Is Ryan Trecartin Really the Artist of Our Generation?

07/06/2011 4:00 AM |

"I decided to institute my systematic yes," says a chipmunk-voiced, wig- and makeup-wearing, ambiguously sexual cell phone-clutching character in Ryan Trecartin's "P.opular (section ish)" (2009), one of seven films in the young artist's first solo show at a New York museum, Any Ever at MoMA PS1 (through September 3). It's a throwaway line, yet pregnant with meaning and poignancy, which could be said of most speech in Trecartin's videos, whether spoken by him or one of the dozen or so performers who recur throughout the works on view here, including longtime collaborator Lizzie Fitch. The line evokes boardroom jargon, infomercial buzzwords, self-help mantras, and pretentious self-narration, but it also speaks more broadly to the universe depicted in Trecartin's videos, where seemingly any and every possibility is met with systematic (and systemic) approbation.

Everything happens constantly and simultaneously in Trecartin's videos, a bleeding of boundaries that spills over into the installations that accompany them. All seven rooms, along with a central patio-like recovery room, feature surreal installations full of readymade mashup furniture and select props from the videos screening therein. In the first room, where "The Re'Search" (2009-10) is shown, every couch, footrest and table has designer handbags for feet. In the "P.opular" room, a suitcase hangs from a noose tied to a garden trestle, and the corners are piled with sand. The most striking installation may be the one accompanying "Ready (Re'Search Wait'S)" (2009-10): viewers are invited to climb swimming pool ladders up onto raised beds to which couches have been attached, like some Ikea-sponsored childhood fort in a Michel Gondry movie. The installations are at once lo-fi whimsical, store-bought generic, and tinged with nostalgia. The latter, however, is entirely absent from Trecartin's videos.

Loosely divided into a trilogy (titled "Trill-ogy Comp") and a quadrology ("Re'Search Wait's"), the short- and mid-length videos were all shot in Miami in 2009, which adds a tinge of spring break inebriation to the general delirium that characterizes Trecartin's practice. Brief descriptive paragraphs on each piece outline evolving relationships between characters with names like Y-Ready, Global Korea, Auto Ceader and USAK (the latter two are played by Trecartin), though attempting to follow their stories proves impossible and, in any case, beside the point. If language is typically considered a connective tissue that wrests meaning and continuity from chaos and randomness, Trecartin deploys technology to unmake any semblance of logic. Jarring editing, sped-up movement, cropped images, autotuned voices, impenetrably quilted audio tracks and tacky effects obfuscate specific plots. Power relations among the often cross-dressed, blackface- and whiteface-wearing characters are generally clear, though the events that follow from their differing markers of status rarely make sense. The confounding mix of humor, violence, confusion and dress-up gender play evokes numerous video art precedents, from Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy to Bruce Nauman. Trecartin pours enough contemporary pop culture dialects into those predecessors' moulds to explode them, and the resulting absurd micro-dramas are equal parts corporate takeovers, slumber party spates, think-tank brainstorming sessions, solipsistic video blogs, reality TV contests and burlesque performances.

That near-total absence of discernible logic or narrative linearity might be the point; many (older) critics have pegged Trecartin as the defining artist of his generation for the way his work portrays the internet-aided proliferation of language and communication into a tsunami-like deluge. But there are scraps to be salvaged from this unstoppable flow of words and truncated text message lingo. Sexual orientations and identities are completely fluid and outrageously performative in Trecartin's carnivalesque distortion of our world, unhinged from any "natural" or "original" conceptions of gender. Geography and architecture have completely broken down: near the end of "P.opular" the entire poolside set goes up in flames; in "K-CoreaINC.K (section a)" (2009), Global Korea (Telfar Clemens) sits inside a plane constructed inside a living room with her posse of all-white-wearing blondes one minute, and then on board a mobile home talking by cell phone to a character who speaks English and Spanish interchangeably, and threatening: "I'm about to merge you!" Violence and destruction frequently enable cathartic conclusions, particularly the smashing of glass and mirrors, acts that seem too easily equated to the videos' fragmented vision and multiple identities.

But it's the way Trecartin treads a fine if not completely invisible line between humor and violence, playing and fighting, which often makes his work so beguilingly addictive. That uneasy balance extends to the installations, like the gallery where "Roamie View: History Enhancement (Re'Search Wait'S)" (2009-10) streams, which features living room and patio furniture along with prison-like fencing. While, yes, Trecartin's practice has admittedly become something of a schtick, the work benefits from being seen in such a large and theatrical group setting, rather than in isolated, one-off videos, or online. It may be a stretch to dub him the artist of his generation, but he is undoubtedly uniquely capable of translating the dialect of our "systematic yes" culture into a lexicon that's completely confounding, yet weirdly intelligible, familiar and even recognizable. USAK is us!

(Images courtesy the artist, Elizabeth Dee Gallery)