Los Angeles

Tony Oursler

Margo Leavin Gallery

First Mike Kelley, then Jim Shaw and Raymond Pettibon have each taken a turn carrying the torch of the “Pop Informel” school, and each has seen his star rise accordingly. Only Tony Oursler—the fourth member of a loose-knit crew that once collaborated on the art bands Destroy All Monsters (the original lineup of which featured Kelley, Shaw, Carey Loren, and Niagara) and the Poetics (comprising just Oursler and Kelley) and that continue to make occasional guest appearances in one another’s projects—seemed to lag behind, achieving less success than he deserved with his early videos of puppet plays and performances. These are pointedly lo-fi affairs, deploying a kiddie-show version of Brechtian Umfunktionierung in which the illusion of lifelikeness is so flimsy that it effectively trumps itself, gravitating instead toward the second-order credibility of the uncanny. Alongside the artifice, moreover, one always has to contend with an artificer, a spectral figure lurking in the wings. As Kelley wrote in 1984, “Oursler’s tapes have a strange air of privacy—in part because they are so obviously limited to what he can accomplish unassisted in front of the camera.” In this case, we are disturbed to find that background space occupied by a grown man playing with toys.

Once banished to the prison-house of the monitor, Oursler’s misshapen avatars have more recently emerged to assume full-scale sculptural presence within the prison-house of the gallery. If they still seem so emphatically stuck, even here, it is because they have not passed through the cathode-ray tube unscathed, remaining tethered to their former life source by way of an electronic umbilicus that may never be cut. At the other end of the line is a video projector that transmits their various characteristics, literally filling up and animating what would otherwise be a mute, inert lump. Such an openly compromised proposal may be an interesting solution to the problem of commodification, but we are forced to wonder whether this is really the artist’s point.

In these projected objects, which come across like a horde of oversize and grotesquely distorted talking heads, Oursler has finally achieved a level of visibility rivaling that of his colleagues, and this in turn has initiated the second, “professional” phase of his career that unfolds, all too predictably, as a series of minute variations on a theme that is enormously constricted from the outset. For Kelley, Shaw, and Pettibon as well, the challenge comes down to converting a former involvement with performance, duration, and theatricality into an object-based practice. However, these artists have managed to carry over a degree of ambition and complexity that is plainly lost to Oursler.

Oursler’s new works are ghosts of their former selves. Divorced from their original context in teleplay narrative, they have very little left to tell us. Each one recites a private monologue that is really just an endless (because looped) garbled complaint, and the distinctions between them are accordingly slight. The minimalist composer and filmmaker Tony Conrad has argued that all the repetition in Oursler’s work adds up to a vision of hell, or, as he puts it, “hell-avision.” Clearly we are meant to consider ourselves implicated in the entrapment and torture of these things, but whether as jailers or jailed is never made clear.

Jan Tumlir