New York

“Just Pathetic”

American Fine Arts

The pathetic is opposed to the sublime in this show, and according to its own predictions, it fails. The pathetic fails because it cannot stand up to the intensity of the sublime; it is in love with its own failure. “Just Pathetic” tries to show us that today failure becomes, paradoxically, success. Failure is more interesting than success simply because it is more variable and multiple, and the works in this show do, to a great degree, demonstrate this point. Visually, it is a very strong show that includes fine pieces by Georg Herold, Jeffrey Vallance, and Chris Burden.

This, however, makes curator Ralph Rugoff’s catalogue essay all the more disheartening. The terms that Rugoff chooses in describing an esthetic or antiesthetic of the pathetic, such as “limp,” “lame,” “embarrassing,” etc., tend to describe the experience of physical impotence. What Rugoff seems to be referring to is a failure of masculinity. He wants to be a bad boy. He tries to be shamelessly adolescent, voyeuristic, and cynical, but apparently he reads Freud as well as Peter Sloterdijk. He obviously wants to have it both ways: he wants to be bad and good at the same time, just as he would like to have the pathetic fail only to succeed.

He constantly refers to the sadistic, uproarious laughter that overcomes viewers faced with the work that he describes. This hilarity is subversive, according to him, and he refers to antiquity to make his point (Diogenes and Plato make brief guest appearances). He seems to feel that it is truly liberating to give in to our amusement when we are presented with a spectacle of “helplessness,” and he goes so far as to present us with the image of a handicapped person as an example of such helplessness. Now Rugoff obviously aims to make his politically correct parental figures really angry. So much of this catalogue essay seems aimed at inciting the approbation of some Big Other, but then Rugoff tries to turn it all around at the end and make his final demand, like one of Mike Kelley’s stuffed animals: “Love me, I’m pathetic.”

There is something important and wonderful about much of the actual work exhibited. It all is engaged in the exploration of an esthetic of decrepitude and abjection, and the objects in this show do constitute themselves as intense positivities. Even though the artists deviate from the consumer fetish slickness of the ’80s, they do not divorce themselves from art history as Rugoff would like to believe that they do. Arte povera comes to mind here, but arte povera filtered through a distinctly Americanized, Pop sensibility.

Vallance’s My F.B.I. File, 1981, was especially strong in its portrait of the strung-out citizen’s confrontation with the bureaucratic machine of the FBI. Herold’s underwear sculpture on a pedestal was also effective. Kelley’s mournful Ougi, 1990, inspired Rugoff’s best writing in the essay. His reading of the relationship of Americans to their pets, as an example of a “certain social failing,” was one of the curator’s best moments. Burden’s collaged self-portrait, Chris, 1979—an interesting historical artifact portraying the artist as a bearded young man of the ’70s—looked remarkably antiquated.

The show was a pleasure to look at. Rugoff’s adolescent cynicism in the catalogue essay was unfortunate. The sensibility displayed is interesting, but pathetic posturing is just that.

Catherine Liu