St. Louis

Sean Landers, Improbable History, 1992, still from a color video, 61 minutes 23 seconds.

Sean Landers, Improbable History, 1992, still from a color video, 61 minutes 23 seconds.

Sean Landers

Sean Landers, Improbable History, 1992, still from a color video, 61 minutes 23 seconds.

ANOTHER WEEKEND SPENT in bed watching television and feeling sickish. I watched so much TV I started to think the TV was talking to me, enumerating my every fault, pointing out my moral defects and character flaws, my incapacity for taking up a lifestyle of healthful foods and regular exercise appropriate to someone my age, the moth holes in my once best sweater, and the reasons I’m a bad son. I interpolate this commentary through the nonstop chatter provided by the wronged and wayward women on the Lifetime Movie Network, through George Sanders and Bette Davis’s repartee in All About Eve, through intermittent news feeds from CNN, through the appearance of myriad young faces that serve only to remind me of my impending corporeal ruination. I’m such a loser. I’m the perfect person to write about Sean Landers.

If only I weren’t twenty years too late! After all, it was in September 1992 that Rhonda Lieberman put forward her epochal essay “The Loser Thing,” which described the conditions underlying the rise of so-called slacker art, a broadly conceived tendency that assimilated aspects of 1960s and ’70s vanguards within an overarching context of diminished expectations following the precipitous bust of the ’80s art boom, a penchant for apparent formal disarray, and a faith in the resonant communicative power of the first-person singular. “Recent artists like Sean Landers,” Lieberman observed, “tap into the capacity of public self-abuse to function as a fertile source of artistic inspiration, exploring the richness of student-loan debt, credit-card debt, masturbation, bloated ambition, and enforced downward mobility as the substantive fiber of their work.” Sound familiar?

“Sean Landers: 1991–1994, Improbable History” is a blast from the past that feels very much of the moment. The retrospective view proffered by this exhibition sinks into the morass of the early-’90s art scene, which favored the abject, the pathetic, the loserly, and the slackeresque. But the work on view would feel right at home in many a show of emerging artists today, who too have witnessed a period characterized by societal delusions of grandeur brought to an abrupt end by a twice-in-a-lifetime economic collapse that has only exacerbated the loser’s debilitating penchant for obsessive self-scrutiny.

Such an oscillation between grandiosity and self-abnegation is the very ground of Landers’s early work. In the most banal psychological terms, I guess one would say that he—or at least the artist persona he offers, since it’s never entirely clear whether there is a reliable distinction—is narcissistic, which is to say virtually nothing. Narcissism comes as naturally as breathing, and it remains feverishly alive in this-year’s-model art: Think of all those mopey artist faces captured on video, mouthing off, tendentiously “performing.” Perhaps this accounts to some extent for the emphasis the exhibition curators—the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis’s Paul Ha and Laura Fried—lay on Landers’s early video work. The buzz of Landers speaking (and singing) on camera courses through the show: It’s irritating and inevitable, endearing and inescapable—it’s so Sean! These works force the question: How much time are you willing to spend with Landers almost in person for some sort of payoff, aesthetic or otherwise? (Maybe you’re the loser if you have so much time to give.) I say “otherwise” because in Improbable History, 1992—which lasts an hour—the patient/prurient viewer can catch a glimpse of the artist jerking off. Just a glimpse, but there it is. For most of his videos of this period, Landers just let the camera roll and didn’t edit at all; in Improbable History, and also in Anyone’s Orgasm, 1992, he did—there are just a few seconds of onanistic sleaze, a tease. But most of the time, we are simply there with Landers, in the studio, as he listens to AM radio, psyching himself up for yet another soliloquy; in the background, we see the art included in this very exhibition, the calendar pages, the sculptures, the painting bearing the memorable title Anal Fetishes, Loafers, Lofts and God, 1992.

In these works, there’s an element of Sally Field’s acceptance speech when she won the Best Actress Oscar for Places in the Heart: “You like me . . . you really like me!” That was enough to make everyone hate the erstwhile endearing Gidget. If Landers plays obsessively on the constant alternation between folie de grandeur and writhing in the gutter, he’s always playing to his audience, pandering a bit, begging for love even as he demonstrates—insists, well-nigh demands—that he’s a no-good loser fuck-head. He leads his willing accomplice (that voyeuristic straw man, the viewer) down the primrose path of poverty, male heterosexual anal eroticism, love, lust, Pollock, crapulous neediness, and jubilant desperation. Is Landers’s indeed a win-win loser position (cf., the loser’s paradox) or does the artist genuinely risk failure? This question becomes increasingly pressing in the works Landers has gone on to produce since the corpus represented in the St. Louis exhibition: paintings, for the most part. I remember his 2001 “Picasso” show at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York with great fondness, although, I believe, most critics savaged it, as if they had completely lost track of the old Landers still sneaking around these pastiches—for instance, in his signature to “his” Guernica (War and Peace/7100, 2001): girlish script filled in with pastel pink. “Improbable History” actually recounts the story of the clever-manipulative/anguished-delusional twenty-something guy artist of the early ’90s: a success story when all is said and done. But the exhibition also throws into uncomfortably sharp relief the remark that every artist hates hearing: “I like the early work.”

What a loser.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.