New York

Neke Carson

Helander Gallery

The name of Marcel Duchamp drops out of the mouths of so many unimaginative artists as an excuse for their pseudo-Dada, neo-readymade objets d’art that it’s hard even to like Duchamp anymore. As T. S. Eliot said, every new work of art changes every prior work by making us perceive it differently, and so Duchamp seems weakened when you’re forced to see him through the veil of dull disciples who’ve trivialized and exhausted what were once great ideas. But then there’s an artist like Neke Carson, who doesn’t appear to have any particular thing for Duchamp, yet picks up his baton and runs another hundred yards with it. Rather than produce work that’s academically Duchampian, Carson makes the grand master himself seem academic: his heterogeneous output makes Duchamp look narrow, his fervor makes him look sedate, his humor makes him look horribly dry.

In 1966, Carson opened for Janis Joplin, in a rock band he had formed with comedian and actor Martin Mull; in 1979, he founded “LaRocka,” a New Wave modeling agency; in 1993, he became a regular contributing photographer to the trendoid “Styles of the Times” section of the New York Times. Obviously, Carson has had a variegated career, and this 25-year survey of his art manifests an equally heterogeneous array of work. There are relatively straight paintings, such as his 1986 Portrait of Suzy Krupinski; there are paintings that are relatively straight from the point of view of form but not of content, such as Ordinary Cat, Extraordinary Woman, 1968, which depicts an exotic woman apparently lapping up a pool of vomit puked up by a gray cat; there are paintings that are not straight at all, such as the portrait of Andy Warhol executed in Carson’s “Rectal Realism” style (displayed alongside a photograph that’s as dizzyingly circular as an M. C. Escher print: Andy’s photographing Carson, who, with paint brush lodged firmly in his asshole, is painting Andy’s portrait). In addition to the paintings, the survey includes sculptures, photographs, drawings, performance documents, and memorabilia from “LaRocka.”

Though Carson’s work is so all-over-the-place that it is hard to leave this survey talking about his “evolution,” you do get the sense that his best works are motivated by a sustained prankishness. Baby Lee Dies Prematurely, a 1969 drawing that’s perfectly cute, depicts “the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald when he was about three and Jack Ruby was five,” as the work’s subtitle puts it. A 1973 poster for Art Therapy for Conceptual Artists, a six-week course presented by the “United Painters and Sculptors of America,” proclaims “Learn to work with your hands, not on them.” A “before” picture shows someone burning his hands in a Conceptual art gesture, while an “after” picture shows the same artist sculpting some sort of Neoclassical head. Who’s the butt of this prank? Traditionalists who hold that Art is necessarily an object? Conceptual artists who couldn’t model the Blob from a lump of clay? Perhaps this is Carson’s prescription for avoiding the bastardization Duchamp suffers at the hands of his disciples: offer to teach other artists your principles, but only in order to make fun of them.

Keith Seward