New York

Lucas Samaras

The Pace Gallery | 508 W 25th Street

Writing for the catalogue of a Lucas Samaras retrospective at the Denver Art Museum, Thomas McEvilley remarks that certain words in the critical literature on Samaras recur with singular insistence: menacing, threatening, malign, and malevolent, as well as solipsistic and narcissistic. Aside from making a veiled gibe at the tendentious sameness of the criticism, McEvilley argues that the artist’s protean visual intelligence is nonetheless coiled intransigently around a few big themes. McEvilley rejects the reductive univocal hermeneutics of the prevailing critical vocabulary, but still comes to the conclusion that obsessiveness is at the heart of Samaras’ nasty, resplendent art. This obsessiveness enforces a degree of interpretive homogeneity on an otherwise extremely heterodox body of work.

Samaras freely indulges the agonies and ecstasies of the self, working a series of necromantic and chthonic transformations that deform and liberate the subject. Material and psychic obsessions are continually molded and inflected by strategies of revelation and concealment: one is always aware of something hidden, of a forbidden subject (usually one incorporating either sex or violence or both), which is nevertheless gleefully put on display. One might say that Samaras is frank about his secrets. The play of revelation and concealment is self-evident in the very structure of his boxes, 12 of which were on view at Pace Gallery. These are quintessentially works between painting and sculpture; through them, Samaras plays on the polarities of outside and inside, brilliant surface decoration and volumetric form. The boxes here were all displayed open, but even in this vulnerable, splayed condition they preserved a grain of inaccessible interiority. Encrusted with colored stones, fake gems,buttons, and medallions, the boxes successfully resist any totalization of vision. Samaras is at home with the Surrealist convention of discontinuous reference, as in Box #111, 1984–87; the piece is a kind of portable altar in which the artist’s shamanlike photographic visage (a leitmotif in the boxes) presides over a polychrome head of Jesus and a spitefully cheery fishing lure. The gaudy lure both echoes and ridicules Jesus’ bloody crown of thorns.

At Pace/McGill Gallery, Samaras showed Polaroid still lifes and self-portraits from the past 15 years. These photographs evince manias of accumulation and display similar to those manifested in the boxes, but in the autoPolaroids, the artist’s own body becomes the site of mutilation and transformation. In one, Samaras appears naked, sitting cross-legged amid his photo lamps; a penumbra of magenta scrawl marks seem to be gradually consuming his body. This photographic persona becomes an arena of seduction and self-aggression.

Perhaps the cynosure of this mini-retrospective is Mirrored Cell, constructed at Pace from plans drawn up in 1969. The piece is furnished with a mirrored bed, table and chair, chest, and toilet—it makes an ideal home for the artist’s predatory and voracious experimentation. Upon entering it the viewer is fragmented and dissolved into an infinity of self-reflections, simultaneously glorifying and negating the individual subject. This aspect of Mirrored Cell underlies almost all of Samaras’ art, an art that necessarily must be two conflicting things at once or nothing at all. We might add to McEvilley’s characterization of Samaras criticism that it is always a description of opposing currents allied: seductive and menacing, inviting and assaulting, the indulgences of the self and the self’s obliteration. Samaras’ art lives on the razor’s edge of such antinomies.

David Rimanelli