an ultimate claim to art, but rather as an alternate coexisting possibility open to artists today. “Narrative’s” strength is the multiplicity of model choices individual artists offer to express a variety of Conceptual intentions. Even now painting is implicit in a lot of the work. Le Gac’s earlier The Painter was perhaps the most touching evocation for a love of the myth of the activity and not the objects themselves. And, although outside the show, the beautiful woman in landscape film loops of Roger Cutforth gives you all the benefits of a honed painterly sensibility without all the hardware of painting proper. Cutforth’s giant images completely fill walls; yet when the projectors are turned off you don’t have huge pieces of furniture gunking up your life.

What’s particularly interesting about “Narrative” is both the use of different models by the same artists and also the way they scramble models.

For example, Bill Beckley’s shaggy dog stories and Roger Welch’s anthropological reconstructions have existed as performances. Beckley’s use of his own presence, and his mini-skirted assistant’s climbing a ladder during a story, his inflections of voice, and reading speed, in front of a live audience render abstract his stories in ways impossible even with exactly the same ones on tape, let alone on a wall, or in a magazine. Using one model, Beckley doesn’t rule out others.

A willingness to change the form of an artwork depending on context, say gallery or magazine, is indicative of a growing model flexibility necessary not just for survival but also for effective communication by artists today. Color photography is yet another option. I’ve heard suggested the way you can tell ’60s Conceptualists from ’70s ones is the former only use black-and-whites.

I’ve even noticed strange imitators. Two recent gallery announcements, for example, were more interesting, for me, than the art. The great technicolor postcard of Twombly and Rauschenberg on a grass bank, and the nude back-view color one of Lynda Benglis with her jeans around her tasty ankles were not only the stuff of myths, person becoming persona, but also unknowingly paralleled by Jean Le Gac’s personalized Romanticism.

Books, we know, are also usable. With their linear, sequential mode they are another lightweight, portable—if a bit expensive—way of artists’ getting ideas about. It Was Pleasing To Note All The Workers Wore New ShoesMonday and Tuesday deals with Cumming’s love of arranging people in quirky situations. Really crazy photographs of three guys in different positions are obviously arranged with the same care as the nudes in his earlier book, A Training in the Arts. The same funky California sensibility motivates both works, years and models apart. Other artists in the show seem similarly reluctant to be typecast within a single model.

I’m beginning to relish life in the raw, and the artists in “Narrative” by photographing, writing, performing, interacting or whatever, directly with real or imaginary aspects of their everyday life are essentially antistudio. The studio, far from being a liberating influence, can often insulate the artist from the great variety of sensory and cultural forces necessary, now more than ever, for him to evolve richly as a social being. “Narrative” picks up on Conceptual art’s insistence on the “studio-in-your-head” idea. You carry your studio, or if you like your sensibility, around with you. Facture is no longer the criteria it was. You don’t become an artist by going into a studio and allowing magic to flow from your brush in those tired old games of playing with materials, or playing with yourself. You’re exactly the same dumb/bright person in your studio as you are in the world. Most of the artists in “Narrative” are all over. Askevold spends time photographing objects in every part of the house; Bay chases cars all over Paris; Beckley’s not fantasizing from skin flicks on 42nd St. this time but chasing rainbows in Wales; Cumming seems to only go out at night in search of the most exotic palm groves in California; Hutchinson keeps traveling; Le Gac plays Flaubert in the countryside of France; and Welch continues his quest for the old with memories.

You might say, however, this is all trite stuff concerned only with the appearance of the world through photographs, or a description of it through words. And in one sense you’d be right. It is trivial! “Narrative” subjects, just like say Warhol’s or Lichtenstein’s were a decade or so back, are essentially on the margins of everyday life. They’re nonheroic, small-time stuff. They are about commonplace insights giving particular artists’ lives meaning. But the commonplace of everyday life, as Jasper Johns discovered, is a rich vein.

––James Collins