New York

Gretchen Faust

Pat Hearn Gallery

Gretchen Faust wants her work to encourage what she has described as “the active reinterpretation of the function of mythology in terms of anarchical ontology.” It’s quite a mouthful, and whatever precisely Faust has in mind here, one thing is certain: despite good intentions, there is little that is anarchic about this show. When Faust gave away numbered shovels last year, the action constituted a catchy gesture of potlatch, and she did manage to upset certain routes of exchange. As a rule, however, Faust’s high-toned discourse vainly attempts to compensate for her project’s lack of visual and formal impact, and the work itself frequently falls into narcissistic lyricism. It is pretty, it seems to be politically and metaphysically engaged, but it ultimately delivers little on either of these latter premises.

Exhorting one’s viewership to reevaluate Western myths “in terms of anarchical ontology” is participating in the biggest and baddest Occidental fantasy of them all, whereby the ideal is supposed to determine the quotidian, and we are going to be able to do this reevaluation with our heads alone. Unfortunately, if we are really going to do battle with fantasy (what Faust calls myth), we are going to have to learn to think with more than our heads, and things are going to get messy in the process. Faust’s work is just too neat for the job. The medium, we have long known, is the message, but this artist seems to be able to ignore this shift as much as she is able to ignore the media themselves, even though the media are, in fact, the battleground of contemporary metaphysics.

The “Wall Tattoos,” 1987–90, are the most interesting aspect of the show. With an ice pick, a template, and a hammer, Faust etched extracts from the titles of lectures given at the “Symposium on the History of Art,” that prestigious annual colloquium organized by the Frick Collection and the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, into the gallery wall. If you stand too far away from them, the tattoos are invisible; if you stand too close, they look like incomplete connect-the-dot drawings. Faust succeeds in irritating her viewers by making something difficult to see, but what motivates this strategy? When the viewer manages to decipher these titles and extracts, they are sadly absurd.

My favorite phrases were “RHETORIC AND DECORUM,” “CAPITALIST PRAGMATISM OR UTOPIAN VISION?” and, finally, “AN INVESTIGATION OF VERSIONS.” The seriousness of these titles (Faust has provided us with the full set of titles in a beautifully printed little catalogue) betrays their utter emptiness. The institutionalization of art history has almost managed to ban thought entirely in that discipline, and all the titles ring of exalted art appreciation courses for the privileged and the worthy. They all sound as banal as they do pretentious. Upstairs, Faust showed brass plaques, engraved with excerpts from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and displayed in three luxe boxes that look like an expensive and useless wedding present. Faust’s reading of Christianity is simplistic: she wants to be critical of Western myths and morality, but the work’s physical presentation is all about fetishism. Formally it presents no trace of the artist’s critical intentions and so it relies too heavily on the discourse of critical engagement she propagates. This kind of work is a symptom of a moment in which so much supposedly “politically correct” work seems narcissistically insulated and elitist.

Catherine Liu