New York

Deborah Kass

Simon Watson

Deborah Kass’ paintings appropriate subject matter from other 20th-century artists, pop culture, and literature. Although diverse, none of the sources are particularly novel. Some of the paintings, in which thinly stained backgrounds in decorator colors are overlaid with the black outline of an exposed and willingly-available-for-abuse female nude, harken disconcertingly back to David Salle. Other works incorporating white drips on empty expanses of black quote Jackson Pollock’s transcendental abstraction directly. Still others are derived from cartoons, naively painted kitschy landscapes, and art-historical styles such as Cubism or Impressionism.

In the painting Hear See Speak, 1990, a panel depicting the baboonlike posterior of a female nude that refers to Salle’s work is combined with two other images. The first is a pair of Victorian women, one with her fingers on the other’s mouth in what might be either a silencing or a sexually suggestive gesture, and the other features a close-up view of mouths framed in eyeglasses rendered in a studentlike painterly style. Since the meanings of the separate images are at best obtuse, the sense of the painting as a whole is implicitly to be found in the disjunction/conjunction between the separate images.

Kass’ horizontal rectangular canvas Untitled (Dumbo), 1990, is divided into two smaller vertical rectangles on the left and one larger horizontal rectangle on the right. The left-most image is a crudely painted night landscape, the next a quasi-cubist image, and the final a continuation of the original landscape but with a large cartoon of Dumbo in the sky. As in all works of appropriation, it is the conjunctions and contradictions, and not the individual symbolism, that shoulders the burden of content. The Salle appropriation is not meant to stand alone any more than are the Victorian women or the image of the eyeglasses. Explored by artists as diverse as John Baldessari, Laurie Simmons, and Tom Lawson, this method’s success depends on pointedness and succinctness.

This connect-the-dots-between-the-different-images approach has developed into the central paradigm of post-Modern meaning making, with results of varying profundity. The claim has been made on behalf of this method that rerepresentation deconstructs the dominant culture, demystifies the mythology of genius, and even sabotages the powers that be. Given the almost infinite number of ideologies that compete on the quicksand playing field of theory, facts would cease to be defined as discrete and solidly identifiable and instead come to be treated as fluctuating and marginal events. It is the combination of one thing with another that can potentially lay claim to meaning; the world is composed of relations, not autonomous objects.

However true this may be in general, the result these suppositions yield in Kass’ case is far from satisfactory. In the absence of a visually sophisticated painting technique and esthetic appeals to metaphoric or transcendent meaning, the raison d’être of Kass’ work can lie only in its illustrative/political content. But what is the message? What glue joins the night landscape, Dumbo, and the badly painted cubist picture? What is the connection between the Salle-like misogynistic image, the ambiguous gestures of the Victorian women, and the painterly version of the skewed eyeglasses? This montage is like a sentence that has lost its verb. It calls to mind the professor’s remark when assigning a failing grade for plagiarism: “quoting is in inverse proportion to understanding.” To be slyly ambiguous is one thing, to miss the point is another.

Dena Shottenkirk