Grant Stevens, Happiness, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 5 minutes 29 seconds.

Grant Stevens, Happiness, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 5 minutes 29 seconds.

Grant Stevens

Grant Stevens, Happiness, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 5 minutes 29 seconds.

The title of Grant Stevens’s latest solo show, “You have within you right now everything you need to succeed,” has a familiar ring at a time when self-optimization and positive thinking have become de rigueur in the pursuit of life mastery. Since the early 2000s, the artist has explored images, sounds, and texts of media culture and the internet like a sociologist unable to disentangle himself from the phenomena he scrutinizes. Believing collage to be one of the most significant legacies of modernism, Stevens updates this technique, along with appropriation and quotation, in works focused on how psychology and lifestyle are shaped by the digital world.

In the nearly five-and-a-half-minute video Happiness, 2018, a morphing pattern in calming hues of blue, green, and purple formed the backdrop for floating quotations in a white font. The phrases are sourced from mindfulness meditation, corporate training, positive psychology, and dating-website profiles. Choreographed to a soundtrack of gently swelling choral music and twinkling chimes, the word constellations flare briefly onscreen only to disappear like dying stars. Bromides of the happiness industry and business management abound: EVERY DAY I BECOME HEALTHIER AND STRONGER; OBSTACLES HELP ME GROW; I AM CALM AND RELAXED; I EMBRACE CHANGE; I AM A SOCIAL PERSON BUT ALSO ENJOY QUIET NIGHTS IN.

Some commentators have viewed Stevens’s works as approaching media culture with acerbic cynicism. In a review of the artist’s “Supermassive” show at L.A. Louver in 2013, David Pagel described a video mash-up of self-help homilies combined with a flowing waterfall (Tranquility Falls, 2013)as “snide” and “preachy.” Yet assertive critique doesn’t square with the tone of Stevens’s works. Low-key and aesthetically seductive, they emit a calming ambience reminiscent of the day spas, yoga classes, and meditation retreats they reference. Moreover, Stevens admits to being a devotee of well-being exercises as aids in coping with the demands of working life. The “Studio Meditation” series, 2018–, of computer-generated prints relates to short relaxation sessions Stevens undertakes before starting work most days. Before subsiding into mindfulness, he triggers his computer to create Photoshop layers of abstract color patterns that are subsequently produced as lenticular prints. The four prints displayed in the show echoed the delicately shifting patterns and colors of the Happiness video on the opposite wall, adding to the soothing effect of the exhibition.

While Stevens strives to avoid censoriousness, he remains alert to the comic resources offered by the bloated positive-thinking industry and an ideology that has turned being upbeat into a moral and professional obligation. Acting as a subtle foil to the obsession with “self” monotonously repeated in Happiness, the other video in the show, The Universe, 2018, ditched the omnipotent “I” of individual aspiration.  Galactic scenes, simulated through particle-generator software, cycled from pure darkness to a single light spot to a field of scintillation and back to a black void. The soundtrack combines generic universe noise made with a synthesizer and music software with a voice-over scripted by Stevens and spoken by an actor as documentary narration. The script explains one particular theory of the life cycle of the universe, which contends that the countless galaxies are producing less energy than they were two billion years ago. More stars are dying than are coming into being, indicating that the universe is slowly fading away, its death predicted to take place one hundred billion years from now. As one astronomer observes, at this stage of its life the universe has “sat down on the sofa, pulled up a blanket and prepared to nod off for an eternal doze.” What a perfect counterpoint to the rigors of emotional capitalism that Stevens explores so compellingly.

Toni Ross