New York

Tony Oursler

It’s a rare body of work that makes the viewer open a mental can of worms, but the broad selection of works in Tony Oursler’s midcareer, almost quarter-century-spanning survey took me in so many directions and so consistently managed to engage, provoke, irritate, entertain, trouble, and seduce me that I’m not sure where to start or how to tidy it all up in words. Babble, a basic element in Oursler’s production, seems the natural reaction to it.

The exhibition’s title, “Introjection,” is the psychological term for a subconscious process by which images are incorporated into the psyche. What the show delivers, in what can only be a unique experience for each viewer, is a mingling of introjection’s fuel and its fruition. Early objects, single-channel videos, and installations owe debts to middle-school plays, fun-house mirrors, amateur animation, folk art, and the Dalí sequence from Hitchcock’s Spellbound, blending these references in a cacophony of fear, innocence, desire, delusion, neurosis, and irony. The later works, for which Oursler is better known, use more recently available technology to deliver on the promise of the earlier works. Tiny video projectors bring dummies to life by projecting filmed faces onto their “heads,” usually rounded forms like those used to display wigs or shape hats. In a tank of water, a bulging-eyed, disembodied head holds its breath, glowing a blue somewhere between that of a swimming pool and the ambient glow of a TV tube. Dummies with their noggins wedged beneath furniture rebuke, threaten, and whine at viewers, who stoop closer or even sit or lie down to listen to the caustic and pathetic ranting. A personality fragments when multiple images of a single babble-spouting face are projected onto side-by-side heads of varied sizes—the main psyche and all the little voices in the nooks of the mind—and elsewhere dolls debate, exchange mania, and commiserate. Enormous eyes blink and watch from the spheres onto which they’re projected; a massive fiberglass skull becomes a screen for a montage of fragmented faces; and assorted figures hang around (literally), voicing concerns, barking demands, and offering speculation about their world.

What makes these works so vital is that they are born of a mind that is truly of the TV generation. Oursler neither poses as critically removed nor expresses the couch potato’s blanket devotion; rather, he is sufficiently intimate with and aware of the medium to understand its complex integration in our lives, for better or worse, and to incorporate it into work that is about our lives. He seems to sense that the critique will form in its own interesting ways—that viewers will voice their own nagging questions without his specific guidance—and in his restraint, he frees the work to ripple outward rather than focus in on a single point. In Oursler’s equation, we and our media become codependent, and that’s a can of worms if ever there was one. It’s been a while since I’ve come across work that could make me laugh and frown, relax and squirm, wax heavy and philosophical, and feel like a kid going through the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland—and that could leave me feeling so amazed, so in love with, and so bothered by the world I live in.

Christopher Miles