New York

Laurel Nakadate

Everyone’s acting in Laurel Nakadate’s recent show, “A Message to Pretty”—the newest in the artist’s combustible adventures in desire and disappointment—but that’s not to say they don’t mean it. Made into a more elaborate installation—the exhibition includes photography, large- and small-scale sculpture, and a pair of single-channel videos— than the artist has previously attempted, the project was trademark Nakadate in conception: smart, shrewd, and more than a little ruthless, an unapologetically manipulative scheme that implicates not just the pitiable men the artist lures into her queasily intimate scenarios, but also the viewers she looks to seduce with her work’s frank sensuality, its willingness to take chances, and its moral ambiguity.

Taking its name from Arthur Lee’s classic psychedelic torch song— an eerie lament for unrequited love featuring the oddball savant’s plaintive, croaking vocals—the show was anchored by the twinned videos, set at opposite ends of the gallery. One, Heavy Petting (all works 2006), featured Nakadate in a series of different locations and states of undress, panting her way convincingly through verbatim reenactments of Meg Ryan’s delicatessen orgasm from When Harry Met Sally; the other, Worthless Bitch, starred a parade of the artist’s sad-sack outsiders, here haranguing the camera, as directed by the artist, as though it were a despised ex-lover who was finally getting a piece of their troubled minds. Between these two charged bookends, Nakadate rigged a matrix of supplementary materials—a series of self-portrait cheesecake shots taken in New Orleans hotel suites, graphically vandalized to make their negligeéd subject as anonymously louche as her surroundings (and cleverly visible in the gloom of the space only by virtue of a voyeuristic flashlight, helpfully provided in a basket at the door); a set of low-tech dioramas depicting the rooms in the men’s homes where their screeds were recorded; and a gussied-up mechanical pony whose saddle bore a painted image of the artist.

At once a bluntly suggestive joke and a sly invitation to be taken for a ride, Nakadate’s customized dime store bronco might serve as a mascot for the work’s insistent attempts to confound the boundaries between roles and role-playing. Much of its creepy appeal has always depended on the idea that her uneasy interactions with the men she meets and “befriends” were real, unscripted and thus potentially dangerous. Such frisson is muted, but also problematized, in this new project—the artist’s dual roles as director and object-of-desire are effectively split (onto two different screens), and even when Nakadate’s guys indulge their darkest revenge fantasies, the dominant/submissive dynamic of the director/actor relationship tends to trump and neuter whatever masculine fury her subjects conjure up.

Yet in a few instances the intensity of her subjects’ “performances” overwhelms the controlled cinematic structure she’s created. For all the stilted recitals—the pathetic, pudgy guy seemingly waiting for his lines; the angry hippie who grows increasingly stoked as he settles into his infuriated rhythms—there are also moments of gruesome, visceral rage, as with the star of her freak show, a barrel-chested milquetoast in a plaid shirt who stands in his kitchen with his hands clasped across his chest, spouting one of the most appalling soliloquies ever committed to tape. (Imagine the soul of Jeffrey Dahmer in the body of Office Space’s mumbling Milton . . . .) As he details his violent plans for his former lover—smashing, tearing, cutting, chopping—he keeps closing his eyes as though he can’t bear to be present with his own feelings, a deeply perverse enactment of the chorus from the show’s title song: “I can make it if I just don’t see your face.”

Jeffrey Kastner