New York

Jessica Diamond

American Fine Arts

At first glance, Jessica Diamond’s installation seemed unusually straightforward, especially for an artist whose work has often been seen as being intentionally indecipherable. In a series of works on paper, Diamond has referenced the work of the Japanese conceptual and performance artist Yayoi Kusama, presenting images and text lifted from Kusama alongside her own large wall drawings. Though this inscription of a female and Asian artist can be seen as a commentary on the male-dominated history of conceptual art, the more one learns of Kusama’s life and work, the more Diamond’s invocation of this artist resists a simple reading. Diagnosed as manic depressive, Kusama spent most of her life under psychiatric care; her autobiographical novel Habitual Manhattan Suicide Attempter, 1984, points to her grand artistic project—self-obliteration. Kusama’s “obsessional art” relies on polka dots—tropes for the ego—as building-blocks for her pieces, frequently enmeshing the dots in patterns she dubs “infinity nets.” Often, her objects are entirely covered with phallic shapes made of cloth, and the accumulation of these shapes in an undifferentiated mass merges with the surrounding space to obliterate the surface. Rather than holding out the possibility of arresting the play of signification by claiming the phallus as primary signifier, Kusama creates a chain of signifiers that dissolves into the infinite.

In her installation, Diamond highlighted selected devices from Kusama the polka dots, the infinity nets, and certain phrases, like “My fight starts from now,” and “Every time I have had a problem, I have confronted it with the ax of art”—and reconfigured them in three series of acid-colored drawings arranged in two blocks and a ziggurat on the wall. These contrasted with the large wall drawings, which seemed to be more concerned with the personal and the esthetic than her earlier work. Of the three wall drawings that dominated the exhibition, one was both a mandala and a target painting, configuring an entire cosmology using particular words such as “Jealousy,” “Competition,” and “Enlightenment.” Another presents concentric rectangles of red, blue, and yellow, with a gold-leaf thumb held up as if to measure perspective, and the legend “Mother of Art” written in black across its surface. The third features a black and a white rectangle, one enclosing the phrase “not caring” and the other the words “letting go.” These trite pop-psych phrases are present in other works as well. One, Restoration Pillar (44 Words For Restoration) (44 Words Toward Restoration), all works 1992, contains 44 uplifting words, beginning with “Reconstruction” and “Rebirth” and ending in “Rise,” while in The Double Helix of Art, a silver strand of DNA is inscribed with “chromosomal” dichotomies—“Hopelessness/Don’t Give Up,” “Yes/No/Maybe.”

There is an aggressive superficiality in Diamond’s work, an anger directed at the mindless soundbite, at the pabulum dished out by pop psychologists, television preachers, and talk show hosts. Yet her work does not condescend to those who imbibe TV culture: there is empathy and at times a shared pleasure. In her pastiche, Diamond has reduced both her own writings and Kusama’s to paradigms of the insipid. By removing these bits of information—individual words, short phrases, and images—from the flow of contemporary discourse, she emphasizes the banality we habitually overlook, creating momentary disruptions in the signifying process. Perhaps she looks to Kusama for inspiration because both are searching for modes of resistance, whether through identification or deflection, madness or art.

Andrew Perchuk