We are past the point of “ends” and “posts” and in the moment of “offs.” Proposed by writer and media artist Svetlana Boym, the concept of being “off-modern” is described in many ways. It is a recovery of “unforeseen pasts”; a venture “into the side alleys of modern history”; an improvisation; or a non-linear cultural zigzag. Boym writes:
The “off” in “off-modern” designates both belonging to the critical project of modernity and its edgy excess. It signifies both intimacy and estrangement, belonging and longing to take off.1
Inclusion and exclusion, absence and presence, the canonized and the outsider, these poles assist as benchmarks for locating where and what might be considered “off” in 2015. As a condition that shapes how cultural history is re-activated and re-written across different geographic frameworks and unrelated borders, to be “off” is an essential and agreed upon guideline –an important, self-selecting guideline for a group of artists who meet by seeming chance for two years of graduate study in New York and hail from all over the world.
The concept set forth above provides a useful framework for the challenging task of curating an exhibition in an MFA Fine Arts program. As a round-up of contemporary practices and current trends of the Parsons program, the exhibition Off Pink is a manifestation and culmination of two years of artistic production. Twenty-four artists share space at The Kitchen’s gallery in an exhibition that is one word, but certainly not the final word on the subject.
Another conceit proved consequential to the organizing structure of the MFA thesis exhibition: the color pink. Why pink? Pink is an in-between color –an intermediate color between white and red; it implies a relationship of parts to whole. It is traditionally a feminine and feminist color, but it’s also a color once associated with a badge of shame that has been reclaimed as an international symbol of human rights. The phrase “in the pink” means to be in the best health or best condition and as such pink is symbolic of good health. However to “turn pink” implies some kind of sickness, unease, or embarrassment. As a color, pink gets a bad rap for its privileging of affect over intelligence. However, pink is powerful, provocative, and full of humor. Pink is all of these things and more; it also hides in it a bit of vice and mischief. “Pink is a chromatic demon” is how the philosopher Reza Negarestani astutely described it2. And thus in discussing an idea that could define an ultimately heterogeneous group we arrived at “Off Pink.”
Off Pink is arranged into four thematic groupings that offer readings of artworks that bear some relationship to one another. As evidenced in the New Museum Triennial concurrent with Off Pink, one subject spreading precipitously through the channels of art today is that of selfhood. In an era of widespread, self-consciously public depictions of self –an idea now synonymous with selfie-culture– the personal is becoming more and more challenged. Selfhood is becoming radicalized and fractured, and yet at the same time and in other places, it becomes more and more conventionalized to established standards. In Off Pink the subject of self-image manifests in two interrelated sub-themes: personal identity and persona on the one hand, and the body and its associated characteristics on the other.
As artistic strategies centered on negotiations of personal identity percolate and emerge in the diverse multimedia work featured in Off Pink, so too do inevitable mistranslations, displacements, and distortions. This is evident in the work of Alma Sinai whose videos resemble animations and are based on drawings and prints overlaid on top of the default color-bars that typify a momentary loss caused by corrupted or interrupted networks. Referring to her works as “phantom memories” Sinai’s videos and drawings operate as metaphorical instruments that suggest the inevitable and sometimes tragic process of losing memories, as they slip and release from the mind’s eye as a result of both distance and time. Layers of personal memory that get built up and periodically erode are comparable in some respects to the geological strata that constitute the earth’s material evolution. Such is a subject in the work of Maikaʻi Tubbs whose Hawaiian heritage pairs with the ecological ramifications of pollution on an island community to provide the conceptual framework for his explorations of material detritus. Tubbs’s ephemeral sculptures made of cardboard or handmade glue decay and disintegrate in the gallery, only to be built up again in an endlessly iterative process of self-discovery. Commenting on and critiquing a culture half a world away from that of Tubbs, is the work of Amal Khan. Focused on the motif of the “kaffiyeh” scarf as symbolic object, Khan’s work questions power and privilege in the male-dominant, gender-segregated country of Saudi Arabia. Transmutations and distortions of the motif and its red and white stitching direct Khan’s videos, sculptures, and prints alluding to the “kaffiyeh”’s crossover brand as both a classist symbol of masculinity and an emergent terrorist chic statement. Invested similarly in culturally specific textiles, Minhee Bae’s hand sewn works made of beautiful dyed silks unify seemingly disparate subjects. In Bae’s work Korean culture melds with contemporary digital culture. The Bojagi, a traditional women’s textile craft used to wrap precious objects, is crossed over and collaged with the icons of popular emojis in a confluence of craft culture and pixelated pop aesthetics. Andy Wentz’s video installations employ similar mash-up strategies of appropriation. By juxtaposing a highly compressed video of hip-hop dancers with an enigmatic musical score, Wentz’s surrounding and mesmerizing installations distort notions of selfhood in a constantly compressing and oppressive world. Buzz Slutzky’s video installation emerges from similar pop music roots and involves the fictitious meeting of pop star Justin Bieber and Holocaust icon Anne Frank. In the video and drawing-based installation that describes the impossible encounter, Slutzky’s protagonists share a cheese pizza. Questions of representation, authenticity and feasibility percolate in the work, tying it conceptually to the ongoing questions raised in the work of American Artist. Having changed his name to the generic and yet contentious term a few years earlier, Artist’s work consistently challenges the role of the artist. Like his peers, his work raises questions of authorlessness, authenticity, and anonymity amid a proliferating image culture.
The body as a space of self-projection emerges in the work of another group of artists in Off Pink. Ideas related to masking of the self and the body suggest that personal appearance and social representation are always part fact, part fiction –made only more overt and problematic in a digitized era where online transformations of self and related avatars are as easily adopted as they are abandoned. Molly Teitelbaum’s short video interventions into the mundane, risk taboo topics like female public urination to present an unexpected, unconventional notion of emergent female sexuality. The work packs a punch of humor. The sexualized female body repeats in the work of Leah Schrager whose photographs of herself are literally masked by collagist and sometimes painterly elements. Schrager’s various online personas (which she terms ‘onas’) act out stereotyped relationships to and characterizations of the (female) body. Writing about a group of simpatico artists, Schrager astutely observes: today’s “bodies appear as fantasies, mutations, glitches, nightmares, mundanities, dating profiles.” The same might be said of a number of works in Off Pink. Ideas of mutation, fantasy, and the monstrous manifest in the work of M. Mendez and Flynn Linehan yet through vastly different, and opposing techniques. Mendez’s video introduces a human-like “monster” on a date in a mundane domestic environment. As surrogates for “the other”, Mendez’s filmic bodies are not fully documented, formed nor completely understood despite their apparent and appealing vulnerability. In sharp comparison, Linehan’s abstracted compositions emerge from photographic or indexical printing processes that echo the body. A series of prints made from cheap latex masks warp human faces into unsettling and uncanny contortions. The establishment of an index is the driving force behind the fragile, evocative work of Nikola Kravitt. Rendered in layers of paper, paint, and photographs that are sewn, collaged, and then ripped, Kravitt’s textures suggest a macroscopic and microscopic world view that mirrors the emotional magnitude and fleetingness of human pain. Anxiety, alienation, and the uncanny abound in the work of these artists whose bodily unrest is just perfectly “off” bounds.
As with the first two thematic groupings, the subsequent constellations of Off Pink evoke a mutually dependent pair wedded together over shared interests and impulses. The work in these groupings gather around a provisional approach to systems-based, process-laden methods. In particular, a tendency to view systems of flux –subject to endless and iterative interpretation– defines a group of artists whose work addresses material displacement in terms fragmentary and interstitial. Julie Laenkholm’s sculpture and video give form to seemingly quick gestures that carry situational and performative complexity. The artifice of plastic is met with the natural quality of unfired clay in her sculpture and like the language she spontaneously crafts, the unfinished effects of her work give presence to the gap between image and text, between what language is and what it represents. The ambiguity in Laenkholm’s practice is echoed in that of Sofia Quirno whose multimedia compositions dance between figuration and abstraction, painting and sculpture, video and animation. The interstitial moments we encounter in the works of this group might be achieved as readily through object relation and juxtaposition as in the case of Quirno’s installations, however the implications of specific geographical displacement suggests an equally unstable and fluctuating system. The system at the heart of the work of Patience Rustomji is an alienated one where missed connections and could-have-been interactions are transformed into fictionalized mementos for moments never-been. Rustomji’s process of collecting found objects in her apartment building and then preserving them through pickling or in plaster evokes the fleetingness of memory and the impossibility of human interaction in a highly mediated world. Aaron Cooper’s discursive work follows the trajectories of contested sites, and their related cultural capital. A classical sculpture that miraculously washes ashore in Palestine provokes a sustained investigation of how and who decides the terms of cultural history. Specificity is key to building a map of a complex system and nowhere is this more evident than in the work of Logan Lape. Primitive navigational strategies that astound a high-tech mechanized world direct Lape’s temporary, esthetic sculptural structures. The specters of 20th century technological advancement are embedded within the sculptural practice of Jessie English, whose aluminum constructions suggest a sturdy build at the same time that they suggest fragmentary dislocation. The motion implied in English’s monumental forms is balanced and complimented by the unmonumental methods of Jeremy Olson’s small, mostly handmade or hand-altered mechanical systems that build up and then disintegrate through human touch. The systems employed and deployed in the work of this group of artists are at times arbitrary or transient, and as such they demonstrate an ever-changing relationship to the biological, geographic, technological, and cultural systems that increasingly mediate our lives.
A final group of artists approach a similarly diverse set of networks in their work, however their approach is distinguished by a repetition of form, through seriality, and through an interest in the implied and assumed qualities of language and the patterning developed out of emergent communication systems. In Luciana Pinchiero’s installation we see repeated forms that suggest an artistic production that is both serial and stacked, but also fragile and experimental. The humor of Pinchiero’s unstable sculptural stacks is echoed in the sculptural castings, videos and performances of Gabriel Pericàs. By giving weight, presence, and attention to otherwise overlooked physical phenomena, Pericàs’s work ushers in the unexpected. Spit becomes hard and gravity is defied. The unforeseen is equally at play in the text and image-based collage of Daniel Cerrejón. Since moving to New York Cerrejón has been collecting and building an archive of newspaper clippings. In juxtaposing the language of influence and emotion taken from the media with images that are equally charged in feeling and suggestion, Cerrejón’s diptychs echo their original source but they reshuffle the data, opening up new patterns of thought. In the abstracted, layered paintings of Tariku Shiferaw the symbol of the X has recently began to recur. Shiferaw’s X takes on a number of ambiguous meanings: the void, a placeholder, the other. Bouncing between seemingly contradictory states of representation and abstraction, Shiferaw’s surfaces suspend time and place. Multiple translations abound in the work of Keith Tilford whose digital animation and drawings explore the technologies that define a digitized world, both real and simulated. In testing the limits of his simulation models, Tilford’s work challenges the disembodied language of desire.
Despite a diversity of origins, the questions of selfhood and systemic approaches found in the work included in Off Pink respond to the conditions of our world. For indeed, the “off” in Off Pink is exactly as Boym describes it; it signifies both a belonging –being member of a group, a cohort, an ensemble– but also a longing to get on with things, to take what is learned and then finally, eventually, and anticipatedly –degree in hand– to take off.
Tina Kukielski is an independent curator.
She lives and works in New York.