The Serpent's Fork'd Tongue by Lap Le
A review of
Two Riparian Tales of Undoing by Duke Riley
Magnan Metz Gallery

Two Riparian Tales of Undoing houses reconstructions of Duke Riley's recently past exhibitions. For the purposes of this review I'm going to forego retelling much of the histories involved behind the shows; simply because the gallery's press release and Riley's own website do the job already. Walking through the doors of the Magnan Metz gallery in Chelsea you are confronted with a choice: go left into a brightly lit and welcoming blue-walled room - the home of Reclaiming the Lost Kingdom of Laird; or right into a spiraling dark hallway - home to An Invitation to Lubberland. I chose right.

An Invitation to Lubberland is a spiraling hallway, dimly lit and evenly paced with the show's works. There are intricate drawings of maps - cartoony in character but with the undeniable veneer of historic reverence and citing the structure of old hand-illustrated maps; a large wall illustration; a set of videos displayed on small screens; and large mosaics made of cigarettes and coins of a particular vintage. At the center it opens up to circular room where a well of whiskey sits surrounded by rock salt, railroad ties, and hanging dirty clothes; the acrid smell a specter of "real"-ness (as in 'keeping it real'), perhaps to balance the clean presentation a small Chelsea gallery like Magnan Mets impresses.

Entering Reclaiming the Lost Kingdom of Laird from Lubberland takes about three steps and is similar to changing your Wordpress theme - there are different colors, a different mood, some new widgets, but the structure is pretty much exactly the same. The drawings are still in Riley's distinctive style and the attitude is still that of a museum's. A set of commemorative plates with portraits of Laird's royal family painted on them in China Blue stand out. They are charming and funny and just sincere enough. Another standout was a large drawing that nearly covered an entire wall of the gallery. Rendered in the same style as the rest, the scale and sheer density of this piece is impressive; content-wise its one part Where's Waldo and one part Bosch; altogether not too serious, but it can be.

While I do have an issue with the prevalent aesthetic of the work--leaning heavily upon the aged and worn stylings of real "histories" - I can't help but be charmed by it. Perhaps its the confidence and self-awareness in which Riley fronts the work; shamelessly trying to own the fantasy, trying to will it to significance. Consequently, sure, I'm willing to buy in. The style of his drawings don't fit my taste, but thats besides the point entirely.

At this point it was hard to ignore that there were strong narrative ties throughout the show - a vehement cohesion that demanded a larger picture experience of the work. This is due, in part, to the pervasive styling of the work; something I can simply describe as "olde timey". Compounded with the presentation of the show, it becomes something not unlike a museum and you can't help but view the work with a sense of posterity or historicism. And history, as Danto points out, is narrative. For Riley, the work largely deals with specific and local cultures; often focusing on an overlooked history and constructing a complex narrative around it; usually involving both a performance and a performative component to supplement the content of the exhibitions (that is, the histories of Petty Island and Kingsbury Run). There is a half-hearted tinge of instrumentalism in the way he frames the presentation, but the actual content of this isn't important right now; digging into it will lead us into terrain obliquely covered by his artist statements. Rather, his approach to its construction is more significant.

If we begin to address that larger picture we find that seeing these two shows together highlights several dimensions of the work. On one level we have Riley as historicist. In structure and presentation, Riley engages his work in a similar fashion as Mark Dion; whose expansively involved projects are often executed in stages. Like Dion, Riley uses the museum as a touch point through which his pieces are framed; and subsequently expressed. The kind of posterity this affords emphasizes the action (usually derived at a prior stage) while allowing a substantial amount of control over the actual aesthetics of the work. It trades some semblance of the raw, immediate or authentic for a more directed experience. Riley takes full advantage of this, utilizing a breadth of media and attitudes to construct his exhibitions. In effect, he is enabled to work in his chosen style unfettered by contextual hindrances; leveraging our suspension of disbelief against the umbrella of "this is a fake museum of stuff that is or isn't real on a very real, but obscure, topic" with a careful humor and lightheartedness that primes us to already half-believe the fantasy we're about to be fed. He can jump from drawing, to collage, to ceramic plates, to performance, to mosaic, and back again without worrying whether the greater cohesion or narrative is forfeit. Admittedly this is a simple strategy, but it does make the medicine go down easy. Dion's meticulous rooms create a similar enchantment (personally, a more complete one; the details and precision of Dion's work accounting for this difference).

These initial strategies allow Riley some freedom in the logic of the work; on a surface level. On another deeper level, Riley's work contends with something I've noticed since coming to New York (a fact that isn't meant as any kind of qualification). At the end of last year Christopher K. Ho had an exhibition at the Winkleman Gallery entitled Regional Paintings. While most of the actual opening consisted of a series of paintings Ho completed during a stint in Colorado, there were also small paperback books that unassumingly lined a corner of the gallery. The title Hirsch E.P. Rothko was immediately given away as an anagram of Ho's own name by the gallery's press release. Also divulged was the fact that Ho didn't actually write the book himself. Rather, it was ghostwritten by Inez Kruckev; presumably a colleague of Ho's. The book is a fictional re-telling; simultaneously it blurs the actual, that is to say historic, accounts of Ho's sabbatical into the Colorado mountains while also creating another narrative in lieu of the exhibition whereby the work forks in purpose - the intentions put forth by the book, and the ones surrounding the framework of the show; a neat way to convolute the discourse to have your cake and eat it too. Riley's performance - where he and his crew basically go on adventures - is rendered similarly by the "museum" and the documentation of the performances; it is raised to a level of "authenticity" through the clever shifting between what is real, what is fabricated, and what is documentation. What happens, to various degrees of success, is that Riley is able to construct a more dimensional and more complex narrative around his work; the actual pieces in the show becoming the first order and the "myth" (I use this loosely) becoming the second order; both working to substantiate the other. Whether this leads the work to affect the geopolitics or culture the content purports is another matter (an important one we'll come back to).

The primary reason I brought all of this up was to illustrate a specific form of myth-building; something very similar to what Carrie Lambert-Beatty explains as parafiction in her essay, "Make Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility". Parafiction, as explained by Lambert-Beatty, deals with "the pragmatics of trust" on one level and elicits "a 'gotcha' moment of having been fooled, to wonder uncomfortably about the status of the claims the exhibit made, or to go away in a strange kind of educated ignorance, their worldviews subtly altered - perhaps in truthful ways - by untruths." on another. For this to work, the structure inevitably must retain some level of transparency; or some form of autonomous disclosure after the fact - a preconditioned feedback loop premised on the notions that the exhibit itself deals with content through strategy rather than object. Ho, for instance, gives it all up in the press release and, for safe measure, he includes scanned copies of his notes in the back of the book. In fact, he pronouncedly highlights "NOT parafiction" a few times. Full transparency was his attempt to dissolve any semblance of the parafictional in his methodology. This is an evasive maneuver that attempts to obfuscate his stance but the effect is contrary to the intention (implied intention? another trick?). The theoretical underpinnings of that show reverberated so soundly with hints of some kind of institutional critique, or critique of the art world at large, that it is hard to see it in another light; even when its presented as existential angst - going so far as to feign a sort of confessional remembrance. Outing the strategy invariably reconstituted itself as a deliberate strategy. The entire show was too self-aware to be taken authentically (a curse and an unfair sentiment; which potentially may be an entirely subjective affectation on my part); especially with the layered structure already set in place by the shows own promotion (press release, background...etc).

Regardless, Lambert-Beatty begins to establish an instrumentalist criteria for the parafictional; she refers to it as an "interventional" or "performative" measure. This is important because I believe Riley, as Ho did, sets himself up to crux his work against these terms, but fails to commit to it - Riley in his actual sentiment and Ho in his intended retreat from it - trying, it seems, to overcome it and shed the intellectual framework to render the work--what?--authentic?--fundamental? - something. Riley frames his work in a different way. He latches on to real tension/conflict and, in his own way, champions the underdog; seemingly falling in line with the performative/interventional mode parafiction delineates. He uses performance (read: ritual) and cohesively builds a complex and very real narrative (read: mythology), which he bolsters with the structures of myth - creating and curating a complete experience. What's more, all of this is predicated upon his utilization of a prefabricated structure - museum, gallery, book - as the structure for the content. Draping the thrust of the work around this, the fiction is completed, sound, and rendered impenetrable (ideally).

The issue/charm is this: Having set up a deliberate and potentially powerful apparatus for his work, what does he do with it? He neither follows Dion's understated and deft repose on "serious" and "real" investigations nor does he use it, as Ho might have, as a trojan horse for greater discourses/angsty commentaries; he neither truly delves into the socio-political situations his subject matter engenders - not in any substantial way at least - nor is his work formalist at its core. He gives all the indications that he is employing parafictional strategies, but to an endgame that doesn't correlate with those same strategies. I had mentioned earlier that he was engaged with a specific form of myth-building. Returning to that now, having set the precedence for parafictional strategies to overlap, I can surmise that there isn't an endgame at all. The work deceptively flaunts an instrumentalist agenda, but only in the same way a drunk damns you in God's name - to ordain himself the power and authority he lacks. The photos of Riley's crew drinking and "exploring" highlight the touristy nature of it all. While he is committed to the craft of his work, what can be said about his actual convictions to the message...or as the true believers will herald, "The Cause!" Oh right, there isn't one. This type of myth-building, riding on parafictional shoulders, is something else altogether; something I think is actually exemplified in the work of Ryan Trecartin.

Overt instrumentalism isn't at the heart of it; and never will be. Trecartin and Riley are romantic in a way that only outlaws and 'get er done' types can be. Their entire mode involves a more intense egoism; it is more tribal, more esoteric, more about their specific socioeconomic/geopolitical lot in life. Take one look at the breadth of Trecartin's body of work, it only takes one piece to express the entirety of the myth he's inculcated into life. To a much smaller scale, Riley is attempting the same thing. Each piece in the exhibition is a piece of a greater mythology; something that can't only be fabricated, but must be wrought into existence through ritual and through immersion. His performances and his versatility are leveraged to further this goal; his style and the rigor of his exhibitions seek to provide the facade for something to form. But Riley's work hits a glass ceiling where Trecartin's doesn't.

If Riley's work is not to be reduced to strategy, or worse an exercise in aesthetics under the guise of some kind of ethnographic instrumentalism, punctuated occasionally by communal theatrics; it has to live up to logic it sets for itself. The fantasy has to be real. And there is just something missing - or something is dispelled - when I look at the documentation of his performances. Its almost as if it is more relational than anything else - hanging with the bros, throwing block parties. Granted this is a crazy over simplification, it goes to serve a point. As I began earlier, this is the issue and the charm of the work. In a lot of ways Riley's work is completely grounded; literally and in the sense that he is more concerned with overtly communal aspects of what his mythology adopts; the "real" so to speak. But, it doesn't seem like he wants it to be entirely about that. Every move, from the press releases to his website to the execution and presentation of his work, suggests he has one foot in the parafictional camp and another in an aesthetic-hedonist-relational camp (complete with all the pageantry of warfare, wayward-ness, and brotherhood). Should the two reconcile, the myth will unfold more naturally than his current "Museum of Our Adventures" strategy.

For all their differences, and to varying degrees, Trecartin, Ho, Dion, and Riley represent a similar mindset in their approach to work; an approach I have always been a sucker for. It lattices the categorical foundations of myth with the overlooked, but robust, imagination of 'Science'; anchoring narrative to ritual; history to allusions of possibility; as scientific as it is anthropologic as it is fiction. The result is a self-contained system; whose logic and fantasy are one and the same; whose story shapes the facts to truer form - more fundamentally complex forms. In effect, they open up the subjects of their investigations in a meaningful and efficient manner. Its a tactful act of direction and fabrication; good-intentioned, interesting and well-executed. What's not to like, right?

A link to Carrie Lambert-Beatty's "Make Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility"

Duke Riley, Reclaiming the Lost Kingdom of Laird, 2011

Duke Riley, Reclaiming the Lost Kingdom of Laird, 2011

Duke Riley, An Invitation to Lubberland

Duke Riley, detail of Reclaiming the Lost Kingdom of Laird, 2011

Example of documentation; Duke Riley, "Brett, Riding freight trains, September 2009"

Christopher K. Ho, Regional Paintings (detail), 2010

Mark Dion, Tate Thames Dig, 1999

Ryan Trecartin, Roamie View History Enhancements (Re'Search Wait'S), 2009-2010