Los Angeles

Allen Ruppersberg

James Corcoran Gallery

The title of Allen Ruppersberg’s exhibition here, “Art Rolls/Head Rolls,” is a matrix of double meanings and deadpan puns. In this it is like much of Ruppersberg’s work since the early ’70s, and like the installation itself. Still, the second half of the equation is concrete: a hundred cast-cement heads are scattered––rolled—across the gallery floor. Starting rather unnaturally around the Adam’s apple, they are neither masks nor busts; they are severed heads, as in “heads will roll.”

Three paintings, one a diptych, frame the field of severed heads. Each bears a newspaper clipping—or rather an image that is both a representation and a reproduction of one. The clippings have been copied by hand in pencil, letter by letter, then enlarged and silkscreened onto the canvases. Beneath them are large titles; the title of Art is printed in helvetica bold, while that of The Human Figure is done in “brush script,” a lettering style that often appears in posters and advertisements with a hand-painted look. At the bottom of each work is a caption in a sans serif medium type, “Translated by Allen Ruppersberg.”

Still Life, the diptych, shows an account of a man hired by a friend to kill his mother. The headline reads “Young Killer’s Price: $10,000 Classic Coupe”; continued as if torn from another page, an interior head runs “MURDER: Killer’s Price.” The two parts of the article are presented twice in each of the canvases of the diptych, doubling a doubling, and the hired killer in the story is a double too, a stand-in for the victim’s son. Lettered in red spray paint, the title, Still Life, is repeated almost drip for drip in each panel. Ruppersberg’s repetition pulls any emotion or immediacy from the act of painting, and in any case the script has already been doubled; like the titles of the other works it is in a “designer” face, a style used in printed media to connote graffiti.

With his pointed titles Ruppersberg makes it clear that art’s function and the artist’s pose are among his subjects, that the first part of the installation’s title is to be read “Art Roles.” His paintings, with their tales of violence and death, are surrogates for a certain brand of expressionism, the deeply felt expressions of helplessness and concern that purport to make meaningful the chaos of modernity. “Translated by Allen Ruppersberg” is their uncomfortable and embarrassing signature; it is the artist’s signature, a declaration of self, self-advertising in fact, yet it is a signature that is not signed but screened. And translated from what to what? The doubling of Still Life suggests Robert Rauschenberg’s doubled Factum I and II, and his paired domains of life and art. The clippings illustrate the process: Ruppersberg does not simply reproduce them but redraws them, hand-fashioning each letter as though to feel its weight, to perceive it slowly in the language of his medium—and, in so doing, to take it from life into art, and reveal its truths. That is the translation Ruppersberg’s signature claims he has performed, yet with the same signature he condemns it as not original, self-serving, something of a placebo. The method fails in part, Ruppersberg suggests, because the translator’s signature overwhelms the text.

Around the clippings and titles the paintings are supplemented with commentary in marking pen. Here is Ruppersberg’s handwritten—unscreened and formally unmediated—voice: “The great contradiction between personal experience and social patterns.” “In the right hands, fear is the deadliest weapon of all.” “Family as the source of the monstrous.” Against the newsprint facts and the redrawn translations the commentary is an attempt at conscious, studious understanding, at forging a causality. But even Ruppersberg’s understanding is a collection of quotes, being by turns scholarly opinion, aphorism, and cliché. These are not solutions but more script.

Murder, the subject of Ruppersberg’s script, has a paradoxical relationship to life; it underlines the reality of existence even as it ends it. The act of killing affirms the fact of life. But Ruppersberg’s criminals are self-conscious, his crimes committed by surrogates on preordained victims. The matricidal son and his hireling murder for matching sports cars; a writer who is not a killer poses as a bank robber to relieve the fictionality of both his fiction and his occupation. The final pun, the last case of mistaken identity, is the actor’s role.

The unavailability of life runs through Ruppersberg’s paintings. He is a self-conscious artist, who paints surrogate, doubled paintings of surrogate murderers. The well-taught lesson is textuality; the clippings are presented as meaning and as mediation in objects ironic about their own mediated failure. The lesson ties Ruppersberg’s work to much of what for convenience’s sake has been labeled Post-Conceptualism, but his work is less strategic, less elegant, and, not coincidentally, more in earnest. Finally, the difference is that for Ruppersberg language is benign—as though it were being fooled rather than doing the fooling.

Howard Singerman