Alan Belcher

The Japan Foundation

Alan Belcher’s recent show “Private•Language” was a testament to the generative possibilities of hybridity, both cross-cultural and aesthetic. Produced after a residency in Japan last year, much of the work features Belcher’s translations of various writings (the sources of which include Darwin, Napoleon, Diana Vreeland, and the artist himself) into his own highly individuated Japanese calligraphic script. Series such as the “Diary flags”—white twill banners (perhaps meant to recall the Edo flag) bearing Japanese glosses of excerpts from Belcher’s journal—fuse his personal meditations with forms borrowed from Japanese culture; at times a playful arte povera element is thrown into the aesthetic mix, as in “. . . abdominal muscles,” 1998, in which a flag envelops a six-pack of beer. While this isn’t the first time Belcher has made explicitly autobiographical work, he has relinquished the aggressive masochism of his earlier self-portrait voodoo dolls (which came complete with hair and nail clippings and swatches of the artist’s own pajamas) and the 1997 billboard piece in which he appeared, naked, in various poses, with the words “Kill Me” and his phone number listed underneath.

Three other series on view (all 1999) display their Japanese translations prominently: the ’’Empire ceramics“ consist of off-white plates and bowls bearing quotes from Napoleon’s journal; the ”Darwin slates“ are irregular pieces of slate with chalk inscriptions that quote the father of natural selection; and the ”Vreeland lacquers“ comprise darkly lacquered pine boards with pithy sayings from the eccentric style doyenne written in gold ink, including such puzzling insights as ”the bikini is the biggest thing since the atom bomb.“ But the show risks being a little too private by not displaying any English translations other than the cryptic excerpts that constitute the works’ titles (the piece with the bikini quote is called ”. . . since the atom bomb. . . ,“ for example). An accompanying artist’s statement indicates that explanations are only available from Belcher himself—a tantalizing strategy intended to liberate the viewer from the demands of ”getting it" but that obfuscates some of the most delightful aspects of the work for those outside his personal sphere.

The “Friends” series, a set of plush sculptures named after close acquaintances of the artist, requires no translation. Executed in 1996, prior to the Japan trip, each piece combines odd elements—a volleyball, a replica of a gallbladder, a bunch of bananas—into a fuzzy, brightly hued hybrid. Perhaps like the works’ human counterparts, there is no resisting their quirky charm. The “Friends” presage the inventive commingling of cultures and aesthetics, as well as the gesture of homage, that characterizes the Japan series. The writing on one Darwin slate translates as: “Nature causes species to alter. Only those whose mutations are appropriate to their surroundings will prosper.” Perhaps Belcher’s transnational alterations will prove fit in the long run.

Lisa Gabrielle Mark