New York

AA Bronson

John Connelly Presents

For twenty-five years, AA Bronson lived and made art as part of General Idea. The Canadian trio mimicked and mutated mass-cultural forms from beauty pageants to boutiques to glossy magazines, always returning with vertiginous glee and cutting irony to the intricacies of creating an identity in a media-saturated society. Bronson’s work since the 1994 AIDS-related deaths of Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, his two partners in GI, has become more personal and less sportive: The most powerful image in the 2002 Whitney Biennial was his deathbed portrait of Partz, and in an interview published this year in arts journal Border Crossings, Bronson said, “There’s no longer any irony in my work.”

How, then, to take Bronson’s latest project, which centers on the giggle-inducing notion of butt massage, as a healing act no less? Per Bronson, one keisters away deep shame and trauma like drugs during a strip search, and his techniques, certified in the state of California and honed over a year and a half of professional practice, can help release it. Male visitors to the gallery were encouraged to make appointments for before- or afterhours sessions in the “private healing facility” that formed the show’s centerpiece. This pipe-frame cabana houses a massage table covered in red bandannas, a rack of fluffy, tightly rolled red towels, speakers broadcasting a soothing sound track made in collaboration with composer Andrew Zealley, and accoutrements including paper towels, vinyl gloves, breath mints, a nebulizer to perfume the air, and a coffee warmer for heating massage oil. In classic General Idea style, AA BRONSON*BUTT SPA, 2004, exceeds mere commentary to fully inhabit the body of commerce, incorporating a sales shelf of candles and oil and a brand identity (created by graphic designer Garrick Goff) that prescribes the show’s peculiar title treatments. The unpleasantly slick adverts on the gallery walls feature close-ups of a client’s naked body overlaid with testimonials, such as “I hesitate to put my finger on what is ‘happening.’ If you forced me to describe it, I would be forced to say, ‘I am loving better.’” In the face of Bronson’s protestations, “AA BRONSON*HEALER” approaches high camp: What kind of shaman would sell signed press releases and blank sheets of his letterhead?

The rest of the show includes a few collaboratively produced works on paper depicting red bandannas, two photographic self-portraits of the artist lying nude on a bed, and a wall-mounted sculpture of a large butt plug titled Coat Hook, 2004. These works complement the spa and serve to clarify some of Bronson’s preoccupations—self-investigation, the promulgation of images of unidealized male bodies, the dispersal of artmaking from the individual to collective entities—but offer no help in cracking the healing nut. By embracing both lifestyle-magazine professionalism and unreconstructed spiritual practice, Bronson asks the visitor to perform a pair of intellectual feats: to process the butt massage’s fusion of the self-mocking and the sincere and to take seriously a kind of alternative healing that many would dismiss. The deliberate courting of interpretive frustration—and the added sting of the endeavor’s androcentrism (Bronson treats men only)—obscures the new work’s currency, and its affinities with that of younger artists who interrogate administered identity, embrace absurdity, and question the role of the artist. Today’s Bronson is a paradox: as ambitious and confrontational as when General Idea was putting out FILE Megazine, as gentle and hippieish as when in the late ’60s he drifted from a Winnipeg commune to the Toronto household of arty freaks that birthed GI.

Domenick Ammirati