New York

Carter Kustera

Josh Baer Gallery

The vital impetus behind Carter Kustera’s art is assassination. In 1991 the artist killed off his former self (Kevin Carter), and the ensuing funeral served as a sort of social debut for his current self (Carter Kustera). In 1992 he titled a show “Domicide” and aimed heat lamps at a life-size wax sculpture entitled, appropriately enough, The Disappearing Family. So what did his new show, “Based on a True Story,” have on its hit list?

Each of Kustera’s new works gives physical form to a story that purports to be “true.” However, these stories vary widely in their credibility: Based on a True Story #12: Mass Hypnosis: Rodney King/L.A. Riot, 1992–93, deals with a story that most would agree to be “true,” although open to interpretation; Based on a True Story #10: Frozen Disney, 1992–93, incarnates the story of Walt Disney’s cryogenic suspension, which most of us would agree to be apocryphal but not entirely implausible; Based on a True Story #8: Snake Swallowing a Vacuum Cleaner, 1992–93, is as credible (or not) as anything in the Weekly World News; Based on a True Story #15: Death of a Signature Book, 1993, commemorates Kustera’s 1991 funeral, adding a personal “true” story to the show. By permeating “Based on a True Story” with both the credible and incredible, Kustera eviscerates the phrase of any real meaning. But is this just another critique of Truth?

The centerpiece of the show was a mixed-media installation comprised of two parts: Based on a True Story #3: Captive Audience—Sea of Heads, 1992–93, displayed a hundred or so brightly painted heads, fixed at the neck in a fabric sea, staring at Based on a True Story #14: TV Talk Show, 1992–93, a shabby, used-furniture version of the stereotypical talk-show set. On the host’s desk stood a mug emblazoned “CKTV,” and a monitor in which Kustera’s head spun in a clockwise direction as it emitted expressions of feigned interest. Every few minutes, Kustera broke for commercial messages created mostly by other artists (e.g. Lou Gallagher’s and Richard Drutman’s funny promo for “Kennedy TV”: JFK, Jackie O., and the rest of the gang—all day, all night). In one guest chair sat another monitor in which a succession of painted heads identical to the ones in Captive Audience were subjected to a sort of character assassination. The appearance of tag lines such as “Sara, 13, is a prostitute,” “Dave claims he ate victims,” and “Mary had a botched nose job” were greeted by the vociferous outbursts of a laugh track and the stony silence of the sea of heads. Whether these tag lines are in fact true is less significant than the way in which a rhetoric of the true is able to make the mean, the outlandish, and the violent all the more captivating. If “Based on a True Story” is an assassination attempt along the lines of Kustera’s previous shows, its object is less some Platonic ideal of Truth than the exploitation of truth value. The audience in this work is captivated, but the laugh track does all the laughing.

Keith Seward