New York

Kenneth Shorr

Nancy Lurie Gallery

Kenneth Shorr has a strong sense of the artist’s obligation to speak out against oppression, whether it lurks among political dictators or tyrants of medical science, and an even more powerful voice as a playwright, director, and performer. Chief targets of his visual tirades are acknowledged evils like the Bomb and the Holocaust (Schorr takes the latter as his historical model of the paradigmatic atrocity). More demonstrator than diagnostician, Shorr sifts through preexisting photographic material from the ’50s and rifles texts for quotations to provide the legitimization and intellectual rationale of his work.

Shorr’s strategies of appropriation are themselves over-closely appropriated from contemporaries, so that the look of topical radicality in his work unravels almost immediately into a cluster of references to other media-derived imagery. He is sensitive to preexistent texts, if a bit careless in his use of montage techniques. He has labeled his style “post-atomic primitivism,” which does not justify the crude semiotic juxtaposition in the typing of a quotation from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (also recently borrowed by Sherrie Levine) on the price list of the show. Challenging the idealism and the gesture of Abstract Expressionism, Abstract Emotionalism bore a large photograph of an Admiral television console attached to a sheet across which black paint had been thrown. One must assume that the use of the bed sheet as material constituted an attempt to critique or even to defy the absorption of the artist’s work as commodity. But the tone of this exhibition was so consistently strident that it denied the breathing space that would have allowed for a dialectical position, the possibility of a rigorous argument, or even a compelling condemnation. Slapdash technique provided a correlative to glib sloganeering, and violent splashes of spray paint became as random as some of the appropriation—it looked as though any coalescence into form was accidental.

More ambitious and visually engaging than the sheet works were the panels of mix-and-match photographs, some with spray-painted or oil-stick drawings of unrelated images. In a series devoted to the theme of crowds and power appear repeated images of an eager, foolish crowd waving and waiting (Shorr makes these people out to be patsies, his own victims); of soldiers; and, in a compelling photograph, of an older white woman followed by a tall black African who predictably carries the burden. Although the woman could be any maternal dominatrix, it is in fact Leni Riefenstahl among the Nubians, an ugly reminder of the interface between art and politics.

In a play Shorr wrote, directed, and starred in, The German Thing of the title is identified as an item baked in an oven, puffing up and eventually seducing its consumers before it collapses. Here the artist realized his flair for drama; playing a street-corner prophet, he intoned a lunatic narrative of game shows, cripples, and suicides. In the second part Shorr was again the lead, totally altered as an identifiable, ailing president clad in pajamas. His security men eventually kill a would-be assassin, a German worker whose corpse our president, now metamorphosed into an art collector, discovers to be “fabulous” art.

Streaks of wild humor, carefully crafted language, and even a real sensitivity to society’s unfortunates and to his audience (a sensitivity missing in some of Shorr’s objects) are all evident in the play. In an aside to the audience a security man notes rhetorically that the play could be interpreted as a “brief diatribe in a puerile sophomoric nihilistic farce” or as a “joke popular in Düsseldorf pubs or a plea for complete unilateral nuclear disarmament.” Shorr’s performance play, electrified by the artist’s performance, was all of the above. He created an affecting albeit violent fiction, mocking his own self-importance at the same time that he demonstrated his artful control. Acting out the frustration of attempts to communicate and the need for attention, Shorr repeatedly lunged at the audience with arms outstretched, like a besieging vaudevillian entertainer from whose mouth could come only strangled grunts. The plight of the alienated artist, his incessant verbal and visual attacks, ultimately were more moving and memorable than the carnival trappings of the political statements.

Judith Russi Kirshner