Tethered to the legacy of the artist Stuart Sherman, Nothing Up My Sleeve is an impressive curatorial undertaking that connects a group of artists who employ deception as creative device. Somewhat obscure, Sherman was most known for his Spectacles-- performances using folding TV dinner tables to stage his own brand of sorcery. Resembling the theatrics of a magic show, Sherman established mysterious relationships between mundane objects and his own engagement with them, convincing the viewers that there was an underlying logic that lay just beyond their grasp. This intent to exploit the subjective nature of reality is the thread that connects Sherman to the other artists in the exhibition, providing a platform to appreciate the illusions that artists create for the sake of their artistic vision.
The exhibition begins with documentation of Sherman’s Spectacles, four of which play on video monitors with accompanying headphones. After taking time to get lost in Sherman’s mystical yet spurious enactments, the objects on display in the room; photographs, a performance script, a folding table, a tiny toy mouse, an even tinier toy chair; turn into charmed artifacts, and our disbelief is suspended, granting poise to enter the next room.
The feeling of enchantment continues with Harry Houdini. In a case beneath photographs of Houdini’s famous escape acts rests the object described as a “mouth operated lock pick.” That this belonged to Houdini is only implied, but regardless, it reads as a holy artifact, Houdini’s message to us from the afterworld. He did fervently believe it was possible to communicate with spirits, although as we see through some artifacts and photos on display, he was out to prove the fallacy of popular methods for spirit communication.
On display nearby is another charmed artifact: James Lee Byar’s gold suit and hat, referencing the artist’s legendary installation and performance, “The Death of James Lee Buyers,” where the artist, clad completely in gold, disappears into a gold room. Byars believed and lived completely in the reality he created, and this is his perfect final act, he has completely vanished into the gold.
Just as Byars was the embodiment of his artistic vision, so was Andy Kaufman. A welcome addition to this show, Kaufman is acknowledged, through personal objects and ephemera (such as the transcript of his interview with Howdie Doody), for his compelling contribution as performance artist, a role that was widely misunderstood in his own lifetime.
The freedom to embody the character of one’s own choosing, and live that role completely is demonstrated by the inclusion of Hot Keys, an experimental series of plays performed in 1998-2001, and in the documented escapades of Vaginal Davis. For the exhibition, Jeff Weiss, who collaboratively produced Hot Keys with his partner, Richard C. Martinez, compiled a complete catalog of scenes, available to read through, of this legendary serial musical soap opera comedy that “rebuilt the world each week for a time, in a way that was as strange as it was true.” In a similar spirit, Vaginal Davis, who is represented by a display titled The History of Vaginal Davis, included in her discography an album listed as 1994’s Passover Satyr, by black fag released on Dischord Records, Produced by Kim Gordon. For the show, this completely fictional album is now theoretically produced as evidenced by a collection of emails and letters between Davis, her alter-ego Ravyn Cymone McFarland, and the likes of Kathleen Hannah, Adam Horowitz, and Kim Gordon.
Artifice continues with Katerina Burin’s P.A., a delicately crafted and curiously eccentric monograph of a fictional female architect. She explains in an interview with the curator, “The fictitious architect persona allows for an alter ego to be developed and nurtured without any guilt or restraint or questions or doubts about needs and goals.” This work is presented in conversation with Eileen Gray’s Galerie Jean Desert, a store opened by the female architect in the 1920s as a venue to display and sell her work through an invented (male) identity. On view are copies of ephemera such as announcements and invitations that were created to promote the store, providing a sense of Gray’s vision for branding and presenting of every aspect of the business.
Dan Levenson’s Little Switzerland gallery is an elaborate product of one artist’s imagination. Behind the receptionist’s desk you can see shipping boxes and stacks of stored archives of fictional artists. All objects in the space, from the furniture, to the packaging, to the art, right down to the type of cigarettes the receptionist smokes are branded with the “IKS Swiss Standard” trademark. The construction gives the illusion of leading back to a gallery described by Levenson as “the size of David Zwirner,” but the painting that leads you back towards this space turns out to be truncated, and the illusion ends. The fact that the gallery is dismembered can’t be too grave since, according to one of Little Switzerland’s press releases, it is soon relocating to Augustrasse in Berlin.
Tension between artificiality and authenticity of objects exists in the installations of Stefanie Victor and Carol Bove. Victor’s Untitled (boxes), consist of a series of plain, gift-wrapped boxes leaning against the wall. These simple objects, although familiar in form, do not function as we would expect them to in a natural context, and therefore take on a mysterious presence. Bove’s installation, La Traversee Difficile, consists of natural and manmade articles presented in a seemingly anthropological logic. A pile of bronze peanut shells, a sand dollar, a carved wooden head of Christ, a crushed rusty metal object, all very deliberately displayed as if priceless heirlooms, using elements of bronze to thread them together, at times quite literally with a delicate chain cast around and through the display.
To the curator’s credit, it would take days to properly review this show, which has been crafted by an artist deeply connected to the work he has chosen. For an in-depth investigative supplement to the show, an exhibition catalog will be available soon, containing essays and interviews between the artists. But don’t wait for the catalog, go see the show, it offers a transcendent experience for all.
In addition to the works on display, all of which could not possibly be touched upon in the space allotted, several limited edition items were created on behalf of the exhibition and are available at the front of the gallery, including a replica of “Uncle Andy’s Funhouse” t-shirt; Pedro, Muriel and Esther’s The White to be Angry CD and signed poster; and a brass Houdini inspired bracelet. All proceeds go to support Participant Inc’s programs. Participant Inc is a non-profit space, and one that is well worth supporting.
Note: in conjunction with Stuart Sherman: Nothing Up My Sleeve is Beginningless Thought / Endless Seeing: The Works of Stuart Sherman," Oct. 21-Dec. 19, 2009, at 80WSE, NYU’s gallery at 80 Washington Square East
Images: Vaginal Davis, Vaginal Davis as "Clarence" pictured with Glen Meadmore, performing with their Band "Pedro Muriel and Esther" (P.M.E.), in support of their 1998 record "The White to be Angry"; Little Switzerland/Dan Levenson, Advertisement for Letzte Cigarettes, packaging design by Urs Bereuter; Andy Kaufman, Record case index from Andy Kaufman’s first record collection, circa 1959. Courtesy of Lynne Margulies.