Los Angeles

Jim Shaw/Benjamin Weissman

Linda Cathcart Gallery

A self-reflexive, 45-panel, comic-strip-style narrative, Horror A Vacui, 1992, Jim Shaw and Benjamin Weissman’s recent collaboration, explores Western materialist culture’s fear and exploitation of the vacuum or void. Despite the best efforts of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, et al. to deconstruct Cartesian binaries built on presence and absence, capitalism, through the compensatory commodity form, has an intrinsic stake in perpetuating libidinal desires predicated on fulfilling a primal lack. Desire’s constant deferral, reinforced by the Freudian death drive and Oedipus complex (whose castrating Law both constructs and exploits the ultimate fear/punishment of the phallic void), lies at the heart of the Western psyche. Whether it be the painter’s fear of the blank, unpainted canvas, or the public sector’s obsession with filling “dead air” with Muzak, the horror of the vacuum simultaneously feeds and controls our every desire and its necessarily provisional fulfillment.

Shaw and Weissman’s project expands this cultural critique to the narrative form itself, specifically to the conventional realist text’s drive toward structural cohesion and narrative closure. Every story begins with a lack (money, love, a body, a murderer) so that each character and plot device can subsequently play its allotted role in developing and ful_fill_ing the needs of the narrative whole. The artists’ tale consists of three intercutting, parallel narratives that begin as separate entities but ultimately converge in a sublimely contrived denouement.

A serial killer conducts his operations according to the grid of the Thomas Bros. Los Angeles street guide. Posing as a realtor, he fills up the map of the city (his personal metaphoric vacuum) like a checkerboard, picking up his victims in the odd squares and dumping them in the even ones. Meanwhile, a young man working in movie special effects—building a woman who, like a vacuum cleaner, sucks her husband into oblivion—discovers that he’s incurably dying of cancer because of all the fumes he’s inhaled at work. The bodily “void,” filled by a deadly neoplasm, acts as an inverse structural parallel to the contraption he’s building for the film. He decides to commit suicide. The third player is a brilliant, rhyme-talking chemist who is apparently developing a new fuel-to-air explosive that sucks the air out of the victim’s lungs (another vacuum). He scribbles formulae on his hand like a schoolboy. He, of course, becomes the serial killer’s next victim, but the murderer is apprehended when his van runs headlong into the F/X man, who happens to choose that very moment to jump from a freeway overpass into his path. The cops investigate the accident and discover the chemist’s body in the backseat. The strip ends with a close-up of the scientist’s formulae-covered hand, a gaping wound oozing blood.

The narrative, which has structurally metacommunicated a story about the destructive nature of creating and compensating for vacuums, has itself inescapably produced one by the very act of concluding. Shaw and Weissman’s theory of production is thus less a Marxist paean to labor as creative self-realization than a defamiliarization. of the orthodox Lacanian “Imaginary.” The vicious cycle of lack and stopgap compensation becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy, beginning a new productive cycle of absence/presence. Thus: a blank sheet of paper, a review to write, an exhibition about fear of vacuums . . . .

Colin Gardner