Essay: Jordan Wolfson

My first exposure to Jordan Wolfson’s Colored sculpture (2016) occurred by accident, while scrolling through my Instagram feed during the height of Frieze Art Fair Week in New York. I had heard gossip about the opening, the long lines to see the work and how the piece involved a gigantic animatronic installation. But as I scrolled through my feed, a video of the work appeared amid the sea of selfies, images of art, photos of food, model glamour shots and memes that populated my screen.

Posted by an art journalist who I happened to follow, I came across a horizontally cropped low-resolution video of a large animatronic mannequin dangling over the ground, suspended from huge chains that snaked across the floor. It was presented without a title, its only descriptors reading #jordanwolfson #davidzwirner. Taken at the opening, it showed the mannequin tortuously dangling, as if crucified, while the Percy Sledge song “When a Man Loves a Woman” boomed over speakers installed along the gallery’s perimeter. The music cut abruptly, and the giant redheaded robot boy, equal parts Rainforest Café, Chucky and Dennis the Menace, smashed to the ground, interrupting the scene with the force of a punch line. Its music and violent editing were not terribly dissimilar from the videos that I am deluged with whenever I open Instagram: short, seemingly authorless, darkly comic videos with text captions that show scenes of car crashes, people fighting, kids being pranked. Something abrupt or bizarre happens after a few moments of tension, often scored with pop music.
 

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Seeing the work in person a week later, on an off-day when the gallery was nearly empty, I watched the mannequin contort in a choreographed sequence throughout the space, at times hanging in tense anticipation, at others flailing around the space before smashing down to the ground with overt fury, the clanging of the chains thunderously reverberating throughout the gallery. The soundtrack—silence, then an obtuse poetic monologue by Wolfson that evoked a kind of competitive sexualized violence between a couple (“…ten to end inside your hair, eleven you’re right over my shoulder, twelve your mouth full of coffee, twelve I knew you, thirteen I killed you, fourteen you’re blind, fifteen you’re spoiled, sixteen to lift you, seventeen to show you, eighteen to weigh you…”) before being abruptly cut off by Sledge—seemed designed at once to provide a narrative for, mock, and sympathize with the pathetic scene. Every so often, the robot caught my gaze, and through facial recognition technology, would lock eyes with me before being hurled across the space.

have very strong memories of torture scenes I witnessed in films as a child. To an eight-year-old boy, the most disturbing thing about witnessing torture was not, as Foucault postulates in Discipline and Punish, that it served “….to show the frequency of crime, to make the executioner resemble a criminal, judges murderers, to reverse roles at the last moment, to make the tortured criminal an object of pity,” but rather that the very instruments of torture did not themselves revolt in protest of the ends to which they were used. I remember wondering how it was that the instruments of torture themselves felt no pity, that the physical material itself remained in cold resolution. I was first exposed to such images while watching cartoons. In cartoons, too, the regular laws of matter often do not apply—but of course, in reality, objects do not move with an intelligence of their own. It is not difficult to extend the disturbing complicity of physical matter in its own use to some questions about the power (or lack thereof) in works of art. Watching the mechanical mounts of Colored sculpture moving back and forth with extreme facility, dragging the robotic boy across the room, their movements inexorably programmed (in contrast to the lumbering, at times comical movement of the mannequin), evoked in me a familiar, almost nostalgic feeling of dread.

In interviews about his work, Wolfson regularly speaks about the “inability of humanity” to reconcile with the “indifference of the natural world.” In a conversation with Kate Guggenheim on the advent of an exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, he said, “The great dichotomy of being human and being conscious is that we are not indifferent and the bodies we inhabit are so indifferent and they punish us constantly… The universe is a mechanical place. There will always be that problem, that dichotomy because we struggle and search for reason in our lives… That’s why I think indifference is so beautiful, because it’s the mechanical way of the universe.”

very early video work titled Dinosaur evinces the beginnings of an interest in this theme. Produced in 2001, it is a fifteen-minute video of a robotic pool cleaner snaking through a swimming pool in the dead of night. The robot moves through the lit water, its long sinuous body furling and unfurling as a chorus of crickets hums in the background. If it were not to run out of batteries, or if its joints and compounds were not to wear down and degrade from use, it would move through the pool forever. To an untrained eye, it might give off the appearance of being guided by reason—sensing and responding to its environment with some animal intelligence, even experiencing some feeling of tranquility. But, of course, that is not the case.

Many of the same themes recurred throughout Wolfson’s 2014 debut exhibition at David Zwirner. In one sequestered room of the exhibition, which only a single individual or small group could enter at a time, was the animatronic sculpture Female Figure (2014). A grotesque cross between a platinum blonde RealDoll and fantasy goblin, the figure danced on loop in front of a large mirror, its movement bound to a vertical axis due to the moving metal pole affixed to its center. Performing a kind of exaggerated striptease more abject than titillating, it speaks with Wolfson’s voice (“…My mother is dead, my father is dead, I’m gay, I’d like to be a poet, this is my house…”) and dances and grinds to a pop music soundtrack, one that culminates in a frenetic routine set to a slowed-down version of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Using facial recognition, the sculpture periodically makes eye contact with the viewer through their reflection in the mirror.

 

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The sheer number of self-operating machines that we encounter on a daily basis has brought to the forefront of pop culture questions of the difference between man and machine.  But Colored sculpture and Female Figure instead explore an area that is more the native provenance of psychoanalysis. Wolfson says about Female Figure: “This work is about a physicality I experienced within my own body in relation to a third body, an artificial body. I’m not interested in AI… I’m interested in the experience of seeing something.”

Exchanging gazes with Wolfson’s sculptures is a deeply alienating experience. It is an experience of outrageous spectacle, of viewing matter that has a designed end and only imitates human connection. There are strange material disconnects and interventions: the mirror in Female Figure functions as a second mask and source of misdirection (with a nod to Las Meninas), while the smashing of the mannequin onto the floor in Colored sculpture suggests some strange psychic eruption or violation—the bursting of a cartoon character into its separate celluloid background. The floor of Colored sculpture, streaked with dirt, grime and what seems like mechanical blood, becomes not unlike a painting, albeit one repeatedly assaulted.

Formally, much of Wolfson’s work exhibits these kinds of divisions. His paintings are commonly separated into two or more layers—one work, Untitled (2014), shows Wolfson’s hands caressing a CGI face of a beautiful woman, aluminum bars creating yet another layer over the painting. As in the sculptural works, an impossible distance exists between the human figure and an artificial body. Likewise, in his 2012 video work Raspberry Poser, floating condoms filled with hearts, bouncing animated versions of the HIV Virus and an animated boy not too dissimilar to the character of Colored sculpture drift over stock images, the foreground impossibly separated from the background.

 

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The desire expressed by a human subject towards an “indifferent” object also mirrors some facet of the experience of using a cellphone or browsing the Internet, a dynamic that is perhaps exemplified in the impetus behind the following of the most popular accounts on Instagram: sexual desire aimed at a person whom you will most likely never meet, their image widely distributed and moderated through an entirely diffident object. It is no surprise that Wolfson’s sculptures themselves have been the subject of wide distribution on social media; they lend themselves to this distribution and ape a new, nefarious sensibility (political and aesthetic) that facilitates their rapid consumption, even if they are nominally intended to be viewed alone, in person and in direct visual exchange with the gaze of the object. Like many of the most successful viral images and videos, the work possesses some arcane mixture of absurd humor, cruelty, spectacle, desire and sexual shame that captivates audiences online.

The legacy of Jeff Koons has been brought up with respect to Wolfson’s work before, but it’s clear that if Koons’ work (to paraphrase Scott Rothkopf’s essay “No Limits”) speaks to “things” and their industry, Wolfson’s work bears this influence strongly but with a uniquely contemporary angle. Whether it is through the adoption of visual rhetorics native to magazine or billboard advertising, store displays or even pornography, Koons consistently interrogates the way that objects are distributed (and, in many instances, distribute themselves).  Similarly, Wolfson’s Colored sculpture takes an archetypical pop image (Huck Finn/Howdy Doody/Dennis the Menace) and heightens the object’s commercial potential by staging it in an act of extremely well-produced theater, but does so with a contemporary undertone of comic agony and sexual shame. It’s no accident that it gazes at the viewer like Koons’ figure does in the centerpiece of his pornographic “Made in Heaven” series.

 

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Wolfson’s 2011 video Animation, masks again features a character exchanging a protracted glance with the viewer, as an overt caricature of an orthodox Jew, his features grossly exaggerated into a stereotypical anti-Semitic image, exchanges glances and grimaces with the viewer while leafing through a copy of Vogue magazine. In the background, a series of stock images of interiors zoom in and out: an old New York loft, a prefabricated home, a luxury interior, the sort you might see in a DWR catalog. At times, he holds his hand in the shape of a gun, variably pointing it at the viewer and then at himself; at other moments, he punches himself in the face or throws his arm over his shoulder in an cartoonish state of rest, his nose and ears stretching out in a gross exacerbation of his features. Over the video, sound plays; Wolfson talks with a sultry voice to a young woman, an actress or a lover. At Wolfson’s request, she describes what it is like to have sex with him, the size of his penis, and so on. For the most part, the character mouths the words. A cascade of different voices read “Love Poem by Richard Brautigan: “It’s so nice / to wake up in the morning / all alone / and not have to tell somebody / you love them / when you don’t love them / any more.” A large series of different images are displayed over the character’s face: Sponge Bob, Louis Vuitton logos, Hobbes (as in Calvin &). The video concludes as Charles Trenet’s “La Mer” plays.

Like Raspberry Poser, Animation, masks can be seen as a protracted formalist experiment in appropriation: a work that uses the medium of animation as fertile territory for an aesthetic undertaking, that assumes its visual language from cartoons, art history and a “classic” racial stereotype all in the same gesture. Images of the bourgeois Jewish male with a joint class/sexual anxiety (and specifically that of the Male Jewish New Yorker, amongst whom I count myself) are codified enough into popular culture at this stage for them to be rife for use in this way; the sex obsessions of figures like those created by Woody Allen and Philip Roth have become cliché, stereotypes in their own right. The “indifferent” aesthetic logic of these works (that the images are presented with a stated degree of distance) is something that they and Wolfson make the case for: “I believe that my role as an artist is as a conduit. I can’t take responsibility and I’m not going to be able to intellectualize the whole thing. I don’t have a political position on all this. I try and open myself as a conduit to look at reality and re-process reality and see the world.”

 

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But many of these images have recently re-entered a common visual language (and specifically an American one) with new force. Like Cady Noland’s This Piece Has No Title Yet (1989), a large installation of American flags, scaffolds and Budweiser beer, Wolfson’s Colored sculpture, which is formally similar in its own construction, recasts a classic image of Americana with an overtly foreboding male sexualized violence. The prototypical cartoon Jewish caricature, almost identical to the figure in Animation, masks with its sexual connotations and securities, is one that is now readily deployed by the American alt-right in attacks on liberal politicians. (On pro-Donald Trump forums, the meme is even given a name: “The Happy Merchant.”) Of course, the far right has always wielded images like this, but it has been a long time since they’ve been on such regular publicly display; digital technology has obviously been instrumental in their widespread return.

Wolfson’s “Bumper Sticker Paintings” overtly express and offer reflexive comment on the contemporary political and sexual climate suggested in his sculptures—one untitled work from 2014, for instance, presents a cartoon boy shitting into a bucket while looking into a mirror.  Phrases like “AMERICAN TEETH AMERICAN BOSS AMERICAN BOSS AMERICAN BOX AMERICAN BLACK” are printed onto labels set in horizontal relief across the painting. Recurring throughout Wolfson’s paintings, the stickers presage the aesthetic of Pro-Donald Trump decals and campaign ads that feature phrases like “HILLARY FOR PRISON” or “TRUMP 2016: FINALLY SOMEONE WITH BALLS!”

The torment, sexual angst and extravagant spectacle characteristic of much of Wolfson’s work channels and critiques a dark strain in American culture, a collective id that has emerged in the epicenter of a new political and social battleground. It should come as no surprise that amid the cascade of racism and sexual revenge he propagates, Donald Trump himself so often appears in public not unlike a human caricature, a grinning cartoon. 

 

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Jordan Wolfson (American, b. 1980) is an artist who lives and works in New York. He is represented by David Zwirner, New York, and Sadie Coles HQ, London. Wolfson’s Colored sculpture is currently on view at LUMA Arles through 10 October. Later on, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam will present Wolfson’s two-part solo show “manic / love” from 27 November 2016–5 February 2017 and “truth / love,” opening on 4 March 2017.

Alexander Shulan is a writer and independent curator based in New York, where he is the founder of LOMEX. He is Associate
Editor of KALEIDOSCOPE.

Portraits by Jason Nocito (Creative Direction: Alessio Ascari; Production: Camilla Venturini)

Works in order of appearance: Colored sculpture, 2016 (detail); Female Figure, 2014 (detail); Raspberry Poser, 2012 (video still); Untitled, 2015. All images courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner, New York, and Sadie Coles HQ, London.