New York

Kristian Kozul

Goff + Rosenthal

In his first solo exhibition in the US, Croatian artist Kristian Kozul surrendered completely to the allure of the American cowboy. But rather than fetishizing the dust and drought of the old West, he glams up the cowboy’s grit with sequins and studs. Of course, the cowboy has always been something of a dandy, with his embroidered button-downs, starched Wranglers, ostentatious belt buckles, and heeled boots, and the Marlboro Man’s ruggedness has always been as much a performance as the Rhinestone Cowboy’s glamour. Kozul’s gallery presentation of a pair of boots and a hat, star-spangled in red, white, and blue sequins, and a saddle, similarly resplendent in sequins and feathers but marred by rows of spikes along the seat and fender, turns the cowboy into something ridiculous and even a little sinister, not least for the aggressive patriotism he invokes.

But sparkling as they may have been, these items were overshadowed by a hulking black figure in the gallery’s center: a mechanical bull covered in a part-Victorian, part-s/m concoction of black lace and fringe—and numerous shiny spikes—and surrounded by a flowing skirt that extended the width of the room. In order to see other works in the show, one had to risk being hit by the feathered bustle that swished around with each of the robotic replica’s turns.

Kozul has exhibited such embellishments before, encrusting bedpans, crutches, and wheelchairs to such a degree that the objects’ functions vanish almost entirely beneath their ornamentation. These earlier works walk the line of kitsch, which Milan Kundera famously defined as “a folding screen set up to curtain off death,” as Kozul bedazzles the instruments that forestall the realities of shit and death. In this exhibition, however, he celebrated the violence and the exuberance of the cowboy myth with flamboyant mannerism, exposing its danger though the rows of studs and spangles, rather than merely shrouding it in baubles. In so doing, Kozul moves away from kitsch and closer to camp.

Still, there was something sickly in the stubborn repetition of the bull’s lurches and the lumbering drone of its hydraulic parts. According to the press release, Kozul’s glittering gear alludes not only to the Wild West but also to Evel Knievel, who dressed up a devil-may-care attitude in a patriotically styled pantsuit. That Knievel died during the exhibition’s run endowed the bull with an elegiac quality, but only enhanced the feeling of staged melancholy. As the mechanism struggled around, repeatedly thrusting in vain, without any of the virility and unpredictability that we might usually associate with the animal (and with little of the urgency that a video of it on the gallery’s website offers), one was left with only a vague nausea. What might have succeeded as a rough-and-tumble return of camp sensibility felt, in the end, like just a wearisome stunt.

Rachel Churner