New York

Christopher Wool

Christopher Wool’s painting is synonymous with major attitude, so much so that his new “FUCKEM IF THEY CAN’T TAKE A JOKE” paintings seem immediately and perhaps overly familiar. Indeed, talk on the street has been along the lines of “enough already, we’ve heard it too many times”—a reaction his stiffly stenciled, vehement retorts seem eagerly to have anticipated. While the rancorous flippancy remains darkly adversarial, and the bent of the black-and-white-lettered text is still provocatively industrial and illiterate, the voice has gotten a lot louder and much more combative. Whether or not it’s the painting that’s doing the talking, or Wool himself, the suggestion of simmering violence in the texts of earlier works—“TRBL,” “AMOK,” “TERRORIST,” “RIOT,” and “HELTER SKELTER”—is now absolutely overt. What was once internalized and passively discursive is now an actively abusive and goading address to the viewer: “IF YOU CAN’T TAKE A JOKE, YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE” and “HOLE IN YOUR FUCKIN HEAD” are phrases obsessively repeated with slight variation in a large series of 1992 paintings, only a sample of which were exhibited.

Despite the malice of the verbal foreplay, the frequent “if/then” construction of Wool’s phrases mitigates the nature of barbs like “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE,” suggesting, albeit indirectly, that behind the nihilism there exists a certain defensive vulnerability. Such tough-guy palaver suggests that “fuck you” follows the fear of no fuck at all. Similarly, the idiomatic expression “FUCKEM IF THEY CAN’T TAKE A JOKE” designates a shifting of blame, indirectly acknowledging complicity in some wrongdoing. Implied in both colloquialisms is an “I don’t need you” attitude that very often also functions as a verbal disguise for “I do need you,” a subtext that reduces the range of negotiability: you could still like it (me), or take it as a joke (i.e., give me another chance), and things presumably would be O.K. but it’s up to you, not me, to make amends.

Such rhetorical ploys figure prominently in passive-aggressive behavior, but how do they function in the realm of painting, rather than of human relations? Let’s backtrack. What’s the joke? What’s transpired that we don’t like? What requires so much defensive posturing, and what’s really being said when Wool tells the viewer, over and over, to fuck off? Quite likely, the viewer wants something from Wool (or his painting) that he’s either not prepared to deliver or wants to but can’t. The market ensures its desires will be met by placing the onus to change, to seduce, and to entertain on the artist: such criteria are essential to assessing the value of an artist’s production. In this arena, very little leeway is afforded the artist who refuses to perform. Insult us all you want because we can take a joke, but just who is ultimately in a position of power is never really in question. It’s mutually understood that we will “get out of your house” if you fail to satisfy our desire, and it is we—not you—who call the shots. Wool might recognize the necessity of accommodation, and even satisfy market demand with these seductive, tough-guy poses, but he probably also knows that even the baddest attitude eventually loses its sex appeal, and that today’s outlaw is rarely tomorrow’s hero. All of which, no doubt, only adds fuel to his flame.

Jan Avgikos