New York

Michael Corris

American Fine Arts

Michael Corris’ typographic compositions have shown up regularly in group shows over the past several seasons. Operating as witty mnemonics, his arrangements often took on polemical resonance in relation to the seamless field of new objects against which they were presented. Like the acerbic friend you can’t take anywhere but do, despite your better judgment, these works couldn’t keep their mouths shut. Corris’ graphically elegant manipulations of appropriated and original texts persistently veered in the direction of complexity, tactlessly drawing attention to the historical evasions that facilitate successive art fads.

Corris has spent much of his career baiting artistic convention and negotiating the tricky territory between complicity and critique. At the end of the ’70s he abandoned the collaborative cultural activism that had engaged him for nearly a decade as a member of the artists’ group Art & Language, its offshoot publication Red-Herring, and Artists Meeting for Cultural Change. When he began exhibiting as an individual artist, he was responding to a situation in which, in his own words, “conditions favoring collaborative work in art had greatly diminished.” Determined to avoid marginalization of his practice, he abandoned the typographical and textual montages that had preoccupied him since 1980 and turned to straight visuals.

True to his practiced iconoclasm, Corris ultimately can’t resist supplying subtext. Mimicking the rhythm of Lautréamont’s famous slogan employed by the Surrealists (“the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table”), he introduces this show with a single-slogan brief on the state of his art: “The meeting of an administrative form and an image of humiliation on the showroom wall.” The overdetermined press release has become a minitradition of late. Replacing the customary banalities with artfully intentioned provocations, these texts cue the main event in the gallery.

The new multipaneled arrangements are derived from bar graphs that describe economic conditions. Six-inch-deep panels, layered with color and sanded to reveal patches of underpainting, are juxtaposed with cryptic, schematized cartoon images mounted on identically constructed supports. The cartoons depict scenes of abjection before symbolic cultural authority figures. The image repertoire includes a group of suited officials exchanging money, gifts, and bawdy confidences, and being scrutinized by a diminutive onlooker; figures literally “climbing the walls,” in a generic frustration scene; and a whip-wielding coachman driving a human team. The painted panels take on meaning only in relationship to the comic images; as bearers of traditional painterly affect, they are inert. In tandem with the psychologically resonant cartoons, Corris’ surrogates become counterimages—hypericons that would register not only our will to make images but the processes by which the images we make turn into mute conventions.

Corris flirts with the power of the unfettered image in his recent work, but he can’t ditch the anxiety and intellection that are his trademarks. If the work looks a little palid next to the razor-sharp polemics we have come to expect, the record suggests that Corris’ tenacious iconoclasm will prevail—a complex counter is undoubtedly in the offing.

Michael Corris