Of Zebraification: A Review of Cousins Presents “Faceless”
The exhibition is the first for popup gallery Cousins. It dwells in a small industrial garage, a handful of stops down the L train in Brooklyn, NY. The five exhibited artists are gathered under Faceless, a title suggesting “the asignifying, asubjective, and faceless” as taking priority over dull and authorial recognition–exemplified in the concept of a face or pizza.
The emphasis for Faceless is instead mixed signals and ambiguous tactics. An open question pulled from the press release reads, “Can one shed these symmetrical lines and confines, dismantling the face, effacing the perimeter that it inscribes?” An appropriately strange group of artworks are gathered to do this bidding, shifting media and tone wildly, but Faceless manages to find a unit of cohesion in its stylistic and conceptual disparity.
Anna Hegarty‘s paintings and drawings are placed along the wall of the Cousins garage. The works share a specific and familiar style, appearing provisionally jotted down and completely self-assured. Their subjects are pared down, limited primarily to basketballs, bodies of water and arrowed lines on printer paper. The drawings resemble those animations on dry-erase boards that are frequently used to illustrate YouTube-brand popular science videos. In Anna’s drawings, as with such videos (think of T.E.D. talks or the “Drawn To Science” series), ideas are not demonstrated per se (her line would have to be more rigorous, for instance, to represent a proper trajectory in physics). Instead, they are “visualized” and abbreviated, a crude translation for the layman into an inviting and casual shorthand. They are legible without being imposing. Her wonky line declares these simple truths in a way that makes them as innocent and natural as an infant’s young life. It might be identified as an it-just-makes-plain-sense-doesn’t-it? kind of line quality. But this affective language quickly gives way to a whole range of confusion.
The basketballs, for instance, are in each drawing waiting to move. They are never being pushed by the force of the arrow, which is instead always ahead of the ball, as if each one was destined to end up over there, in that other area of the printer paper. It is only by an implication outside of time that the balls will land where we are supposed to think they want to go. It is by their effortless force that we comply. “There is all of this stuff,” one of the drawings proclaims in a near perfect non-statement, “you get to choose what to hang on to”. A different grammar with a similar effect, the statement appears to deliver matter of fact simplicity with an inviting and humanistic tone. But reflection grants a cooled over foreboding that is almost a threat in the context of the crowded and unmoving pseudo-basketballs. They are here for you, but they also seem so empty, just empty and ambiguous enough to overcome their style of persuasion. Within this simplified world, there is only an implication of life, or purpose, or continuity. Where is the movement (it hasn’t happened), or concepts (they don’t exist), or the basketball players (there never were any)? Of course they are implied, but only as blanks to fill in. The viewer’s impression of sense is only abbreviated, a “verbalization”, just as the drawings are “visualizations,” but ones that ultimately refute the conviction that their warbly precision demands.
Ambika Subramaniam and Alex Zandi’s Dances with Rhizome Pixels spews code over footage of Ambika dancing to an exotic beat. The video is a collaboration between her mesmerizing dance and Zandi’s deflating thought-code. Phrases and names appear as executable functions on the screen, and sometimes flow across at a genial pace. Other times, they overlap hurriedly. The text begins to write out the movements of the dancer before she makes them, suggesting the code is causing the dance, so as to reveal the relation of determinacy between code and its interface as it appears to the viewer. The code even takes the pretense of seeming to execute the viewer’s interpretation throughout the course of the viewing. It offers connections to texts in media studies and philosophy, tautologically suggesting that it is executing the function that has caused your thought-pattern, tautological because you have no choice but to ponder its references in relation to the video accordingly.
The suggestion that everything is coded in advance seems like a silly game, a game that is held from falling trap to its own oversimplification by the visuals of Ambika’s dance and the accompanying music. The code is never systematic in its determination of the viewer’s own viewing, chancing instead to mix random phrases, or to merely be illegible, so that the self-fulfilling prophecy of reception never finally breaks the spell of the image, just as the opposite remains equally true. Instead, the two aspects hold each other at bay, never meshing, and only very lightly antagonizing at the level of presentation. The video ends with us gazing at Ambika’s face, the code no longer running, yet remaining as a nagging reminder that her presence, or that between viewer and image as between image and thought, is not so, not finally.
There is a notable recurrence of zebra imagery running through the show, from a promotional poster for the Faceless exhibition itself to a video installation by another participant, Netta Sadovsky. There is the sense that the zebra is the perfect symbol of bewilderment (perhaps facelessness) and that it could serve as a proper post-medium icon. In general, the patterned fur of a zebra is much too loud to have been co-opted for military camouflage, and the zebra’s status as a grazing animal and as prey in the circle of life distinguishes it from 19th century imperialist exotica, the way lions or other big game animals might have seemed in this context. The zebra, instead, seems to exist only to be seen–for its pattern functions in all instances to disrupt a landscape. The point of the zebra is its visuality, especially as actor in the natural world, where it serves to be seen and therefore more easily hunted. But still, its aesthetic jar breaks open and deflates its mere use. You could say that zebras are too emphatic in presenting themselves to sight to be seen without a bit of suspicion.
Netta uses zebra footage to replace two partners engaged in the sexual act. The bodies of the participants retain their outline but, presumably through video manipulation and the actors’ adornment of green screen suits, their interiors are entirely replaced with galloping zebras. It is not just a polyvalent, bewildering reference, it is also pattern itself. The video manages to disrupt as well as reinstate a viewer’s attention all at once, continously. The scene of the Savannah and the herd of zebras move northwesterly relative to the camera, and we seem to occupy an aerial position when gazing at them, our camera eye cropped close to mostly only make out the moving stripes. Such a position serves to create a flattened, all-over depth–more undulating horizontally than recessing infinite.
The zebra herd doesn’t sit on top of the static room it interrupts, but is instead the interior of the couple’s amatuer sex, those who were the originary subjects of the video. The entirely separate visions of the two sources become one as the two hypothetical cameras mesh and double their subjects. The bedroom scene is made flat, turned into a screen by the zebra footage, and the sex becomes a compositional form, a shape that contains the zebra the way the standardized rectangle contains video as its conventional limit.
The zebra-world becomes a new figure recessively, pushing the bedroom image onto the “surface” of the projection. The joy of images, whether static or moving, is that they can always integrate their elements into a unity, and what is impossibly separate is unavoidably immersed at the same time. Neither can the two be banalized into a single image, than they can be seen as separate occurrences. Each moment fends off any deep chains of motivated use from sex or aesthetics in the same instance that those moments invite self-abuse in the first place. Sadovsky’s video rejoices in mixing these signals, and there locus in that viewer’s voyeurism, the flow between images and individuals, here cut off in advance to find paranoia and absorption, curiosity and discrimination, and distance restored.
Unlike Zandi’s video with its sedated manipulation of Ambika’s once aestheticized, now cooly coded body, Sadovsky cultivates a hyper-aesthetics of rapid love and zebras running (to say nothing of the pixel decay resulting from sloppy video editing), but that maintains a stillness nonetheless. There is a precise confluence of degree where the excitement of the visual form of frantic copulation and the zebraification of its interior meet, hardening each other’s fluidity, not unlike lava mixing in the ocean, creating pillow basalts. This same phenomenon can be found in a particular drawing of Hegarty’s, which keeps a solid line surrounding a rectangle in place, but employs arrows to determine motion from its absent innards outward. Both works create an absolute imminent itching, the rubbing all-at-once of a specific dimensional boundary overcome, or pushed backwards unto itself. For Netta, it is the trans-3rd and for Hegarty, the poly-2nd dimension.
Shayna Cohn’s Photoshop images appear like calm bubble-shapes next to the violent marinate of Netta’s video. For these prints, a hyper-aesthetic of digital collage is repurposed to placidize. There are just enough disparate elements to inspire confusion, but a confusion that is so carefully arranged around an acute and awkward interest that it is almost an embarrassment for the viewer. The eyes suggest a horse, but in the context of the exhibition, they are better off as zebras. What looks like felt backed faux-crystals mimic the black yoke of the zebra eyes from the top corners, though admittedly the illusion subtracts the sclera and those brazen eyelashes from their mimetic source. The sprayed cellulose walls, which can be seen at the edges of the photograph of the install shot above, show the capitalized attitude that Cousins takes towards its garage space. The sprayed cellulose rubs up against the harsh edges of the print with fuzzy paper-substance – oddly continuous with the internal spatial construction consisting of harsh cut-outs incongruously placed near blurred erases.
Amongst these dizzyingly over-determined objects, poet/performance artist Kentaro Kumanomido lolled about towards the entrance, lighting mementos of “Faceless” on the perfect image of a post-war barbecue grill. The procedure, a part of his performance aptly titled, Synomical Logconstruct, also allowed for individuals to place an order, presumably as an extension of the summer barbecue theme. He went around “taking orders.” When asked what was available, his response was “Whatever you want,” with a cadence entirely different in tone from that of Anna’s basketball invitation. I ordered, and he gave me the receipt. He returned after an appropriate period of time with my original order slip in hand – my order, which was squid, turned into a colorful acronym – S.Q.U.I.D., the particular breakdown of which I can not recall, because I consumed it and forgot.