No Name, the group show currently on view at Lower East Side gallery On Stellar Rays, is a theory-based project that develops a collaborative scene of “gestures, memories and detritus.” The show presents a collection of objects that are incoherent, elusive, and laden with a mysterious personal logic. The work demonstrates a strong theoretical basis, drawing primarily from Judith/Jack Halberstam’s advocation of failure as a radical praxis for queer world-making. In The Queer Art of Failure, published in 2011, Halberstam looks toward the refusal of mastery and the evasion of cohesive narrative as techniques for resistance and for crafting a new future.
We can find the essence of queerness in moments that are simultaneous, unfinished, mysterious, angry, abrasive, and elusive. No Name serves as a banner for this queer logic. In the work of artists like Jonathan VanDyke, traces of action stand alone as art objects; harlequin smears of paint on the gallery wall signify the aftermath of VanDyke’s performance piece Self Portrait as My Mother, as an Actress, as a Painter, as a Stranger (2013).* As impractical and cryptic as these traces are, they demonstrate an alternate kind of making and an alternate consciousness or world view.
However, the concept of failure as a radical praxis is not new to contemporary art, and these objects present a series of relatively conservative failures. Michael Mahalchick’s Flag (2013), for instance, brings a simulacrum of the studio into the gallery, as a dripping rendition of the American flag dribbles down the gallery’s wall and out into the middle of the floor. The piece is installed with Mahalchick’s personal effects still present, offering a kind of everyman’s studio: two Yuengling bottles sit beside empty gelato containers stained with red, white, and blue paint below a shelved Savarin can full of dirty brushes and old water. Flag is constructed with a pointed messiness, and its errors and the traces of its process define it as an object. No Name charts such failures of artistic formalism that seem safely reserved and highly pointed.
This intentional resistance is juxtaposed with the alternate technique of conjuring resistance out of the inevitable byproduct of spontaneous collapse. Nathaniel Robinson’s Heap (2013), a pile of twigs and cigarette butts, is a meaningless and sad lump of garbage that alludes to such a collapse. Robinson’s deliberate collection of refuse speaks to a more pathetic, personal struggle that glows forth from some of the objects in the gallery space. Vanessa Billy’s Preserved Stone (2013), an unassuming rock coated with a semen-like substance (noted on the list of works as Vaseline), reads as another mysterious, pathetic object. Mother (2013), Jennifer Sirey’s beautiful set of glass vitrines filled with substances resembling blood, flesh, and other bodily materials, presents a starkly crafted subscription to some meaningful personal formula that remains a secret to the viewer.
Zackary Drucker continues her practice of inviting strangers to manipulate her own physical image with the salient piece WELCOME (2012), which transforms her visage into a literal doormat. The piece is positioned at the entrance of the gallery so that visitors have to step on or over—or even wipe their feet on top of—Drucker’s beautiful face, framed by a fur-lined hood. Drucker’s mat provides a literal and figurative gateway into the work in this show. The artist’s face is commodified as an object and glorified through the photographic moment as it shines out from the opulence of her furs. When positioned on the ground as an object with a utilitarian function, the furs become the coarse fibers of a common brown doormat from a garden home store. The piece is an invitation for the viewer to destroy it, marking an intense vulnerability on the part of the artist even as her physical body is absent from the space. As we walk on her face, soiling her image, we are reminded of our agency in the production of identity and our complicity in shaping and transforming the Other through our interactions with her.
The works in No Name can be understood as a series of highly crafted allusions to struggle that are partially destroyed and purposely unfinished. But many pieces are too cleanly executed to ever be mistaken for real failures. Though these objects are all arrested in the complicated process of becoming, they are too intentional to get close enough to the type of dysfunction associated with the failures of everyday life. Drucker’s doormat stands alone in this regard. As it gets dirtier and dirtier as the show goes on, it is more impressed upon by the literal weight of the artist’s interaction with her audience. Halberstam’s theory is most productive to me in terms of the articulation of such a moment. The effort of creating a beautiful object becomes trashed as the object is used, thereby harnessing the failure that comes out of a desperate, sincere attempt to succeed.
No Name is on view at On Stellar Rays through July 25, 2013.
*The exhibition will culminate with a closing performance of Jonathan VanDyke’s Self Portrait as My Mother, as an Actress, as a Painter, as a Stranger from 3 to 6 p.m. July 25.