Is Jordan Wolfson’s Art Meaningless?

by Paddy Johnson on March 25, 2014 · 6 comments Reviews

Jordan Wolfson, "Raspberry Poser", still

Jordan Wolfson, “Raspberry Poser”, still

“Do you think I’m rich?” asks a male voice.
“Yes,” says a female voice.
“Do you think I’m a homosexual?”
“No.”

That exchange is the sole dialogue in Jordan Wolfson’s 14-minute video “Raspberry Poser”, currently projected on massive wall at David Zwirner, and the only clue Wolfson offers to his intentions. That is, if it’s a clue at all. In a recent Art in America interview, Wolfson told readers that his nihilistic montage of suicidal cartoons, viruses and upscale urban settings is about nothing. “I don’t mean for there to be meaning in the work, to me that’s just value,” he said. “This work is not about adding any value.”

Such a juvenile claim is hard to take at face value, but Wolfson, to his credit, at least goes the distance to support it. To my mind, the question and answer to whether he’s rich and homosexual serves as an interpretive key to the video; he’s wealthy in real life, so the images he’s shot of upscale Soho boutiques shouldn’t be read purely as class critique. He tells us he’s a straight man so we can assume his work with animations of cube-y red HIV viruses isn’t about dealing with the disease. In short, the imagery is meaningless.

Normally, that would leave fuck all to talk about, but this exhibition, which is filled with an oversized projected video, aggro pop collages and a backroom dancing sexbot, walks the line between the despicable and genius. Even if you can’t figure out what to say about the epic projection, the puzzle will keep you thinking about it.

Let’s start with the by-appointment-only strip-tease robot, which is currently tearing up conversation on the web. The woman in white has masked eyes that follow you around the room; she’s attached to a mirror in front of her, via a mechanical metal rod that pulls her body up and down as she dances. The mechanical sounds of the robot’s movements resemble something out of Terminator 2, and she’s covered in dirt.

The piece isn’t particularly women-friendly, but then this follows a history of automatons, which have been collected by the aristocracy as far back as 850 BC. This one has decidedly little purpose; when Gaga’s “Applause” erupts from the speakers, and the robot mouths the words of a song that has the lyrics “pop culture was in art, now art is in pop culture, art and me.” We also hear it sing Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” which is emo enough to feel very creepy coming from this robot’s mouth. When the music shuts off and Wolfson whispers a short monologue it gets even worse, “My mother is dead. My father is dead. I’m gay. I’d like to be a poet. This is my house.”

It’s hard to watch all of this without thinking that the piece is a statement on art—and women—being little more than entertainment. That may be more message than Wolfson claims to want, but it’s vacant enough that I’d wager he’s met his goals. It’s a successful piece in that respect, but also dangerous. That level of cynicism can be difficult to live with, particularly if you’re planning on working in the art world on a long-term basis.

Perhaps more vile than the robot, though, is Wolfson’s video, which is comprised of, among other things, bouncing HIV viruses on beds and condoms with cinnamon candy hearts flowing out of them. That, in and of itself, would read as a tortured coming out story for Wolfson, were he gay. Instead, we’re supposed to believe that the artist’s interests are purely formal and intuitive.

The video reads like a sign of the coming apocalypse, where sex and greed rule, and naysayers are forced into marginalization. Wolfson himself plays the naysayer; a punk in a Paris park, a setting for which the only purpose seems to be to get a zoom-in shot of the Eiffel Tower looming in the background. Between shots of condoms and Wolfson with his pants down, it reads as a dick. Then there’s the self-destructive cartoon character who continually impales himself, and a slowed-down version of Beyonce’s “Beautiful Nightmare” that plays as HIV viruses bounce on a stationary-exercise bike and on a bed in a furniture showroom. Gleeful self-destruction is not only everywhere, but infectious.

Jordan Wolfson, "Raspberry Poser", still

Jordan Wolfson, “Raspberry Poser”, still

It’s images like this that make a viewer wonder how genuine Wolfson is about his intention to make movies without meaning. Nobody is going to read an animated STD bouncing on a bed as a random pairing, because it’s not. Likewise when we see this imagery followed by an animation of blood cells that form male and female symbols, we understand that HIV is the subject of the scenes. Could the video simply be an effort to package meaningful iconography as empty entertainment for collectors?

If so, it’s a childish impetus—espousing middle class hatred of the aristocracy isn’t the same as seeking greater equality of all classes—but it’s better than the claims Wolfson appears to be making.

And as an audience member, sometimes you don’t care about the message of the video or what Wolfson thinks. Letting the mood wash over you is incredibly seductive. In one particularly well-shot scene, the camera takes the perspective of the condom, floating down a set of stairs into a living room, with Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” crooning in the background. At that moment, which was one of many, I was so mesmerized by the ingenuity of the filmmaking, I wasn’t able to be critical of the content.

That kind of skill is rare, and it leads me to believe that whatever interpretation one finds, the video can also be viewed as beautifully rendered time capsule of the moment. Part of that capsule, though, isn’t meant to be friendly. Watch the glib expression on the cartoon Wolfson has repeatedly cutting himself with a knife a few times, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a violent image, but the expression suggests the act itself is insincere; the cartoon’s fucking with himself and his audience and for no better reason than because he can.

  • Sven

    So the genius part of the work for you was the cinematography..or the cinematic luxury of a pleasing tracking shot of an upscale interior with a Mazzy Star song playing at the same time? The video displayed a sufficient amount of skill, but I was not entranced to the extent that you describe. In particular, the mash up (at the end?) with art history great moments (ukiyo-e, brueghel, etc) seemed somewhat amateurish (recalling “great art moments” a la Tarkovsky’s Solaris…but maybe this “heart on the sleeve” awkwardness was intentional). I would agree though, that the piece seemed to be an argument for the hypnotic allure (and perhaps supposed power?) of passive nihilism.

    • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

      Oh, I agree, that art history mash up was terrible.

      • Sven

        I agree that the moment was hypnotizing in its own way, but I would not call it genius. Could you pinpoint a little more specifically what would tip the scales into the genius category if it was more effective? Andrew Russeth, for example, compares him to Koons in his review, yet with Koons there is usually an identifiable message or philosophy from which the work purports to come, however vapid it may be. In this show I did not see one, and felt that was a weakness. The two dimensional works, for example, recalled in concept classic pruitt-early works (artworks for teenage boys); in their works though, the antagonism present in the cultural appropriation loads the silly presentation with meaning and power. (they were also made 25 years earlier or so)

        • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

          It’s not just the cinematography for me, though I think that’s done extremely well. For me, the meaning of the work, even with Wolfson’s disclaimers, is a moving target and that makes interesting. There’s all kinds of slippery work like this, but this stuff is more disturbing than most, and I think there’s a virtuosity in achieving that level vile material.

          That said, I admit the label, “genius” may be overstated. Looking or thinking about something for a long time is not necessarily an indication of its value. I have some concern that I’ll look back at the work and realize he actually doesn’t have anything to say after all.

          • Sven

            fair enough.

  • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

    Jordan Wolfson contacted me to clarify what me meant in terms of “value”.

    I meant value in terms of something being reliant on a conceptual structure or moral historical expectation.

    I consider myself a witness to culture and world at large.

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