New York

David Wojnarowicz

Hal Bromm

Until comparatively recently David Wojnarowicz was best known for his street-art activities (including his involvement in a show on a pier on the Hudson this summer), although he is now emerging as a serious writer. Some of his recent art work is in collaboration with fellow artists Mike Bidlo, John Fekner, and Kiki Smith. With the exception of a few paintings on garbage-can lids, and a selection of brightly colored driftwood “totems” accompanied by an audiotape of jungle sounds, the work here was paint and collage on masonite, the images having been stenciled or drawn in a crude comic strip style. The subject matter ranges from the all-too-familiar standard iconography of the apocalypse (armed soldiers, bleak landscapes) and urban alienation (shooting up), to the homoerotic (sailors and boys’ torsos).

Wojnarowicz is one of several artists whose work currently oscillates between the rough trade of the East Village and the more sober marketplace of the established galleries. The fact that so-called graffiti-style art and related phenomena have now been sanctioned by certain of the art “establishment” raises the question of how a streetwise vernacular translates to the standardized context of the antiseptic gallery space. There seem to be at least two interrelated problems: that of reading, and that of whom the work addresses. My feeling is that the conventional gallery structure remains geared to a slow, contemplative act of reading contrary to the fast and promiscuous glance of the sidewalk. While funky cartoons bearing simple and direct statements are an appropriate form of language in the latter situation, in the gallery not only is the banality of their message rapidly exposed, but the work becomes ossified into an instant archaeology. The credibility of street art seems to derive precisely from the vital, constantly mobile, and contradictory signs of street life.

Wojnarowicz’s attempt to translate his images into gallery pictures is not, therefore, altogether successful. If we turn to his writings, however, we find that they are less illustrative of simplistic social politics and resonate with the far more authoritative voice of lived experience. Sounds in the Distance (1982) is a selection of anecdotal monologues by various “characters” the author encountered in his travels across America. The book is in the best tradition of American “on-the-road” narrative, employing a vernacular speech whose sensitive observations seem to reflect a far more authentic experience of alienation than the artists’ graphic images of forearms and hypodermic needles. The section of Waterfront Journals (1981– ) recently published by Just Another Asshole is one of the best pieces in that magazine’s compilation of artists’ writings; although it relies too much on the style of Jean Genet, while lacking his subtle use of the extremes of degradation as a spiritual metaphor, it reveals Wojnarowicz to be potentially far more powerful as a writer than as a visual artist.

Jean Fisher