You in Any Way Whatsoever. We Do Things That Feel Like Familiar Things and Those
Things Are The Things That Ultimately Provoke Interest.
by Patrick Gantert
A review of
BRODY CONDON & JEN LIU by Brody Condon and Jen Liu
On Stellar Rays
On Stellar Rays is a weirdo. The difficult to eek out name, the small roster of artists with relatively opaque methodologies, halfway decent appearances from their artists in shitty shows (see: this year’s Greater New York), and a tiny (and remarkably well used) space on Orchard street. Not to mention their prime location in between two luggage shops. It feels like some kind of metaphorical quip would serve me well here but fuck it, the pairing of Brody Condon and Jen Liu is interesting, in some regard, because of it’s differences. Think of it like this: Condon is Slipknot and Liu is The Arcade Fire. One is all fiery angst and naive tension while the other is quazi-transcendent if just a bit uptight. I promise to elaborate on that distinction but it’s going to be more of a slow burn than a quick shot to the head.
So, let’s not waste time and just say that the meat of this show is Condon’s sculpture Vat Flesh on a Pedestal of Imitation Jade. Using a 3D printer and a printed inkjet wrap of surprisingly good quality, Condon utilizes the language of prototypes and industrial design. Vat Flesh...is crappy and forever unfinished but offers an outward appearance that suggests the opposite, as if to offer a glimpse of what is to come. This is not to say that Condon is attempting to use the construction of his work to implant an agenda. It is more personal, Vat Flesh... is a work that is transient and integral to the practice of a young art- ist who is generating a networked collection of subtle gestures rather than an entire body of limited and separate works. Condon seems to desire motion and instability. Or at least believe in it.
Condon’s work provokes a weird feeling of exteriority amidst a veil of inclusion. It places the viewer in a space of isolation, as if (maybe for just a second or six) it is the only object in the small room, standing awkwardly like a chicken bone turning to an aqua color or fractured figure in mid collapse (I prefer the latter but hesitantly concede that the former may make slightly more sense). Condon’s sculpture makes overt reference to classic forms in shape, demeanor, and color but that is boring and, ultimately, does not prove to be an adequate jumping off point. The exciting part about Vat Flesh... is everything that it isn’t. The longer you look, the quicker it begins to disappear, its permanence giving way to tacky impermanence. It is moving away from you. The transcendent and spiritual qualities have broken apart and left as quickly as they came but that is the work’s true success.
I said I was going to come back to Slipknot for Condon so here it is, Vat Flesh... is Condon’s ‘Wait and Bleed’. For those uninitiated, ‘Wait and Bleed’ is a (the?) breakout hit from Slipknot’s 1999 self titled album. ‘Wait and Bleed’ is pure GED certified poetry:
I’ve felt the hate rise up in me Kneel down and clear the stone of leaves I wander out where you can’t see Inside my shell, I wait and bleed
‘Wait and Bleed’ is all low brow existentialism and Mountain Dew, Pixie Stick diary pining - so brazen and honest that we all just silently agree to withhold laughter and give it another chance - it is Slipknot’s two and a half minute ‘Kashmir’. Vat Flesh... is like that; It sings. And thinking about it kind of ruins the fun.
The rest of Condon’s offering is Slipknot’s masks which are, for all intents and purposes, gimmicky and contingent on expectation. The video work on display is cheesy and reliable, all bright colors and elusive gesture when clearly, as with his sculpture, he is capable of much more with much less. The herky-jerky flips and turns of ‘geometric shapes’ (nice tie to his sculpture) against the hokey fauxhemian ab-ex background just come across as a deep reach into Condon’s suede wizard hat. While barely saved by the overall tone of the work in the show (both Condon’s and Liu’s), they are just unsurprising and feel like everything that no one likes in contemporary art: tricky visual puns wading out into the deep swamps of art history with a bag full of contemporary mysticism in tow. In the end, they are dopey cop outs that are only highlighted by the success of his sculpture. In the words of Tennessee Williams via the inimitable Christian Viveros Faune, Condon’s presence here is a ‘pineapple ice cream soda’.
Jen Liu is another story, she is the silent and subdued counterpart to Condon’s laughably (hmmm...ha not har har) erratic (and at times highly successful) in- tensity. She is The Arcade Fire. Liu tackles things with a bit more restraint and opacity. Dark clouds and upset crowds, tromp l’oeil and metaphor. Liu’s series of works entitled Folded Black Cloud with number modifiers are her standouts. They work on a level that is almost introspective, using the image of a black cloud (which could be related to many incidents, not simply weather) to probe feelings that are psychological. Her surfaces twist and move as if receding and emerging from the wall all at once, craving a slightly different motion, presence, and vacancy than Condon but motion, vacancy, and presence all the same. Liu’s clouds are the Arcade Fire’s Regine Chassagne.
They say so much with so little and, rather than direct your political and social alliances and biases, force you to think critically about the status quo. Namely, to think about that which is happening now and that which is imminent, with no past and no future (trés zen); To confront the coming cloud rather than wait hopelessly for the fallout. The works are timely and poignant in a way that noth- ing else in this show is simply because they do not force the issue. Quite hon- estly, they seem to have no agenda, which here is a saving grace. They bring to mind our current socio-political climate of heightened transparency that in turn heightens secrecy and opacity. The Folded Black Cloud series is a visual anal- ogy for a politicized generation existing in the wake of Wikileaks and gathering their political commentary from Comedy Central.
Fugue State, on the other hand, is like Win Butler at his most overt and comical. The two drawings from the Fugue State series that are on display here are simi- lar to Condon’s videos in so much as they play second, heavy handed fiddle, to far more successful and subtle artworks. Liu’s use of what ‘On Stellar Rays’ press release calls ‘unsettling cultural situations’ is not only awkward against Folded Black Cloud, it just feels easy. It is as though it were a way to inject a more overt politic into work that clearly doesn’t need it. The things that Jen held back in the Folded Black Cloud series comes out in Fugue State. Like Condon, she intends to ground the works in some kind of art historical no mans land where savvy art viewers can kick back and relax (grids, classical sculpture, and abstraction). Ultimately, this is a failure as it comes across as a wholly different dialogue losing whatever content may be there. Her Fugue State works kind of feel like someone farted in church; A loud, instantaneously received interruption in an otherwise thought provoking endeavor.
Overall, this combination of artists is a pretty sensible decision. Equivocation holds sway and overt politics and meaning take a backseat to intellectual rib jabs. While this pairing undoubtedly has its failures and poor decisions, they are offset in admirable fashion by sophisticated and mature works that are wisely positioned front and center both conceptually and physically. Slipknot and The Arcade Fire both played Lollapalooza once right?