New York

Justen Ladda

Artists' Space

Lifting the curtain, entering Justen Ladda’s environment, standing in the dark and seeing a (painted) yellow figure framed in (painted) cathode rays and adjusting a (real) TV set, daring or wondering if one dare trespass into the roped-off area containing man and (real) armchair, TV set, bed, fireplace, shoes, stove, perhaps even surreptitiously fingering the pots and pans—it would take more effort than it’s worth to shake off a certain guilty thrill in this licensed invisibility. That answers a question raised by the depicted light of the large TV screen that encloses the objects and comprises the overall image: is it cast from the set in the tableau or from some imagined set within the head of each viewer, a screen projected onto every scene like an inevitable lens? Although the black-light blue light seems meant to emanate from the idiot box, it looms too large, seems too precisely screen-shaped for that source.

And it is just the combination of bad conscience and pleasure that makes it plain that we are not watching TV. Television is not voyeuristic; one feels neither hope nor fear while anesthetized. An exception is perhaps the video moments capturing live assassinations, but the sensation of those is closer to horrified powerlessness than guilt. One wishes to intervene, not hide.

I don’t know if Ladda wished to make this distinction—that reality has come to consist of titillation and shame while nirvana is affectlessness. Certainly the monsters in earlier works of his, with their avenging deformities, have represented the former, while his habit of using uniform color or pattern on different planes to “flatten” vision takes care of the latter. It’s an interesting dichotomy, especially if it represents our only choice, but a complicating factor here is the hint of nuclear devastation. With its gray color turned purple through lighting, the environment is porous with the texture of irradiated ash, and exerts the fascination of a Pompeiian dailiness. The fact that Ladda’s earlier creatures, the Thing and the Fly, came into being, according to comic book and film lore, as a result of “scientific accidents,” usually radiation, makes it less farfetched to see this as another nuclear mistake.

But guilty thrills are the province of pornography. Is Ladda underlining the pornography of watching approaching war on the tube? Or just making sure we feel something, anything—pornographic feeling being more reliable than fright these days—so that when the crisis comes we will have the capacity to feel it and, on the theory that feeling leads to action, stop it? What is our guiltiest secret? Not sex, but passivity.

If the figure in this work could easily support a role as interplanetary visitor in an act of mysterious communing, if television is alienating (that inevitable lens) and, instead of making us feel members of one global village, makes us perceive our neighbors as otherworldly creatures in disguise, this particular scene also arouses pity for its sole occupant and his bare sufficiency. Either way, the fiction will not let us intervene.

In the end, the piece is a hybrid of Marcel Duchamp’s peephole (in Etant donnés . . . , 1946–66) and Edward Kienholz’s Sollie 17, 1979–80. The truth is it functions now one way, now another: it’s our screen, it’s his alone; he is a stranger, he is internalized by our charity; he is the image of some distant, dispassionately televised nuclear holocaust, he is each of us as the shadow on the wall, transfixed in the act—and so on.

Jeanne Silverthorne