New York

Billy Apple

Castelli Gallery | Uptown

“The psychological dimension has in a sense vanished,” Jean Baudrillard has written, and in general the death of the psychological has been taken for granted in the post-Modern period. Billy Apple’s photographic lithographs—repetitive, passport-style self-portraits—play into the hands of this facile assumption with their own facility. The problem is that their abandonment of “subjective logic” (and the self-trivialization this abandonment implies) is predetermined by their matter-of-fact public style, just as Baudrillard’s assumption is based on a social determinism so dogmatic that it cannot imagine its opposite, cannot allow freedom to take emotional form. Baudrillard thus contradicts the implicit belief motivating his own (and all) theoretical activity: that the truth shall make you free. (“Resistance” begins in the psychological.) This is a failure of dialectical imagination. Similarly, Apple’s informational style implicitly acknowledges his “self”-defeat. And it doesn’t serve his stated intention: to explore, on an individual level, the interface between art and life. Apple’s presumably complex life never makes an appearance within the neutrality of his art style, a kind of deadpan conceptualism. “Life” is leveled into a simplistic image/artifact (the matter-of-fact face) within the completely positivistic style; the dialectic between the two has vanished, as in Baudrillard. And with the disappearance of the psychological dimension, all possibility of manifesting the complex life-world concreteness of the self—and of objective society—has gone too.

Theodor Adorno has argued that “art . . . cannot be divorced from impulse or immediate experience.” Apple has managed to do so, not because he has repressed impulse, but because his presuppositions prevent him from rising to it. The consequence, as Adorno suggests, is the reduction of art to the dubiously esthetic quasi science of social documentary. Adorno argues that the individual is the locus of authentic art, for art achieves its authenticity by making manifest “the fundamental [if fastidiously hidden] fact of society,” namely, “individuation along with the suffering it involves”; but individuation in Apple’s images is purely esthetic, involves no suffering. A manipulated spectrum of color bands simulates the texture of (painless) individuation, adding the seductive fascination of the decorative to the dumb communication of Apple’s ordinary appearance. In the crescendo of banality that results, the “individuality” achieved is completely collective; Apple takes for granted that he socially “belongs,” and his straightforward records of his assumptions indirectly document the shallowness of self this conventionality implies.

Individuation here is a matter of veneer, of mechanically differentiated “overtones.” In this installation it was further minimized by the pairing of the faces, and by their frescolike spread around the walls of the large space, which even the literally ghostlike and fragmentary images haunted only ineffectually. (The post-Modernist position, of course, is that even the most volcanic bubble of radical individuality quickly sinks back into the universal scum of easily communicable appearance. Apple’s fresco functioned as just such a social stream, impervious to “individuation.”) Apple’s lithographs are an up-to-date (i.e., imagistic) example of the simplistic subtlety of Minimalist-type art. The doubling of the self-image, and the generally loquacious use of his face, indicates no more than the availability of the work to be read as trivial information about the artist. It also suggests how “exhausting” such availability can be: Apple’s psychodynamic reality drains away. To convey it would be an unwanted esthetic miracle in this art, an unwarranted breach of esthetic contract and good conduct. No risky, doppelgänger self-recognition here, only a proliferation of self-images, like so many gills in a fishy self which swims through an ocean of information, in which it is another minnow. “Individuality” becomes completely obliterated through its ad nauseum knownness; its image betrays no residue of it, just the timeless dull text that replaces it.

And yet Apple’s redundant face suggests a narcissistic self-fascination, which, however hollow (there is no self behind the face), is sufficiently absolute in its infinite repetition to suggest the psychological—if only in absurdly attenuated, abstract form, as a kind of algebraic emptiness waiting for filler. Subjective logic keeps creeping back, on all fours like the fog.

Donald Kuspit