Los Angeles

Kenneth Shorr

Fahey/Klein Gallery

The problem with most so-called post-Modernist work is that it merely ends up stating the obvious, busily demythologizing spent dogma while remaining blind to its own hidden reifications. This is precisely the plight of Kenneth Shorr’s recent work—collectively titled “The Nostalgia of Meaning.” Here he seems to belatedly arrive at the by now commonly accepted notion that the artwork is a contingent text, the meaning of which is inherently deferred and incomplete, instead of using this perception as a starting point for a more penetrating self-critique.

Shorr explores the dialectic between the seeming objective referentiality of photography and the highly emotional subjectivity usually attributed to the medium of painting. Each canvas consists of heavily worked layers of gold, red, and purple pigment, in which biomorphic and torsolike forms float against more physically dynamic areas of drips and splatters. The painting’s discreet two-dimensionality is disrupted by cutout circles of grainy, sepia-toned photographs, which float on the picture’s surface. The photographs consist predominantly of appropriated images from 1950s nudist magazines. Read through the emotional rhetoric of the paint, the photographs lose their cool documentary quality and evoke instead a more sinister, ideological agenda. Thus, in Twilight Slumber Gas, 1990, a small circular inset of nudists is juxtaposed with a larger photo of a reclining pregnant woman—her stomach and face covered by white cloth. Surrounded by painted abstract forms variously resembling a shark, a submarine, human bones, or microorganisms, the photographed figures seem ominously doomed, suggesting concentration camp victims of forced labor programs and illegal medical experiments. In Night and Fog, 1989, a seemingly benign close-up of a nude woman hiker is set against a blurry, painted ground that graduates from silver-gray to pink (blood?) as one reads the canvas from top to bottom. The title is taken from Alain Resnais’ documentary film on Nazi death camps, and the combination of text, photographic image, and painted backdrop generate meaning that exceeds the sum of the work’s simple parts.

The weakness of Shorr’s strategy stems from the fact that the photographs themselves can be easily deconstructed without the painterly juxtaposition. The title Night and Fog is sufficient to encode the image of the nudist hiker with notions of systematic mass murder and torture in the name of scientific rationality. Similarly, in History Lesson, 1990, the same hiker image along with one of a classroom of nudists effectively connotes the sheeplike conformism and morbid self-victimization not only of the subjects of this particular representation, but of anyone who accepts “history lessons” including Shorr’s as fixed truths.

The impasse of Shorr’s semantic (dis)closure may have been broken had his paintings been less readily classifiable as cliched expressionism. As they are, however, they constitute an opaque language system, as easy to circumscribe and label as any style that has worn out its historical welcome. Shorr paints parodies of expressive painterly spleen that deconstruct themselves without any need of photographic parentheses, Perhaps the real target of Shorr’s investigation should be the painting/photograph juxtaposition itself, which like any other simple binary opposition that serves as a convenient structural support, is a subject ripe for demythologization.

Colin Gardner