New York

Alex Bag

American Fine Arts at P.H.A.G.

Alex Bag's turf in the New York art world is comparable to Ann Magnuson's in the '80s and William Wegman's in the '70s: She is the artist who makes artists laugh, clueing in to their culture while sending it up, in Bag's case quite ruthlessly. Wegman's much loved videos starring his weimaraner Man Ray fed off the studio chat of the day; to pose the dog on a box was to poke fond fun at uncountable discussions of the role of the pedestal in sculpture. Similarly, the lounge act Magnuson once staged in the elevator at the Whitney Museum of American Art seemed to index what happened to art in the glamorous '80s, after a period of idealist seriousness. Bag, in turn, finds targets in the art scene we know and love—though whether or not we still love it after seeing her merciless videos may depend on our native generosity.

Bag's art-world pieces are predictably art-world favorites, but her recent group of C-prints, “Crackup,” 2002, tackles a broader cultural range, moving from the parking garage to the Blockbuster store, from psychiatrist's couch to McDonald's. Each photograph shows one of these spots plus Bag herself, posed and costumed and wearing fake eyes—bulging orbs suggesting both blatant hysteria and Ping-Pong balls. To flesh out these characters, each photograph's frame holds a built-in speaker through which Bag pronounces a few lines of dialogue. The viewer plays this recording by pushing a big, soft, pink button: the audio control as clown nose.

Like the protagonist of Todd Haynes's Safe, but in a different register from that somber film, the characters in “Crackup” are canaries in a coal mine—early warning signs of societal distress. Each of them pursues some gripe or complaint, of varying degrees of severity. A patient is told by her shrink, “I want to start you immediately on morphine for the hopelessness, Prozac for the dejection and guilt . . . and Zoloft for the unbearable sense of dread,” while the Blockbuster visitor is merely involved in a “semantical argument” about the store's promotional use of the word “love.” (Can you “love” a videotape? Can it love you back?) The tone of the images wavers, probably deliberately. The women's bright clothes, exaggerated gestures, and goggling white eyes set up these figures for ridicule, but what they have to say, if sometimes overblown, is also perfectly sensible, at least by downtown logic. A painful pathos, and the outlines of a larger analysis, sporadically peeps through—as in Curb Your Dog, when our champion unexpectedly remarks, “It's these cycles of consumption and waste, and fad and obsolescence, and entire industries based on making you feel ugly and desperate ...”

Still, “Crackup” is blunter than Bag's sharp videos. Cindy Sherman with a sound track, it reads as a performer's experiment in developing an object-based practice. (Even technically, Bag has kinks to iron out: By late in the show's run, some of those big buttons had degenerated to the consistency of Gummi Bears.) I'm sure Bag can take her photographs further, but right now they don't enormously reward repeat viewing, and we miss her active presence. It will be interesting to see what she does next. Both Wegman and Magnuson wound up establishing bases outside the art world, Wegman in a cottage industry of illustrated books and the like, Magnuson in TV and movies. Bag's work is just as accessible as theirs, and she is just as capable of entertaining a larger public with art-savvy ideas.

David Frankel