New York

James Grigsby

N.A.M.E. Gallery

James Grigsby is a Chicago performer whose works are distinguished by precision and polish. Usually highly crafted combinations of narration, movement, and sound compositions, they often achieve a near-perfect balance of ingredients. “Rust Never Sleeps” is not as ambitious a piece as previous ones, yet Grigsby manages to make it memorable despite the lack of music or movement. There were no sets, no costumes, only the artist and a chair; dramatic lighting was provided by Alicia Healy, who followed Grigsby around with a handheld, heavy-duty light, capturing fragments of his face or creating reeling, expressionistic shadows along the walls while he remained stationary. Although never verbalized, the central action of the performance revolved around a cliché: an idle mind is the devil’s playground.

The piece opens with Grigsby sitting and knitting. He announces that he’s begun to knit, repeating the words, with a bored sigh, “around and through, around and through.” He explains that he’s not knitting anything; it’s just a way to pass the time. Suddenly his eyes grow glassy and he starts to recite a lurid passage from a soft-porn novel. Just as suddenly he snaps out of it and, as if nothing has happened, paces the space and resumes talking in a passive monotone about how he used to try reading or going for long walks before taking up knitting. Once again, his eyes roll back and he’s overpowered by the urge to continue reciting from the text of the porno novel, taking up where he left off in the seduction scene. This happens several more times—episodes of nonchalant narration interrupted by trances containing melodramatic and increasingly excited descriptions of a man making love to a woman until “the sweet agony was complete.”

Grigsby’s ludicrous excerpts from the smut book are comical, as is his exaggerated behavior during these scenes, but behind the humor a lonely man grows older and lonelier by the minute, trying to find some way, however pathetic, to escape his dilemma. Sex, of course, is the universal escape route, and solitary sex—compulsive seizures of lust—seems to be this character’s only recourse. Grigsby successfully orchestrates the audience’s response to his persona, which alternates between derision and pity. Without resorting to obvious acting methods or mugging, he has a seasoned stage presence; his work could be considered theatrical, but it is raw and experimental, in that nether-world where avant-garde theater and performance art converge. Is it performance or is it theater? The character he plays is not a fictional role, but seems a personal expression, an alter ego. Only Grigsby’s professionalism makes the work seem theatrical.

Unfortunately, the ending of the piece is weak. Having tried reading, walking, and knitting, the character now speaks of sharpening his knives. “Yet another way to pass the time,” he sighs. “Back and forth, back and forth.” He runs his fingers over a blade stuck in the wall and goes into a final trance, stroking his legs and repeating, “Back and forth, back and forth. Around and through, around and through. In and out, in and out.” The flashlight is quickly moved away and extinguished. We hear him scream. Orgasm? Castration? Suicide? It’s ambiguous—but, like the porno novel, much too sensational. Like Madame Defarge, knitting as she waits for the blade to fall, Grigsby’s character is calm and efficient throughout the piece. Even in moments of pornographic transport, he is measured in his madness. The unexpected hysteria of the ending seems too theatrical—in the conventional sense.

Michael Bonesteel