Los Angeles

Chris Wilder

Linda Cathcart Gallery

Snot-nosed yet affable, young and bored to death, the character Chris Wilder broadly sketches in his latest outing enjoys swap meets, the Butthole Surfers, thinking about bugs, and watching daytime television. As personas go, his is not entirely unattractive. The problem is that Wilder doesn’t lend the sketch much detail; he doesn’t describe so much as broadcast what’s already a threadbare stereotype. Compiled from an array of abject artifacts, such as brightly colored fake-fur pillows and shag-carpet toilet-seat covers, Wilder’s work avoids the look of self-important art, suggesting instead a Romper Room for disaffected youth (CD-player and TV set included). We’re meant to regard this scene as the artist’s natural habitat, a teenage hangout-cum-science lab where cheap gags are invented out of cultural backwash. But Wilder is so anxious to impress us with his bad-boy self, he emphasizes the pitch at the expense of the product; as a result, his work feels affected and insubstantial.

Art that is naughty but ambitious—art that advertises its unwillingness or inability to be correct, to right wrongs, or to dispense critiques (“art for teenage boys,” as the marketing firm of Pruitt • Early recently pegged it)—is suddenly in demand. For Wilder, too, feigning adolescence is a way of opposing himself to both art-world professionals and finger-wagging do-gooders. He’s the brattiest of outsiders, the nontranscendent kind; unlike the shaman or outlaw, the reason he doesn’t belong is that he’s too immature, uncommitted, and ineffectual. As if to drive the point home, Wilder’s Entertainment Center, 1991, includes a tape deck that plays a loop of the artist reciting a seemingly endless wish list: “I wish I had a yard, I wish I had a dog. I wish I were a dog. . . .” Not compelled by any adult vocation or cause, Wilder instead devotes himself to daydreaming; there are plenty of distractions in his show (images of skeletons, ominous-sounding molecular compounds), but no focus.

Wilder further distances himself from the role of productive cultural worker by phrasing most of his boyish preoccupations in the past tense. Whole Lotta Love (A Flame Still Burns For Led Zeppelin), 1990, consists of a huge white candle in an ultratacky holder; here a fitting symbol for power rock’s glory days is found in a piece of thrift-store merchandise. The freshest works on display—a trio of flocking-on-aluminum pieces titled Marooned I, II and III (all I991)—feature woodcut images of castaways, figures with whom Wilder obviously identifies. Except Wilder fancies himself more Gilligan than Robinson Crusoe, more oblivious than disoriented—lost because he inhabits a world he can’t bring himself to take seriously.

Clearly Wilder wants to snub “high-mindedness” and “correctness,” but it’s just as clear he’ll do anything—appropriate any seemingly “low-brow” or “incorrect” material or imagery—to achieve his end. Which begs the question: If Wilder doesn’t care, why should we? What warrants our paying the work more than the condescending attention he does? The point isn’t that flocking or toilet-seat covers are intrinsically petty; the point is that, in this show, they’re made to serve an incredibly petty aim: the desire to teach the teachers a lesson. With outsiders like Chris Wilder, who needs insiders?

Lane Relyea