New York

Tony Oursler

Diane Brown Gallery

Oozing blobs, leaky vessels, encrusted bits of debris, and mutant bodies have been longtime staples of Tony Oursler’s expressionist universe, a decrepit sci-fi wasteland a la Jean Cocteau, where crude props mingle with magical video effects. Here Oursler’s rich but cheesy theatrical dreamscapes serve as a perfect vehicle for the theme of pollutio—and, in this case, visions of colonial America provide the unexpected twist that brings it all back home.

In a small house of mirrors inscribed with astrological symbols and hex signs, entitled Krypt (all works 1990), a video monitor set amidst flickering electric candles is visible through a star-shaped doorway. The tape presents a dreamlike ramble that touches on subjects as diverse as pollution, chemistry, mind-altering drugs, nature, Americana, and TV. Scenes include a garden of kitsch figurines; a contest, judged by a Chippendale heirloom, in which a Tide box tries to “out-poison” a sprig of berries; and a genie head floating against a psychedelic background, which taunts the viewers. Krypt’s nonnarrative amounts to a delirious invective against progress which hails the “anti-invention” as the ultimate invention. Three of the props from Krypt resurface in a series of shadow boxes set against dark backdrops that combine ornamental designs with landscapes; Tide Box vs. Berry displays the aforementioned contestants, Birthday a model 55-gallon drum inscribed with “5-19-57,” and Anhedonia a giant drug capsule.

The most polemical piece, a floor sculpture called Kepone Drum, consists of another model 55-gallon drum, decorated with colonial American motifs of fruit and nuts, and leaking a simulated spill sculpted from polyester resin. A videotape concealed inside the drum is visible as a reflection in the shiny surface of the spill; the images include a smokestack issuing a Medusa-like emission fashioned from what appears to be strips of audiotape, a shabby little shed that frames a video inset of a screaming face (the artist’s), and a demented fife-and-drum corps, which evokes“ the painting spirit of ’76.” Graphically superimposed over these images are various facts about Allied Chemical and the insecticide Kepone that it manufactured—a story of fatally poisoned workers, rivers turned to waste, and wrecked communities, a story of lies and deceit. Even after the Environmental Protection Agency finally moved to ban Kepone, Allied’s management, who knew it was dangerous all along, tried to forestall the decision with a bad-faith argument for pollution versus unemployment.

Many think of the industrial decline and ravaged natural resources of the United States in opposition to the heroic “good old days” of the American Revolution. Oursler warns us that the two are not entirely disconnected, that the Revolutionary War was an anticolonial insurrection motivated primarily by the drive for economic independence, for what has ultimately become the “freedom” to pollute and consume with little regard for anything but short-term profits.

John Miller