New York

View of “Cheryl Donegan,” 2016.

View of “Cheryl Donegan,” 2016.

Cheryl Donegan

View of “Cheryl Donegan,” 2016.

“Cheryl Donegan: Scenes and Commercials,” a condensed retrospective of works spanning twenty-three years, curated by Johanna Burton, was festively immersive, as if a multimedia flowchart and a neo–New Wave lookbook had exploded into an array of chic party decorations on the New Museum’s fifth floor. The visual hubbub of video works on monitors and screens, paintings strung between or clustered around them, had a high-concept/low-budget vibe. Donegan’s entertaining, goofy-yet-aloof videos are mostly performance-based (starring herself) and simply edited, while her paintings exploit the stylishly raw or unfinished, slightly messy look of studies, mock-ups, or bright set props meant to be viewed from some distance. Glancing around the room, I was struck by the way her grunge-era, lo-res tactics have morphed seamlessly into the Internet’s aesthetics of immediacy. The customary rough edges of fresh content suit her.

The earliest video on view was Kiss My Royal Irish Ass (K.M.R.I.A), 1993, a ’90s classic, in which Donegan makes butt-cheek shamrocks by sitting first in green paint, then on paper. Wearing a thong, a green bra, and motorcycle boots, she adds a stem, then pins her prints on the wall behind, like a children’s St. Patrick’s Day craft project. This simple, innocently lewd send-up of the pretensions of both action painting and serial production—not to mention Yves Klein’s sexy “human paintbrushes”—recalls earlier feminist pieces, such as Carolee Schneemann’s riff on Pollock, Up to and Including Her Limits, 1973–76, in which the artist, naked, is suspended from a harness, reaching to draw lines on the surrounding floor and walls. But Donegan’s déclassé body painting engages with a distinctly third-wave discourse, one interested in the ways in which sexual expression and strategic self-objectification might counter or coopt the so-called male gaze.

K.M.R.I.A., shown looping on a monitor, is accompanied by two enigmatic little drawings that show pencil figures in silhouette squatting on oversize green shamrocks. While Donegan dramatizes the performative nature of mark-making in her videos, the paintings she shows with them are not artifacts or souvenirs of the documented performances. The relationship between the two practices is more mysterious. The three untitled paintings associated with the video Lieder, for example, from Donegan’s series “The Janice Tapes,” 2000, depict Donegan’s head as it appears in the video (in various DIY bondage headdresses crafted from garbage bags, laundry detergent jugs, and colored duct tape), skillfully rendered—it seems—from video stills. The small, fluidly painted canvases let abstraction further the original, transformative gesture of the masks in the video. They’re colorful extensions of that effacement. Meanwhile, the painterly gesture in Lieder is random and violent. Pigmented blobs are hurled like rotten tomatoes at Donegan’s bagged-up face and body, hitting her or her backdrop as she pivots on a squeaky swivel chair. In a wide shot, we see she’s pregnant. Her state serendipitously highlights her methodical discarding of female archetypes—romanticized images of mother and muse, as well as “the artist in her studio.”

A deconstructive impulse characterizes Donegan’s raucous and very particular fashion sense, too. In the red-spray-paint work Untitled (dress, kuba), 2011, she messes with the modernist grid by depicting it as a loud print, bent and scrunched up on the curvy form of its wearer; in Untitled (first pink gingham), 2012, stenciled planes of the titular pastel pattern want to join at an angle. Such works anticipate the ready-to-wear goods of Donegan’s fashion line Broken Gingham, a group of garments—T-shirts, twill jackets, jumpsuits, leggings, and more—all made with the services of a digital print-on-demand company. Displayed in the exhibition’s gift shop, or rather, Concept Store, a tiny, half-cyber boutique, these clothes seemed to occupy a liminal space, like Photoshop layers come to life. In contrast, other, hand-constructed pieces (detourned vintage wear and re-created versions of the “Janice Tapes” masks) embodied DIY styles from decades past. Donegan happily mixes production values while shamelessly blurring consumption modes of art viewing and shopping (IRL and online), too. She uncynically proposes that the retail environment is an exciting video-space of today, and the social media–fueled microbusiness a logical form to investigate. After all, methods of interaction and quick turnaround are what she’s been exploring all along in her hybrid, impure practice, from in-camera start/stop video editing and duct-tape costuming to currently trending processes—uploading, outsourcing, and sharing.

Johanna Fateman