New York

View of “Jon Rafman,” 2013.

View of “Jon Rafman,” 2013.

Jon Rafman


View of “Jon Rafman,” 2013.

Someone should have told Jon Rafman to restrain himself. His inaugural exhibition at Zach Feuer was packed, and unevenly so: Upon entering, you encountered racks of plastic video-game cases with labels showing Thomas Cole’s early-nineteenth-century Course of Empire landscapes; a granite floor plaque engraved with the names and closing dates of defunct New York State malls; stacks of a newsprint giveaway featuring an essay, oral histories, and a back-page comic strip; two Alienware laptops, one wrapped in fake reptilian skin, the other in fleshy epoxy; three featureless and fluidly warped urethane busts; an environment resembling a suburban den dusted with volcanic ash; displays of masks and weaponry alternately inspired by African tribal sculpture and sci-fi film props; and, interspersed throughout, several videos on flat-screen monitors. Individually, the works all pointed to certain adolescent-male enthusiasms, while together the ensemble came off as excitable and scattered—an aesthetics of attention-deficit disorder.

Or, at least, it came off that way at first. To find a method in this manic energy, consider How can you love one child more than another?, 2013, a wall piece composed of eighteen dakimakura, body pillows decorated with human-scale renderings of highly sexualized anime characters. What are these agglomerated soft receptacles for libidinal energy if not an otaku variation on the knitted afghans and stuffed animals in Mike Kelley’s More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, 1987? Admittedly, this is the critic’s fallback maneuver—when at a loss, ready the slide comparison—but setting Rafman beside Kelley uncovers a common approach. Like Kelley, Rafman plumbs the vernacular, the idiosyncratic cultural formations that Kelley once located thumbing through comics and yearbooks and that Rafman now finds browsing 4chan and online-gaming platforms.

Here, Rafman’s primary subjects were men inveterately attached to their boyhoods spent in video arcades, particularly during the period marked by the ballooning popularity of the 1987 game Street Fighter. BETAMALE, 2013, which plays across from How can you love, portrays gaming addiction as a descent into regression and isolation. In rapid montages, the video switches between the anime-riddled pornography consumed by these so-called beta males and photographs of their appalling living situations, where computer keyboards and vintage consoles lie caked in filth and surrounded by junk-food packages. By contrast, for the video Arcade Hustla, 2009–10, Rafman interviewed men whose love of video games has brought them into a community built around joint practice sessions, international competitions, and online trash-talking. In October, Rafman held in the gallery a Street Fighter tournament featuring many of the players he recorded outside the New York City arcade Chinatown Fair.

If Kelley serves as an apt point of comparison for Rafman, he also provides the grounds for critique. In his earliest published essay, “Urban Gothic” (1985), Kelley attacked depictions of postindustrial decay that evoked eighteenth-century picturesque ruins, calling it a Vaseline-on-the-camera-lens beautification effort that “converts social commentary into poetic reverie.” As an example, Kelley targeted the proleptically anachronistic slums of Blade Runner (1982), a film that clearly influenced the animations in Rafman’s Codes of Honor, 2011. In this companion piece to Arcade Hustla, a rocket-pack-equipped protagonist wends through a dank and neon-flecked city, while he nostalgically recalls his favorite arcade victory, the details of which Rafman borrows straight from one of the players he interviewed—quite frankly, some of the least insightful material obtained from this diverse and lively crowd. The nod to Thomas Cole, the commemorative plaque, the Pompeii-esque interior: Rafman clearly exhibits tendencies we might today call “Digital Gothic.” As he further develops his approach, the question will be whether Rafman’s impulse to romanticize continues to distract from his powers of analysis.

Colby Chamberlain