Los Angeles

Kim Schoen’s Tell Me Who I Am, 2017, and I Am What You Say, 2017, each HD video, color, sound, 22 minutes.

Kim Schoen’s Tell Me Who I Am, 2017, and I Am What You Say, 2017, each HD video, color, sound, 22 minutes.

Kim Schoen

Young Projects Gallery

Kim Schoen’s Tell Me Who I Am, 2017, and I Am What You Say, 2017, each HD video, color, sound, 22 minutes.

Superficiality and nonsense are words that readily come to mind in relation to Kim Schoen’s work. The artist revels in these conditions but does so in a philosophical manner, often mining even the most vapid subjects to an astonishing depth. Her previous solo exhibition at the Moskowitz Bayse gallery in Los Angeles was constructed around the topic of “book blanks,” objects that outwardly resemble books but are empty inside. An interest in the formal signs of meaning and intelligence, as observed from the outside, was no less evident in Schoen’s most recent effort at Young Projects. However, in this latest collection of works, all attention was drawn toward communicative dysfunction, as announced by the show’s title, “The Hysteric’s Discourse,” which was adhered to the gallery window in an italicized white-vinyl font of three different sizes, all overlaid.

A hysterical person is fundamentally one whose credibility has fallen into question. Schoen appears to be less invested in exposing the patriarchal taint of this diagnosis, typically confined to women, than in expanding its target range. Can we make out the symptoms of identity breakdown within the larger culture? Can an entire nation all at once lose faith in the integrity of its “self”? Such questions were generically raised in the large-scale display of two films, Tell Me Who I Am and I Am What You Say, both 2017, which were projected onto a single freestanding screen installed in the middle of the exhibition. In the first film, on footage captured at the Grosh Backdrops and Drapery warehouse in Los Angeles, two anonymous workers operate an imposing mechanism that hoists the company’s handpainted backdrops into view, one after another, as though before a particularly open-minded client. In schizoid succession, a fog-shrouded “Orientalist” landscape is followed by a two-part design of puckering lips executed in high Pop style—and so it goes. Such glaring disparities render any prospect of informed choosing patently absurd while also laying bare the cultural signifiers for theatricality and desire. The text-based film, I Am What You Say, floating over the first, Tell Me Who I Am, essentially doubles the appearance of the “backdrop” in language. Now demanding, now accepting, the titular words undergo a series of permutations, as if overwhelmed by the choices between products and selves.

A more “personal” take on this dilemma was proposed in Is It the Opera or Is It Something Political?, 2010, a nearby projection of a seated woman delivering a confused monologue in urgent tones. Her words turn vaporously around a subject that seems to continually elude her grasp. However, it gradually becomes apparent that she is not a neurotic but rather an actress doing her best to avoid any semblance of logical thought. Paradoxically, her expression of intense, even manic concentration relays the immense effort involved in not making sense. This contradictory affect was conveyed all the more poignantly in a companion three-channel monitor piece of another female figure who, in this case, is unable to fulfill the brief of babbling nonstop. The camera catches her in moments of perplexed hesitation, her eyes darting about in panic. Tellingly, her narrative throughline tends to devolve toward disaster: “Now we are extinct,” she says at one point; her flat statement also supplies the work’s title. By “we,” she obviously means humanity as a whole, but the viewer can intuit that it is rather those of us still exercising reason who are most threatened.

Schoen shoots her performers in cluttered furniture and decor showrooms, much like the ones that fill the halls of the Pacific Design Center, where Young Projects is located. In fact, items lifted from the immediate environs were scattered throughout the show, and similar stores were represented in a series of still photographs hung in the gallery’s front room. The artist dubs these pictures “location scouts”—they depict possible settings for future filming—and most of them feature various armatures and props of display devoid of merchandise. The isolation of content from context, and vice versa, is Schoen’s signature strategy; in this show, those alienating effects composed a distressing, eerie reflection on the “new normal.” In all walks of life, among politicians, captains of industry, and snake-oil salesmen alike, the mangling of meaning has gained an undeniable rhetorical power. Speaking in tongues—or the “attitudes passionelles” that Jean-Martin Charcot observed among his hysterical patients at the clinic of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris in the late nineteenth century—has become de rigueur.

Jan Tumlir