New York

John Feker

Civilian Warfare

Most messages hit us in the time of the street, the compact, instantaneous, assaultive visual moment offered by car travel or the pedestrian’s rapid scan. To this is opposed the time of the book, or of the artwork as conventionally phrased, each of which presumes a distended, contemplative circuit, capacious in its trajectory. Television and video occupy the former zone; despite their interior locale they have an immediacy, a narrow “frequency” of message alien to the protracted wavelength of the latter. Over the last few years John Fekner’s work has occupied this temporal range, as he has employed spaces ranging from the Bronx to the 59th Street Bridge to the Long Island Expressway (to cite only a few) to hammer out messages about urban decay.

In these projects Fekner’s medium is the stencil; through its sharp letters, emblazoned on billboards and walls, he spews out criticism of industrial hazards, urban destruction, and the cultural degeneration effected by technology. His heuristic strategies encompass commentary (“SOFT BRAINS WATCH THE SCREEN AND BUY THE JEANS”), inquiry (“R U A VIDIOT?”), and denomination (“ATTACK OF THE TOXIC TANKS”), using the conjunction of quick scan and clipped form to pummel out messages of searing indictment. In this rare solo exhibition Fekner brought these tactics to bear in the confines of the gallery, treating the suffocation of sensibility wrought through the media’s steady drone. Large painted-over silk-screens support TV-screen-like horizontal lines, or images overlaid with liquid-crystal lettering. “EVERY NIGHT AFTER SUPPER WE HAVE VIDEO JELLO” reads one caption, painted in putrid atmospheric hues against the Manhattan skyline. In another work a grate of lines and a TV set figured in pink and green are overlaid by the message, “VERY INGENIOUS DEVICES INVADE OUR THOUGHTS.” “TELEVISE MAGNETIZE ADVERTISE HYPNOTIZE,” incants a third, in which the words just keep on comin’ out of a set watched by a goonlike kid positioned up front. And in yet another, a collaboration with Don Leicht, a sort of Red Cross nurse/campfire cutie inquires, with robotic gesticulations, “ENTER SCREEN LAND?”.

In these works Fekner would alert us to the moral, cultural, and physical hazards arising from the “use” of TV in contemporary society; nature or the putative “real” is valorized over the erosions of cultural dross. In this, Fekner’s paintings have much in common with his records, in which cornball lyrics play the apocryphal dreams of the screen against the virtues of city streets. In songs like “2 4 5 7 9 11,” for example, Fekner presents a rather familiar imperative (“So kids get away from the glow of the set/There’s so many things you haven’t seen yet”) which depends for efficacy on imbricated musical time; in isolation, detached from the whole, the words are dopey drone. The simple phrasing of Fekner’s painted messages can’t withstand the protracted viewing of the gallery situation. The works are either too undeveloped to spur the message into mental effect, or too belabored to have the impact of street signs. You can, after all, savor the strategies of presenting semaphoric structures, thus elaborating time to its contemplative limits; it’s the tacky, arty, or unresolved element that shortens the temporal reach. And Fekner’s paintings indicate an incomplete transition to their interior locale: somewhat arty, somewhat fussy, always too conscious of their chosen mission, they present the medium as languid massage.

Kate Linker