New York



When did the Bates Motel supersede Bellevue as the locus classicus of madness in America? Is this a paradigm shift? Has the Romantic cult of madness gone pop? If so, did curator Christian Leigh capitalize on this pop madness when he organized a show around Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? “It was my thought,” says Leigh, “that if people come to an exhibition thinking it is about something they already know, then, even if they reject that information, they still have to come up with an alternate reading that is subjective as opposed to a purely formalist one.” In the past, Leigh has used films such as Spellbound, Vertigo, and Rope to contextualize artworks, bringing porno pastiche to curating itself. Presumably, Leigh wants to avoid lame academic subjects like “The Body” in favor of fun things like “Madness” in an effort to short-circuit staid curatorial conventions.

Leigh transformed the Kunsthall by building a room within a room and painting it a deep blood-red (redrum!). The psycho thematics literally became the background for a seemingly delirious mix of artworks. A Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of a lacerated penis faced a portrait by Chuck Close; Roy Lichtenstein’s Mirror Painting, 1972, faced Rona Pondick’s Pretty Bed, 1991–92. How are any of these works “psycho”? A dyed-in-the-wool romantic might impute some madness to their creators, but it seems more likely that Leigh intended to suggest a vague relationship between this “cinematic signifier” and the works exhibited. Certainly, there are some literal references: the bars in Peter Halley’s Prison With Yellow Background, 1986, are reminiscent of the film’s opening moments, where thick, opaque lines advance and retreat to reveal the credits; Louise Bourgeois’ Décontractée (Relaxed, 1990), wherein two severed hands and wrists lie palm-up on a block of pink marble, could allude to a sculpture of praying hands shown in a close-up of Mrs. Bates’ bedroom. However, such simplistic analogies are not as telling as the psychic affinities between the film and the art. Leigh put to good use that alternation of horror and comic relief so characteristic of Hitchcock: right above Bourgeois’ sculpture of mutilated arms hung Andy Warhol’s Happy, 1968, a silk screen showing a smiling Happy Rockefeller multiplied in a grid. Bruce Nauman’s series of screen prints, in which he portrays himself pulling his lips out of shape with his fingers, is at once funny and horrible.

Still, one may ask, unconvinced, why Hitchcock? The answer is not to be found in the exhibition catalogue. In fact, the psycho theme seems to have induced an outpouring of pseudo-psychoanalytic drivel: Leigh’s “Fear of Feelings” propounds the highly original thesis that we are emotionally deadened by the glut of onscreen violence in contemporary film. In other writings, though, Leigh has often explained that his long-standing interest in Hitchcock derives in part from the critical canonization of the director by auteur theory. That Leigh should extol auteur theory is not surprising. His project to make an art of curating is quite similar to the theory’s emphasis on direction in film-making: a collaborative undertaking is credited to the mastermind behind it. For Leigh, however, this does not necessarily become an authoritarian move. After all, he did not drown the gallery in Bernard Herrmann’s famous Psycho music. Such restraint kept the show from becoming the curator’s own Gesamtkunstwerk: he did not kill the works in order to create The Work.

Keith Seward