Wicked Artsy: Fantasy Lives

by |
03/14/2009 9:00 AM |

Wicked Artsy is Benjamin Sutton’s art column, and what exactly do you think you’re gonna do about it?

Three current exhibitions throughout the city question our cultural ability to create, maintain and inhabit fantasies. Is there any room left for imaginary escape in a social context of pessimism and realism buffered with plentiful helpings of sarcasm? None of these artists have a surefire response, but the fantasy solutions they offer betray various degrees of hope, skepticism and uncertainty.

At Chelsea’s Gladstone Gallery, Thomas Hirschhorn has turned the traditional white cube space on its head with his DIY fitness center installation Universal Gym. Amidst mirrors, TV screens and magazine cutouts of airbrushed and bulging models, Hirschhorn finds our fantasies alive and fit, chasing imaginary bodies on treadmills. Everything here is satire and hyperbole: nonsensical fitness machines are made of duct-taped cardboard, empty plastic water bottles coalesce in clusters at certain stations and a giant black gym ball dominates the room. We’re still capable of fantasizing, Hirschhorn answers, but these days we only dream what we’re told to dream.

Visiting the exhibition of early Kenneth Anger shorts at P.S.1 – the visionary director’s first U.S. retrospective in over a decade – also approximates a journey into fantasy space. The repressed desires of his films are brilliantly installed in a room that feels like a gallery-sized collective unconscious. Every surface is covered in red rubber, with three screens hanging from the ceiling and three TVs on the floor. Two additional rooms are draped in more muted rubber wrapping and feature quieter pieces. In films from 1947 to 1981, Anger mobilizes a variety of narrative, visual and musical techniques to undermine the norms of the times. He turns the automobile iconography of syrupy postwar suburban nuclear family dreams into a gay musical by way of creepy car fetishism with Kustom Kar Komandos (1964-65; pictured). Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), meanwhile, seems critical of both the countercultural dreams it documents and the dominant culture it attacks. Anger’s fantasies and anti-fantasies have aged terrifically, and encountered in P.S.1’s primal red chamber, they return with all the force of forgotten dreams.

Back in Chelsea at David Zwirner, Lisa Yuskavage doesn’t subvert the white cube convention, but offers a constructive, contemporary solution to the fantasy problem. Her oil paintings drip with sexuality, and mingle childhood and adult desires for discovery and pleasure. In what look like an acid-fueled updating of Gulliver’s Travels, backpack-sporting hikers head towards hill-sized nudes under ominous chemical skies. Like the carnivalesque body politics of that early English epic, Yuskavage’s bodies are spaces of pleasure and play but also colonization and danger. Her spectacular visions alternate between ecstasy and pain, and the feeling that gradually emerges is a reluctance to indulge the former for fear of causing the latter. The glistening bodies and pregnant landscapes of her paintings suggest – like Anger’s films – that the journey to fantasyland is worth the hardship. At least it’s healthier than the oppressive fantasies parodied in Hirschhorn’s work.

Thomas Hirschhorn: Universal Gym at Gladstone Gallery, 530 W 21st St (between Tenth and Eleventh Aves), until April 11
Kenneth Anger at P.S.1, 22-25 Jackson Ave (at 46th Ave, Long Island City), until September 14
Lisa Yuskavage at David Zwirner, 533 W 19th St (between Tenth and Eleventh Aves), until March 28