New York

Jonathan Borofsky

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

In 1927, referring to Proust’s then uncompleted Remembrance of Things Past, E.M. Forster commented: “The book is chaotic, ill-constructed, it has and will have no external shape; and yet it hangs together because it is stitched internally, because it contains rhythms.” The same might be said of JONATHAN BOROFSKY’s recent installation which, although wildly eclectic in its components, and intentionally unruly in its execution, has an emotional coherence and an intellectual vigor reinforced by the repetitive and emphatic properties of rhythm.

Borofsky is both cursed and blessed by facility; he appropriates and discards mediums with the willful impatience of a headstrong prodigy. He crams the gallery with luridly colored paintings, monochromatic wall drawings, memo-pad sketches, exercises in automatic writing, kinetic sculpture, a video installation, cheap motel table lamps, painted rocks, unglazed pottery and a welter of found objects. Every component (be it a video animation or a decomposing head of lettuce) is numbered, and the numbers run into the millions. In a photo portrait, Borofsky himself is covered with numbers, like a side of beef diagrammed for Lilliputian butchers.

The message is spelled out repeatedly: “Energy to speed up” is tacked to the floor in red-and-white plastic letters which have only just crawled out of their shrink-wrap bags. “Can this man slow down” is scribbled on the adjacent wall. Presiding over the space is a twice-life-size cutout of a man whose mechanized arm repeatedly raises and lowers a hammer. The motorized drone of the arm permeates the environment and insidiously emphasizes the mindless repetitiveness of the giant’s overshadowing activity. Nearby, a wall is covered with sketchily silhouetted figures (equal in scale to the giant) who are at once rushing forward and frozen in place. This kind of contrariness abounds.

A high-rise of plastic-wrapped quires is enclosed in a plexi box and labelled Counting from 1 to 2,687,585. The topmost sheet with its final entry—2,687,585—is exposed and secured by a paperweight in the shape of a multifaceted ruby. The piece evokes a response similar to the revelation of Jack Nicholson’s “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” manuscript in Kubrick’s The Shining. Who could possibly want to—be driven to—enumerate at such length? Like Shelley Duvall, you keep hoping that the other sheets aren’t as mindlessly and doggedly programmed. And yet surely, in the world of Guinness, it’s an achievement of sorts.

Suspended in the rear of the space. is a television monitor. On the screen is a Borofsky cartoon of a dog trapped on a high tension wire. Balancing awkwardly, the dog advances across the wire. is shocked by the voltage.and retreats. In the background. clouds rush from behind a mountain range and soar over the dog’s electrified body. At the bottom of the screen, seconds (again in the millions) tick by. forward and backward. depending on which way the dog is going. It’s an image of awful fascination in its marriage of futility and indomitability.

Not content with visuals alone, Borofsky has scripted. stamped and stencilled his musings on floor, walls and ceiling. Initially, his phrases appear either dumb or derivative: for example, “We all influence each other.” or “Art is for the spirit.” or “Often I don’t see the beauty.” Yet there is a wonderful. redeeming irony and an ingratiatingly sappy appropriateness in most of his visual-verbal juxtapositions.

Hundreds of crumpled sheets of pink and yellow paper tumble out of a garbage bag and litter the gallery floor. Each is identically mimeographed with an instantly recognizable psycho-street-scrawl which reads “LITTERING is an indication of a sick mind. Who that litter is either sick and can’t help it: or an ‘asshole’ that don’t care what they doing to their earth. . . . If I catch you littering my earth anyday, along the way, I’m going to pick it up and shake it in your face. And if you catch me, litering [sic] your earth. PLEASE. I beg you. for your sake. if not mine, pick it up and shake it in my face TOO!!” Neatly typed at the bottom of the sheet is “found on the boardwalk in Venice. California.” This manic sensibility is constantly underfoot: it is Borofsky masquerading order as chaos and. in doing so. conforming to gallery etiquette while seeming to thumb his nose at it.

Politics emerge in a confrontational drawing of an Oriental woman cradling a baby. Taken from a news photo and drawn on an oversize canvas, the image is accompanied by the following caption: “A Cambodian mother holds baby as she waits in line outside a hospital at refugee camp in Sa Kaew Thailand. When she reached a doctor the baby was pronounced dead.” The image side of the canvas is tilted at a 45-degree angle from the floor and balanced on a bamboo pole that meets the crudely rendered sketch like a spear in the center of the mother’s forehead. Borofsky may be dealing in solipsistic narrative. but he knows how to diffuse the narcissism and politicize the autobiography.

Elsewhere—everywhere—are images of occasionally Spock-eared. always pinheaded creatures. They wander over the walls acting as cartoon oracles. are neatly arranged on the floor in the guise of painted rocks. pop up as grotesque portrait busts sprouting light-bulbs. and are transformed into spacemen who pull out of a painted canvas to soar across the gallery ceiling in airy silhouette. They are Borofsky’s angels for the ’80s. Because they are capable of—perhaps dependent on—change they transcend.

Clearly, the project is just barely under control. There are too many automatic drawings too many facile props (a barbecue grill, a used tire, a blackand-white pingpong table), too many shared memos, and too many good paintings posing as careless antidotes to an onrush of horror vacui. Still, Borofsky may be as close to a socially-engaged artist as the Me Generation is going to get. His art is for its audience like no one else’s. And the fact that Borofsky refuses to leave well enough alone is no minor virtue. His discordant rhythms are, like Proust’s. “stitched internally” manifesting a most original commitment to order and a heroic resistance to passivity.

Richard Flood