New York

Jonathan Borofsky

Jonathan Borofsky’s immense influence on so wide a spectrum of contemporary artists (both in this country and in Europe) derives more from the permission he gives himself to do everything imaginable (and from having the guts to do it) than from any identifiable plastic style. He may be the least stylized artist of his generation, or, for that matter, of any of the immediately succeeding ones. His decade-long count to psychic depletion has had an incomparable cumulative effect on recent art, but singling out the specific works that make up that effect remains a puzzling task. Borofsky engages in a ruthless, conscious disruption of any single, synthetic comprehension of his work; his fugue of thematic representations, of symbolic dialectics, is contrapuntal and atonal—every high note has at least one corresponding low one, and there is no melody.

Seeing this show, then, was as usual a scramble for interconnections and meaning, one made all the more difficult by the compaction of imagery (making the front gallery installation nearly impenetrable, both physically and psychologically), and by the overlay of various soundtracks throughout the space. Aural territories surrounded imagistic ones. Separating out the simultaneously broadcast noises was ultimately futile, and the momentary stretches of decipherable sounds were depressing—a crazed, endless recitative of “chatter, chatter, chatter,” or a dirgelike rendition of “I Did It My Way,” for instance.

Tall, painted, wooden stick figures, most of them with motorized jaws, were stationed in the faces of the nine large paintings, or painting surrogates, that made up this dreamscape. Suspended at the center of the room was a dark metal plane showing two almost life-sized grappling men, the thin sheet punctured all over by small circular holes. Beside this, two stick figures were squared off in what looked like an imminent fight. This antagonism of self and other animated nearly all of the physical intersections of significance in the room. One of the two notable exceptions to these struggling pairs was just to the right of the staring duo, where a single white-painted comrade stood alone with a circular light over his head. Small white styrofoam balls also hung above him, pinned together in moleculelike formations, suggesting his singular transcendence—an impression further reinforced by a ceiling-hung curving tunnel of blue neon circles that lit up sequentially. The other single, isolated figure dominated the room in its scale (half again as large as anything else shown) and in its bizarre poignancy. A clownish male ballerina rotated its mechanical left leg over a stage of shattered wooden planes, accompanied by the “I Did It My Way” tape. The obvious transvestism of this ridiculous figure eloquently embodied the hyperconscious ambivalence toward the fate of the artist and his or her art that lay beneath everything here.

Amid this three-dimensional mélange of enigma were two painting/constructions that were more fully realized. In one the long-eared figure that is a veteran Borofsky self-caricature moved against a colored conglomeration of densely packed forms, one of its hands lit from behind. In the other, called Sing, a metal-band profile loops off the top of the freestanding canvas. The painted surface has Borofsky in a bathrobe gesticulating toward a tablet inscribed “Sing,” SX-70 Polaroids of his feet and hands superimposed on the canvas at their approximate anatomical positions. Walking behind this piece en route to the back gallery revealed two speakers, though I could not distinguish what they were broadcasting.

Once in this back room the bombast of the front died away. Small drawings and telephone-side doodles were tacked up across the walls, showing Borofsky’s reflexive penchant for a writhing, carefully shaded and figured drawing style that looks faux-medieval, almost like M.C. Escher’s work. Models of molecules hung from the ceiling, as did a large, translucent, partly unfurled photograph of a windswept man, which was suspended from a fishing rod. A small picture of a sailboat and figure was propped in one corner. Other familiar icons, including videotapes of the long-eared creature, testified to the staying power, the awful appropriateness, of Borofsky’s wide-ranging imagery.

Richard Armstrong