New York

Kathryn Garcia

Venetia Kapernekas Gallery

Since the beginnings of modernism, popular culture has fetishized the artist as bohemian other. The professionalization of the contemporary visual artist’s life notwithstanding, the stereotype of the starving, lunatic artist endures. The shopworn cliché has (usually posthumously) functioned as a merit stamp for artists as diverse as Kafka, van Gogh, Syd Barrett, and Sun Ra, and it is blithely reiterated in films like last year’s Séraphine. The very discomfort caused by experiencing art of the mentally ill is also the reason for its exotification. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse argues, “Non-conformity with the system itself appears to be socially useless.” Except, it seems, for the purposes of voyeuristic spectacle.

Kathryn Garcia’s exhibition, curated by Sarvia Jasso, was the first in a series of shows at Venetia Kapernekas by artists dealing with the “aesthetics and fabrication of madness in art.” Fabrication is the interesting part of this premise. Afflicted by which mental illness? And how to fabricate it? Drugs? Dubious mental projection? Copycatting artists known to be mentally ill? The premise of the series at once challenges the hackneyed associations of the creative process and risks echoing the instrumentalization of mental illness that it implicitly critiques.

At a recent event at Glasslands Gallery in Brooklyn, Garcia showed a series of decontextualized clips from television and films including Ghost, American History X, and Before Night Falls that isolated their homoerotic content. The video component of the show at Kapernekas was likewise a montage of clips, here appropriated from Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and titled Self Portrait 6 (all works 2009). The clips spotlight Catherine Holly (played by a young Elizabeth Taylor), who, after witnessing her cousin’s death in Spain, becomes an irrepressible babbler. Paranoid that Catherine will spill the secret of her dead son’s homosexuality, her aunt unsuccessfully tries to muzzle her with a lobotomy. Hollywood’s madmen are usually lionized, but Catherine is shown to be a handwringing cipher of helplessness, all cleavage and lipstick. Because of the salacious plot (Catherine’s cousin used her as an incongruous lure to attract local gay hunks), Garcia’s video feels more a critique of celluloid homophobia and gender-based casting than an engagement with madness per se.

The five self-portraits also in the exhibition were the more specific investigation of the show’s subject matter: The drawings were made under the affected influence of unspecified madness. They are similar in spirit and style to Cristóbal Lehyt’s 2008 “Drama Projection” series, for which the Chilean artist willed himself into identity-transforming trances—self-induced schizophrenia—to draw portraits of real and imagined locals during a residency in Stuttgart, Germany. Garcia’s stated reference is Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, the eighteenth-century Austrian sculptor who was presumed insane on account of his dramatic busts of disturbingly expressive faces. Ultimately, however, the project’s closest kin may be Mike Kelley’s sardonic works exploring victim culture, such as Educational Complex, 1995, a model of every school he attended and the house he grew up in, excluding forgotten rooms—symbols of repressed trauma. In Garcia’s self-portraits, empty eyes or shuffling hands are rendered in weird multiples (for her many selves?). Mountains of doughy folds slouch down the melting faces of Self Portrait 1 and 2 (referencing the shame of castration anxiety?). Half-hidden assholes and breasts crop up here and there, seeming to smirk at the presumed sexual traumas suffered by the mentally ill. Sarcastic touches like this justify the presence of the Suddenly Last Summer video. What can “madness” even mean today, when it has been so ravaged by Hollywood, popular mythology, and the corporations that determine its construction?

Nick Stillman