New York

“Synesthetics”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

“Synesthetics” was an ’80s version of the ’70s phenomenon variously known as “story” or “narrative” art. Back then, my feelings about this incorporation of words into pictures was as mixed as its media and motives: as a writer and reader, I was thrilled to see actual language infiltrate visual art, but as a farsighted reader who requires glasses to read type, glasses that render images blurry, I often genuflected at the reading wall in a gallery more out of a sense of dutiful respect than out of any real excitement at the actual results. “Synesthetics,” however, exerted an extra pull through its parallel with the current collaboration craze in the performance world, a twist that for me distanced the show somewhat from earlier conceptual word art. Yet aspects of its predecessor inevitably surfaced. And no matter the claims made for its “unlimited” possibilities, this “innovation” is prone to come off as a gimmick.

The show paired 16 artists with 16 writers, and the products are the mixed litter you’d expect from such an anthology of shotgun unions: some winners, some runts, and quite a few unremarkable but amusing offspring. Those visual/verbal units that best succeeded achieved a balanced resonance between the two very different modes. In Cassandra, 1985, for example, Richard Hambleton created a wall-sized painting of a turbulent beach. Cutting through the painting is a black stripe, looking like the shadow of the scroll that hangs about a yard in front of the canvas. The text, by Shaun Cailey, is an equally stormy tale filled with references to “Michael De Sadie,” “Angela/Angela Davis,” and “Cassandra.” For once, this kind of go-for-broke trompe l’oeil bombast is confidently daring.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum were Nancy Spero’s Grecian-style friezes illustrating 13 Sapphoesque fragments by the poet H.D. The mood of this quiet meditation is subdued but intense. Jim Jarmusch’s text and Peter Halley’s visuals form a slide show which reads like and resembles an illustrated nouveau roman: sequences of paragraphs about alienated sex and death are projected beside solarized, Day-Glo photographs of contemporary scenes—a hotel room, a café—which have clear but not overexplicit connections with the stories. Despite its modest technology (two slide projectors), the work makes a strong case for a new minor form: the slide short-story show. Francoise Schein’s multihued banners with a few scattered stenciled slogans on them look like giddy objects at first, but a closer look at Siri Hustveldf’s accompanying diarylike fantasy writing, with a disaster-movie scenario, reveals the inspiration for their shape—the map of Manhattan. A similar, more pungent connection is made by Gary Indiana’s mounted typewritten MS relating a series of scabrous adventures, seemingly autobiographical; these are punctuated by obscure quotations and crackpot ravings. Four related paintings by Komar and Melamid intercut pornographic images from the stories—a cucumber jammed in a vagina, a woman peeing in a lion’s mouth—with two scenes of scientific research done in the artists’ ironic socialist style.

These probing collaborations were set off by some that fell flat through strained efforts at “unusual” formats. The clichéd mysticism of Andrea Gallard’s watercolor of a skeletal figure with a phoenixlike bird stirring within its ribs is further tilted toward overblown murk by Reese WilIiams’ superheated prose. James Kling’s doll house model of the White House with “word rugs” of repetitive individual words by Raymond Federman is insignificantly symbolic, as is Raquel Rabinovich’s poem set in portentous capital letters strung out over Luisa Valenzuela’s dingy rag paper. In some collaborations individual efforts were pulled off, but didn’t quite gel with their partner. I like Mekki Schmidt’s multipanel graphic of black twisting bodies roiling in white space, but Madison Bell’s competing graphics—rows of oriental-style characters over additively structured illegible scrawlings—makes a puzzling contrast with them. And Susan Etkin’s inky body marks—feet, hands, butt, breasts—are hardly illuminated by Alan Jones’ printed brochure filled out with theoretical assertions about body art from Pompeii to Yves Klein.

Finally, some works fell into the mildly curious category, among them David Wojnarowicz’s and Kiki Smith’s diptypch of personal letter and photograph, Ted Victoria’s rotating maps and radar graphics accompanying Sanford Kwinter’s Scientific American-style prose, Toyce Anderson’s window-frame setting for a page from a Toni Morrison novel, Suzanne Jackson’s Kafkaesque tale written on three cardboard tubes hung beIowa Joseph Nechvatal drawing, Larry Johnson’s fractured letters hovering above Richard Prince’s appropriated ad imagery, and Stephen Campbell’s painting of a heroically gesturing businessman coupled with Michael Backus’ opaque prose. All in all, “Synesthetics” made no strong or coherent case for verbal-visual artwork, but it did offer the usual group-show pleasures of a few provocative objects amid the clutter.

John Howell