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Closet Pessimists



Mona Hatoum

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through September 14

Jason Zadak: I Distinctly Asked You Not to Wipe That on Me

at the Better Weimaraner Gallery, through September 19

By Fred Camper

In the closing decades of our century, art is ever more rarely the expression of an individual's being or striving; instead it embeds itself almost anonymously in our culture, often building on and resembling the mass-produced artifacts it strives to critique. The artist, no longer thought of as someone who can lead us into new places, is instead a cultural critic, a commentator on what already exists. Eschewing the aesthetic and intellectual territory sought by a Kandinsky or a Rothko, such artists gain a topical relationship to cultural issues. But their loss is arguably far greater, as they rebind themselves in the chains of their culture, abandoning the quest for new worlds that earlier artists hoped to gain.

Neither Mona Hatoum, an internationally known Palestinian artist who lives in London, nor Jason Zadak, a 25-year-old grad student at the School of the Art Institute, pretends to be inventing new forms. Though at first glance Hatoum's quietly mordant meditations on power seem to have little to do with Zadak's pomo jokes on painting, both artists' thought-provoking power comes from their critique of different segments of culture. But the absence of original handmade imagery in their art suggests a closet pessimism, the artist pointing an accusatory finger without offering any new beginnings.

Much has been made of Hatoum's double displacement--displaced by her Lebanese birth, she found herself in London in 1975 at the start of Lebanon's long civil war, unable to return. And indeed her work has an odd rootlessness; when it refers to place at all, something still seems out of place. The 36 pieces in the MCA exhibition are mostly sculptures and installations, though Hatoum began by doing performances and making videos; the photograph Performance Still in this show documents a 1985 event in which she walked barefoot through the streets of Brixton, a West Indian neighborhood of London. Tied to her ankles are a pair of Doc Martens; since these are the boots the British police wear, we see the feet of the victim and of the attacker at once. One element that separates Hatoum's works from one-dimensional political art, as Dan Cameron points out in his insightful catalog essay, is the way they vibrate between "the source of oppression and our subjective experience of it."

Many of the show's larger pieces take the form of melancholy, even sinister home furnishings. Incommunicado is a metal child's crib whose stern weight and silver color suggest some weirdly brutal orphanage, a suggestion underlined by the fact that in place of the metal grid that would normally support a mattress are thin parallel wires gruesomely evoking a kitchen slicer. Quarters consists of four rectilinear metal towers, each with five shelves of just the right size to make cramped sleeping areas. These are lined with the crisscrossed metal bands that support mattresses, making one wonder what concentration camp or slave quarters they've come from. Though there would be no easy way for a sleeper to climb to the upper shelves, they do resemble real mass-produced cots, and the viewer does imagine people sleeping in them. Here Hatoum comments on the dehumanizing effects of close confinement--and even, perhaps, on mass-manufactured furniture and high-rise architecture.

Many of Hatoum's pieces seem to be saying that our culture threatens the individual. Even her rugs can seem malevolent. The black Pin Carpet at first looks inviting, a thick, cushy surface to sink into. Then one realizes it's made entirely of upright pins. The surface of Entrails Carpet is filled with rubber intestinelike shapes curling about. A carpet--meant to shield the eyes and feet from the rough surface of a floor--here becomes something much rougher, suggesting the insides not of one but of many bodies.

Jessica Morgan, who wrote the catalog's other essay, argues persuasively against a simplistic biographical reading of Hatoum's work, which to its credit is not controlled by identity politics: Palestinian violence is suggested by the pins sticking out of soap bars in Nablus Soap, since a label informs us that soap making in Nablus is a proud Palestinian tradition, but the work is neither for nor against such violence. Hatoum does take a position, however, on the locus of human identity, which she places not in the mind but in the body: our bodily self-image is what her oppressive furniture attacks. This point is perhaps clearest in a photograph, Van Gogh's Back, the one work that, like Zadak's, makes a wry joke on art styles. The dark hair on the subject's bare back is arranged in swirling patterns that recall Van Gogh. Hatoum suggests that a painter's expressive gestures, meant as metaphors for his consciousness, actually have meaning only when they appear in the human body. Years ago film critics objected to the way Vincente Minelli's biopic Lust for Life traced Van Gogh's paintings to scenes he literally saw, but Hatoum takes that retro attitude a giant step further, transforming William Carlos Williams's "no ideas but in things" into "no ideas but in the body."

The show's richest and most engaging work, Corps etranger, is also its most troubling. Here the body is Hatoum's: an endoscopic camera took video images of her skin and hair close-up; most spectacularly, it also traveled down various orifices, illuminating them as it went. A video projector in a high-ceilinged gazebolike structure casts these circular images (set to the amplified sound of a heartbeat) on the floor. On one level the strange gazebo-temple monumentalizes her body, making it seem superior to the viewer's: the structure's narrow doors discourage the viewer from entering, and once inside he's forced to stand against the wall to avoid obscuring the image. The twists and turns of Hatoum's camera also bear a curious if distant resemblance to the camera movements of 1920s German expressionist films, but here, instead of articulating emotions, the camera is simply following Hatoum's own contours. These twists seem replacements for the hard work artists used to do, learning to control their hands and instruments in order to objectify not only what they saw but what was in their minds.

Using the camera to defamiliarize body parts through extreme magnification is an old cinematic device, dating at least as far back as Willard Maas's 1943 Geography of the Body; more recently, documentaries have taken the camera inside the body. But Hatoum's work appears to have been made without knowledge of this history, as if her body were the first to be seen this way. This piece connects instead with Hatoum's other works, which place the body and technology in opposition: the camera penetrates her body, roams freely around it, turns it inside out, metaphorically doing to Hatoum what we fear Incommunicado might literally do to a child. Objects in Hatoum's work--soap, a carpet, a camera--are continually attacking the human body, which is victimized by a hostile world. In response she proposes neither the social action that political artists used to call for nor the aesthetic experience valorized by the romantics. Indeed, articulating a problem without offering a solution, her work, like our culture, seems merely to entrap us.

Jason Zadak's 12 pieces at Better Weimaraner reveal a similar recursive quality. We know painting is the principal target for his jokes because of The Board, a canvas spray painted black on which the artist has written 57 times in chalk "I will not paint on canvas." His Title shows solid black letters, on an ironically thick, painterly white surface, that seem to magnify the typewritten text one would find in a museum wall label: "Jason Zadak, American, 1972-..." If these works resemble the one-liners that infest so much art today, most of his other pieces are richer: his playful digs at art take painting so literally it's made to seem absurd.

In Painting, which sits in the gallery's window, Zadak started with found art: a kitschy relief-effect poster, here an expressionistic view of a matador. Zadak replaced the lower right quarter with gessoed white and hung before it, from the top of the frame, a tiny scaffold stocked with jars of just the right shades of green and yellowish paint. Exaggerating the ambitious scale of this large poster, Zadak's tiny scaffold takes the work to billboard size; he also jokes that this machine-made object is really the product of intensive human labor. But whether this is a handmade expressionist oil, an anonymous billboard, or a miniature diorama of the act of painting, only one conclusion is possible: original, expressive handmade art is absurd.

All of Zadak's work here comments ironically on art history and art culture. In Family Problems he juxtaposes the two parts of a Mexican painting-on-velvet diptych of a boy pulling his burro with a poster reproduction of a Matisse cutout of a woman, connecting the painted ropes in the Mexican scene to actual ropes in the middle that appear to be strangling her. Because Matisse's figure is made of fragments, it's as if velvet paintings were continuing to take apart a Matisse image already disintegrating on its own. In Fresh Cut Flowers, he places a frame around the center part of a poster of a bad painting, painting flowers over its flowers; the near trompe l'oeil effect he achieves takes a few moments to unsnarl and makes one question everything one sees. In Appropriation Zadak sews canvases to the sides of a bad imitation of a Hudson River School landscape, purchased in a thrift shop, and extends the composition as a drawing in marker--completing a tree, continuing the mountains. He also places black quote marks around the original painting. Zadak's simple drawing does the work a favor, reminding us of painting's linear understructure and suggesting this piece has a formal integrity not otherwise apparent. But in the gap between the central painting and Zadak's purer lines lies Appropriation's joke--or smirk.

A student in an MA program in art history, theory, and criticism, Zadak recalls as his earliest childhood art-viewing experience a game he and his brother played on trips to the Art Institute with their mother: as young as three or four, they would try to guess the artist of each painting, keeping score. As an undergraduate at Loyola, Zadak objected to the school's traditional and "outmoded concept of what art was"; during the same period, as an intern at the Robin Lockett Gallery, he met conceptual artists. Expressing limited interest in art made before the 60s, he cites singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock as "my biggest influence, for his very whimsical lyrics, his parody of what goes into a love song."

I had problems with Zadak's work only when I compared it with the earlier painterly tradition he appears to be ridiculing. For one thing, by equating handmade works with thrift-shop paintings and posters, he makes his target too easy. Like Hatoum, Zadak is at his best when his work is problematic, as in Loose Lips. Using two thrift-shop seascapes, he gouges out a horizontal track in the one of an empty sea and mounts there the smaller painting of a sea with ships. Aligning the horizons of the two scenes, he creates an interactive work: by moving the smaller painting along the track the viewer can make a large ship appear to be "sailing."

This clever joke works because the paintings themselves are so sterile--colors devoid of life, water devoid of movement. My mind turned to another seascape, Delacroix's Christ on the Sea of Galilee. Delacroix's brush expresses both his own vision and the emotions inherent in the scene; his painting reveals its own artifice yet creates a roiled sea whose motion is far more complex and far-reaching than Zadak's picture-in-picture cakewalk.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Pin Carpet" (detail) by Mona Hatoum; "Corps Etranger" (detail) by Mona Hatoum; "Loose Lips' by Jason Zadak.

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