Exhibition Review: Jordan Wolfson at David Zwirner

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Employing a wide range of media, including sculpture, painting, video, instillation, and animatronics, artist Jordan Wolfson explores the complex themes of social communication, identity, and physical existence. In his 2014 exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery, in Manhattan, Wolfson constructs an alternate, nightmarish reality, placing the viewer in the center of what appears to be a disturbing psychosocial experiment.

Initially, as I entered the first room of the Chelsea gallery and encountered Wolfson’s sculptures, I was underwhelmed by the kitschy appearance of the artist’s digitally based work. Comprised of magazine images and clip art bumper stickers with meaningless phrases, such as “Socrates Was an Asshole” and “Crippled Sex”, the photomontage sculptures read as failed commentary on appropriation. The trite repetition of juvenile clip art, paired with pixilated imagery, allows the viewer to easily dismiss the sculptures as unimportant. Filled with couches and uninterested patrons, this initial gallery space has both the general atmosphere and actual purpose of a waiting room. Two dark hallways, at either end of the room, guide viewers from Wolfson’s banal sculptures to his dynamic, primary works.

Still preoccupied with the underwhelming nature of the artist’s photomontages, I walked down the first hallway, eager to encounter some form of engaging work. Lined with black padding, the soundproof hallway channels viewers into a similarly constructed room, at the center of which is a large screen and set of speakers. Blaring a slowed-down version of Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams”, the powerful speakers fill the room with the distorted audio track, giving viewers an initial feeling of disorientation. Paired alongside the unsettling audio is a projection of Wolfson’s “Raspberry Poser”, a fourteen-minute video featuring a self-destructive, cartoon boy, heart-filled condom, bouncing AIDS virus, and skinhead punk. This video, a crucial element in the artist’s efforts to create a foreign, tormented reality, employs found imagery and appropriated material to produce rapidly changing and visually dynamic scenes. But, unlike his sophomoric sculptures, Wolfson’s “Raspberry Poser” utilizes digital appropriation with sophistication and complexity, rejuvenating “appropriation art through the incisive use of digital animation, achieving an intensity that rivets the ear and the eye while perturbing the mind” (Roberta Smith, New York Times).

Wolfson’s aggressive, cartoon protagonist, a redheaded boy developed from an online source, greets viewers with a twisted smile as the video begins. Armed with a knife and cigarette, the character slices open his torso, letting his organs and blood spill out. These moments of self-destruction, which continue throughout the entirety of the film, are paired alongside computer-generated imagery of a condom, filled with candy hearts, spilling its contents as it floats over Soho. Additionally, a three-dimensional representation of the AIDS virus, which bounces throughout elegant, domestic sites, and a vagrant, punk character, played by Wolfson, flash before the viewer at several points in the video. As described in Artspace, by Andrew Goldstein, viewing the film “is like a narcotized reverie brought on by an overindulgence in pop culture, followed by a queasy hangover of musings on mortality and the triteness of consumer desires”. This unnerving trance is only heightened as “Raspberry Poser”, which the gallery displays on a loop, nears its conclusion. As the deep voice of Beyonce plays once again, the disorientation and unsettlement, initially experienced as the viewer enters the screening room, is magnified. After Wolfson’s visual experience, the once melodic tune of “Sweet Dream” is transformed into a disturbing soundtrack to a nightmarish fantasy. In this alternate reality, the artist bombards viewers with twisted satire on social identity, utilizing the recurrent moments of cartoonish self-harm to communicate the ways in which our bodily appearance dictates our lives. Specifically, Wolfson employs these themes of aggression and destruction to investigate our psychosexual interactions.

Leaving the screening room and reentering the gallery space, the viewer is invited down another hallway, at the other end of the gallery, and into the third feature of Wolfson’s exhibition: a glass room with a ghoulish, animatronic erotic dancer. Unfortunately, due to the limited viewing times and extensive wait list, I was not able to view this instillation first hand, but rather experienced it through an online video. Regarded by many as the pinnacle of his dystopian exhibition, the witch-faced, blonde dancer features a complex combination of technology. Her naturalistic movement, displayed most notably in her gyration and hand gestures, and the incorporation of facial recognition technology, allowing her to follow the viewer’s eyes, create a deeply unsettling instillation. After a series of erotic motions, the dirt stained, demonic character begins to speak in the masculine voice of the artist, saying, “My mother is dead. My father is dead. I’m gay. I’d like to be a poet. This is my house.” These psychologically charged phrases not only raise questions about the artist’s identity, but also force the viewer to reevaluate how they define themselves.

Jordan Wolfson’s New York exhibition displays a dynamic exploration of perception, reality, life, identity, and sexuality. By employing a diverse thematic range, from the terrifying to comedic, the artist creates an unparalleled experience, transporting the viewer to a foreign and often disturbing reality. Wolfson reinterprets what art is and what art can be, using revolutionary technology and modernizing traditional artistic practices to form his incredibly complex work. His innovative techniques take “viewers on a dystopian voyage into the art world of tomorrow” and are crucial in forming his commentary on contemporary issues, such as digital consumerism and social identity (Paul Laster, Time Out New York).

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