Having described the historical and theoretical premises for a thoroughly fascinating potential exhibition,Walker, director of education and associate curator of the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society, devotes less than half a paragraph to the discussion of the actual, and considerably less fascinating, exhibition. (Without the help of this handout provocatively designed by Kevin Byrd, it would be even less fascinating for the majority of viewers.)
A show about the psychological and cultural sources of the rebirth of gothic terror and wonder among gadget-surrounded digerati and their (un)wired-world offspring would be fascinating. Several current exhibitions in London offer exactly that, and so does Walker’s opening gambit, in which he discusses the operational relationship between Romanticism, Surrealism, and the young adult (YA) novels categorized as “teen paranormal romance.”
After that beginning, however, he adroitly sidesteps the issue by noting that the proliferation of unconscious psychosexual drives in popular culture is paralleled by the utter disappearance of such florid interests among contemporary visual artists. All the archetypes are alive and well, apparently, on big and little screens and in the pages of the YA novels that ensnare as many grown-ups as teenagers; by stark contrast, curator-approved contemporary art is “a derelict playground where there are no children, only weeds.”
At least he gives us fair warning that we are in for a disappointing experience. Walker out-Freuds Freud’s stern didacticism in telling us to grow up and get real. Totally uninterested in the efflorescent contents of the imagination and why it flowers so fascinatingly, Walker wants to show us that real, serious art is “at home with trash and chainlink,” and that “the unconscious is a natural, not a supernatural force.”
In other words, crude and ugly is where it is at. The attempts of the kiddies to escape their miserable condition are to be firmly squelched, and the function of art is to rub their faces in their feces instead of allowing them to turn their bodily substance into dreams of a better, or at least less boring, universe.
So we get art that not only does not enhance our condition, it does not elucidate it very much, either. The resolute shabbiness of Guyton\Walker’s piled-up painted mattresses is an excellent visual metaphor for the downscale dreariness in which Walker is about to inundate us, apparently as an antidote to the deliciously visionary dreaminess of the stack of alluringly designed Teen Paranormal Romances that are piled up in the gallery bookshop as a compelling installation in their own right, complete with curatorial annotation.
This might be okay if we had some idea of what the dreariness is supposed to be communicating. We can impose an order on some of the work, given Walker’s clue in the handout (which ought to have been amplified in wall text) that in Teen Paranormal Romance we are in for a world of nothing but “the tough and wild seeds of incidence” — a metaphor or analogy that does little to amplify his provocative notion that projecting the contents of the unconscious into the preestablished excitations of teen paranormal novels or Game of Thrones masks the poverty of the unthought-out political and social positions that are all that is available in our actual life.
At least I think that is what Walker is driving at in a very long sentence peculiarly immersed in the dense poetry of curatorspeak. It certainly is what he should be driving at in this exhibition, but seemingly isn’t.
So let’s begin with the work on which we might be able to project a narrative, or from which some critics have already derived a story, if not a theory.
Anna K. E.’s Lucky Weekend is anything but lucky, which is apparently its point; the white tile wall on one side of the piece, covered with an awkwardly colorful collage, is matched by an even less inviting plywood reverse from which clothes hang in a sort of parody of a low-budget locker room, if not the clothes-strewn teen bedroom that is implied by the juxtaposition of Guyton\Walker’s messy mattresses with Roe Ethridge’s memorably disconcerting portrait of a swimsuit-clad blonde teenager seemingly disgusted by the setup for a fashion shoot.
Walker’s empty playground is embodied in the other dominant artwork in this show, Kathryn Andrews’ Friends and Lovers, a chain-link fence enclosing two concrete-block walls on which the bear emblem that is the signature of a graffiti artist — we have to do some web searching to find this piece of information — converses with or faces off against itself, in a sealed-off zone that will remind some viewers of a prison yard. We can extract all sorts of associations from this piece, but the intended meaning remains a mystery as impenetrable as the large chunk of gallery space it locks off from our physical approach.
Things get even dicier when we try to parse the meaning of such works as Jack Lavender’s Hannah, a strangely lovely assemblage of bric-a-brac ranging from smiley faces to plastic foliage and decorative wicker, with intermediate stops at energy drink bottles and rolled-up posters.
This might be the one opening to transcendence in the whole show; in some ways it resembles the African American vernacular art of Lonnie Holley, and we might be able to project a similarly hopeful vision into it if we try hard enough. It certainly is one of the few nods to beauty in a generally bleak galleryscape, an attractively composed and consciously cluttered beauty that pays implicit homage to the fact that given the chance, human beings will find not only meaning but significant form in all but the most desperate of material circumstances.
Likewise there might be something perversely transcendent in Christopher Bradley’s trompe l’oeil greasy pizza box made from precious materials; we might be reminded of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick’s assertion that the messages of another world appear first in the trash spectrum, but that would be to appeal to the species of pop pathology that Walker is dead set against.
It’s more likely to be a simple put-down of high art by using its materials to undercut its claims to offer a less depressingly material universe. We might long for angels, romantic vampires, what have you, but underneath it all, there’s nothing but cardboard and the remains of melted cheese.
Even this hypothetical message is a critic’s projection, not something to be gleaned from the work itself, which remains baffling and gratuitously repellent in much of its detail.
Speaking of gratuitously repellent, Ed Atkins’ video Even Pricks is easily the slickest send-up of male-teen phallocentrism ever to pollute the screen of the Contemporary. Thumbs enlarge and go flaccid, and what’s convex in this video is bound to be vexed as it caves into concave and becomes a hole; and on the whole, what we have here is, if I may burlesque Samuel Beckett’s book title, more pricks than kicks.
Jill Frank’s color photo of an exuberant teenage boy with beer bong may have been meant as no more than adding an Atlanta component to the original iteration of this exhibition at Chicago’s Renaissance Society, while also providing an aesthetically effective opposite-sex complement to the gender of Ethridge’s photograph; regardless of Walker’s intentions in this department, Frank’s photo obviously lends further weight to the view of male-teen behavior implied by Atkins’ conceptual romp.
Overall, Teen Paranormal Romance is about the frat-house level of realities (and their differently structured parallels among teen females) that underlie and belie the escapist hopes of the budding aesthetes of the YA demographic; YA-novel readers may consume the current equivalent of Gérard de Nerval’s Romantic hallucinations, but in reality they too are merely engaging in a sublimated version of what an older generation would call getting their ya-yas out.
That’s what Walker implies, anyway, and overall it would have been better if he — or the Contemporary’s staff — had spelled it out in words on the wall instead of making us dig so laboriously to create our own sense-making story from what he has given us with so few clues to follow. Most viewers will not bother to make the effort.