New York

Bernadette Corporation

In the context of art, Bernadette Corporation is revered for the same reason it is intermittently invisible: “its willingness to go there, to disrespect,” as the oft-morphing collective wrote of a Manhattan-destroying tornado in its 2005 novel, Reena Spaulings, a two-hundred-page celebration of the thrills of instability. Experimental ruses such as a fashion label, a film production company, the novel, and other joint enterprises have functioned as portals, temporary propositions of how to produce and yet defy corporate co-optation and its attendant repurposing of the youthful or radical gesture. If the tentacles of capital inexorably subsume creativity whose marketability resides in image—in an “economy of essences,” to quote Reena Spaulings again—the BC brand intentionally signifies nothing in particular. Capitalism (including art) likes predictable and linear progression; BC’s is a history of antilinear whims, the acting-out of a philosophy more like life than art.

Still, BC has produced exhibitions in an art context for most of the current decade, even if the art gallery is (like most pop music) a known site for the appropriation of the fresh essences with which capitalism updates itself. Opening during New York Fashion Week, BC’s show at Greene Naftali reveled in the context. It was crammed with nearly forty photographs (and a large canvas banner) of young, blank, beautiful denim-clad models—the imagery that sells images. But the paradoxical centerpiece of the show was a group of thirteen vitrines containing a simple printout of The Complete Poem, 2009, described as an “original, good-looking epic poem for New York.” The collective’s texts have always articulated its projects, but not since Reena Spaulings has it approached the production of singular texts as the work itself. The Complete Poem poses subjectivity as a site of battle, a duel between the invented notion and its insidious instrumentalization. Due to its collective production, it reads like a composite map of internal monologues: “Ads on the F train that never seem to change . . . A creek the color of Coke . . . A Dairy Queen serving three motels.” It is filled with urgent observation that resonates as an imperative to maintaining an active, resistant mind; as the poem reads, “Our little we against the American I sometimes.” The photographs, meanwhile, not only offered a decorative setting; they are all eyes, a collective external judgment, the inanimate figments that stultify durational concentration.

During a visit to the gallery, I watched a woman try to read The Complete Poem. She walked alongside the vitrines, stooping to catch a random line or two. Her iPhone chirped; she read a text. Her eyes rose and settled on a photo of a male model before she shuffled off. Why was The Complete Poem not distributed as a pamphlet, a Xerox, even a snail-mail missive? Unlike the majority of language as art, The Complete Poem requires endurance—it’s a long poem, not a sculpture, object, or image. New York is a society of images, an everyday war of images. Perhaps BC has turned to language because it requires patience, because meaning is made durationally. To “show” a lengthy poem as an object in vitrines felt like knowing misuse of a gallery. The eyes inevitably moved from page to image, from a line of poetry to the loafing, skinny-jeaned androgyne with a skateboard. Bernadette Corporation’s turn away from objects as images began several years ago; here, the group closed the loop by construing language itself as the object.

Nick Stillman