New York

Mary Ellen Carroll

Third Streaming

Art for Mary Ellen Carroll emerges not from objects but from a diffuse constellation of ideas, something slowly developed through stream-of-consciousness thinking. Since 1988, she has been organizing her sprawling, heterogeneous output with index cards in a library card catalogue, with each piece classified according to headings that range from “disappearance” to “temporality,” from “place” to “pleasure.” A recently published monograph takes these very subjects as chapter headings; the part dedicated to “temporality,” for example, includes Late, 2005, a not well-known enough project for which the artist smashed a 1985 Buick Riviera, inherited from her recently deceased father, into the front of Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde München. The final chapter, on “thingness,” comprises the book’s index, offering a cross section of interests that buttress Carroll’s motley works. Under N one finds negation; negotiation; Negri, Antonio; neoclassicism; neon; nephrologists; networking. These sixteen pages seem a work on their own.

For the inaugural show for Third Streaming, a promising alternative space, Carroll selected thirteen pieces from her expansive series “My Death Is Pending Because.,” 1986–2012. The project’s earliest entry
is a line drawing in nonphoto blue pencil, Study of Brigitte Bardot’s Side, 1986—a bizarre rabbit hole that somehow led to Faulty Landscape, made the same year. Neither entirely homage to nor feminist critique of Duchamp’s notorious Paysage fautif, 1946, the piece involved Carroll obtaining sperm from a donor with physical characteristics similar to her own, and then applying the fluid to a photographic silk screen of the French movie star’s behind. From there, the project grew to encompass a diverse cast and crew, from the director of the Tate Liverpool to singer Jose Feliciano. It will finally conclude in 2012, when Carroll destroys her father’s Buick in an all-female demolition derby at Toyota Speedway in Irwindale, California, and incorporates the car’s remains into a sculpture by John Chamberlain.

In the show, situated near two black-and-white photographs that document her crash into the Munich museum, was an Illy coffee can. The piece, Illy (The Tin Is Half Full), 2007, is a biting commentary on product placement; Illy, as the artist notes in her monograph, is a corporation recognized for its patronage in the art world, and this particular can contains the ashes of her father. The tin also links several divergent works together. It was a silent partner in Late, situated in the glove compartment when the artist hit the Munich museum at 35 mph with Peter Herbstreuth, then Vice President of the German branch of the International Association of Art Critics, in the passenger seat. The Illy can’s next appearance was in 2007’s Whatever It Takes at the now defunct exhibition space Power House Memphis. In the performance, represented here by a video, the artist wears a polar bear costume, climbs to the top of the museum’s ninety-foot dead smokestack, and dumps half the ashes down the chimney. One could easily identify allusions to an art-historical canon of (mostly male) artists whose practices and actions evoke the absurd, but perhaps it’s already clear that Carroll’s provocative commentary on advertising and art via a “kick the can” process is unmatched and uniquely her own. Moreover, this work, like Late, functions as a wry example of institutional critique.

Though Carroll touches on a number of art-critical legacies—feminism, appropriation, commodity critique, and more—she never fully inhabits any one. Perhaps this is why there is such a dearth of criticism on her work, and on her slippery social role as a producer; with a practice that is extremely thought-provoking but little understood, she has become an artist’s artist. One wonders, though, whether this status appeals to her. For instance, during the opening of this show, a string quartet and a tenor performed two short compositions—pieces Carroll had commissioned herself, asking the composers to write works that would “resemble” her. It seemed a tongue-in-cheek response to a situation in which the artist’s gradual disappearance from the art world, whether appealing to her or not, is truly pending.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler