New York

Susan Hiller

Pat Hearn Gallery / Nicole Klagsbrun

For her recent two-gallery exhibition, Susan Hiller showed a selection of paintings at Nicole Klagsbrun and a video installation entitled An Entertainment, 1990, at Pat Hearn. The paintings involved the dispersal of various pigments and inks over patterned grounds such as wallpaper; unfortunately they were estheticized to the point of blandness, leaving little to please or to offend the viewer. That, however, was not the case with An Entertainment.

Hiller’s four-channel installation montaged excerpts from a quintessentially English genre of children’s entertainment: Punch and Judy shows. She claimed that she wanted to demonstrate how these puppet shows function as conditioning tools, but wound up doing much more. Typically, snippets featuring, for example, one character beating another and screaming, “Wicked! Wicked! Wicked!” were repeated over and over via fast-paced edits. Slow-motion segments showed the puppets moving with a supernatural grace, while their disembodied voices continued to shriek unintelligibly. (Each new segment began with a voice-over so that viewers could understand what was being said.) Somehow, this technique managed to expose the substratum of violence on which these narratives were built. Crude images such as a puppet being hanged or tossed into the air and simple phrases like “Dirty Baby!” or “Give me back my stick!” took on a weird affective power.

Flanking the dramatic material, at the beginning and end of the program, was footage depicting the less striking framework in which these shows were staged: backdrops, the narrow strip of space in which the puppets move, and, of course, the curtain. This suggested a pairing between the (single-channel) video picture and the proscenium arch. For the installation itself, Hiller mounted four Sony Advent video projectors on the ceiling so that, together, they projected two sets of adjacent pictures in opposite corners of the room—in effect rotating the “arch” 360 degrees. This left the viewer querulously suspended in the middle of the action—an unwitting participant in the Punch and Judy allegories.

Hiller’s piece shares something with works by other artists who reference juvenilia, such as Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, and particularly Bruce Nauman, but it even more vividly recalls the shortlived television program Madame’s Place. This series featured Wayland Flowers’ disconcerting puppet-creation “Madame”—a kind of grandmother in heat. Rouged and elongated to penile proportions, the very form of Madame’s nose and chin smacked of a kind of sexual aggression that her libidinous wisecracks only seemed to confirm. Appearing next to either living actors on her TV series or celebrities like Jerry Reed on talk shows, this puppet emanated a frisson that made real-life seem like a somewhat duplicitous, dowdy construct. Just as Baudelaire found theatrical backdrops to be superior to the academic landscape painting of his day, so An Entertainment by Hiller shows belief in socialization to be largely a matter of faith. The irony is that it is artifice rather than documentary information that effectively brings an audience into closer contact with the Real.

John Miller