New York

Chris Burden

Christine Burgin Gallery

Chris Burden’s self-destructive performances of the early ’70s left themselves open to virtually any interpretation, or to none. Unwilling to do anything more complex than play out his preoccupation with violence, he inadvertently freed his work to become a form of apocalyptic poetry for a generation that felt little affinity for art, and none at all for the gallery system. Performed seminude in private and recorded for video consumption, pieces like Shoot, 1971—in which Burden took a .22 caliber bullet in the arm—and Through the Night Softly, 1973—in which he crawled through broken glass in his underwear—met the esthetic needs of then-emerging punks, and helped to spur on similarly extreme and casual performances by younger West Coast artists like Mark Pauline, Monte Cazazza, and Johanna Went.

In the late ’70s, Burden tired of his notoriety and began producing low-key political statements in the form of installations of war toys. These statements have proven to be as unfocused as his old threats to leave the art world the hard way, and draw much of whatever strength they have from the clunky conscientiousness with which he observes traditional rules of presentation. A Tale of Two Cities, a characteristic tableau from 1981, transformed a room of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art into a sandbox in which two complicated toy cities seemed poised for mutual annihilation. The work looked like art because it was roped off from the public; but it didn’t feel like art, because its antiwar message was so blatant.

The work shown here, All the Submarines of the United States of America, 1987, was his most prepossessing piece in several years. Installed in this gallery’s comfy, bedroom-sized space, 625 miniature cardboard-and-styrofoam submarines dangled on transparent threads, forming an 18-foot-long, submarine-shaped clump. Aimed, perhaps unwittingly, at the gallery’s reception desk, they seemed to sideswipe a wall on which the names of all the submarines in the U.S. fleet had been printed in slightly smudged plain block letters. The heavy-handed message was nicely contradicted by the work’s physical gentleness, with “toys” having been given the blanched color and consistency of falling leaves.

As pretty and spooky as Burden’s balancing act was, the work’s political impact was slight. Back when he had himself nailed to a Volkswagen or shoved live wires into his bare chest, his pieces could seem like the product of wild-eyed genius or like the remnants of a psychotic episode, depending on how romantically attached you were to the idea of suicide. Now that he seems to know exactly what he’s trying to say, his works are too agreeable to elicit much.

Dennis Cooper