The Anatomy of Melancholy: The Paintings of Christian Schoeler (1978-2015)

by Travis Jeppesen on January 10, 2016

Still Life

As Rilke once noted, in writing of Rodin, the artist eventually comes to the realization that he is limited by the surface just as the writer must ultimately grapple with language’s intrinsic failures to adequately convey the essence of a thing. Surfaces, surfacing: Isn’t the melancholic realization of the painter identical to that of the obsessive, the lover, the day that the realization is reached that you can never truly know another person? For what is there but the surface that prevents us from crawling into the skin of another, thinking their thoughts and feeling their feelings with them, inside them, discarding our own physiological realities in a gelatinous act of becoming another, pre-existent being? Couldn’t we propose that nearly all art that addresses, nay, idealizes the human figure, is an act of reconciliation on behalf of the artist who wishes to do just that?

These are the thoughts that flood my brain when I consider a painting by Christian Schoeler. It is because Schoeler clearly works out of inner necessity, impelled by something like love, though I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. His quest for capturing and rendering beauty in his male portraits certainly has its historical precedents – it is loudly part of a tradition, it announces itself as such – but without the self-referencing that positions the artist on a higher, godlike plateau of being above his subjects. God is not Christian Schoeler – God is the boys he depicts.

At the same time, most of these are studio pictures. In that, they take on the difficult task of attempting to capture “natural” beauty within a frame, or a framed situation that is going to reveal at least some vestiges of its artificiality. Thereby, the medium makes reference to itself, often in the form of the models’ explicit outward gaze at the viewer or the staginess of their pose. The visual is allowed to be truly and totally visual.

Like Larry Clark, an artist he admires, Schoeler’s primary concern is with boy-men situated on the edge of becoming – that vulnerable situation/moment in life, that state of being stranded between boyhood and manhood, that is fraught with existential inevitabilities. “Most of the decisions are made on an emotional basis,” Schoeler insists in a recent interview. Emotion, as opposed to formal or conceptual concerns, we may presume – a bold admission in an era when art is moving away from the purely visual and further into the conceptual, almost as though in reaction to the broader, increasingly image-based culture. This is where the Clark comparison comes to an end: For Clark, who assumes what could be called a similar faux naïve melancholic stance towards his subjects, his subjects’ engagement with the wider cultural milieu – and that milieu’s representation of the teenage male body and its sexual prowess – is a constant presence in the work; one need look no further than The Perfect Childhood, a book that combines Clark’s own photos with news clippings, hand-written letters, movie stills, and teen celebrity posters, among other forms of trash/sex culture memorabilia, in forming a complex psychosexual art object that simultaneously serves as a manifesto for the artist’s obsessions. Schoeler, on the other hand, completely ignores culture altogether, transmitting his obsessions purely through the paintings – even the settings are often obscured to the point of illegibility in order to focus solely on the subjects themselves, typically depicted singly or in pairs, to the extent that the pictures attain an air of timelessness reminiscent of Rainer Fetting’s portraits. Furthermore, the paintings showcase a Hegelian impulse for capturing a precise state of affairs, linking the concrete with the Ideal. In the case of Schoeler, it is a concretion rooted in a semantics of melancholia.

From an interview with Francesca Gavin: “The true antagonism lies within the difference between ethics and aesthetics. […] In my mind there is a certain melancholy, a degree of light in concert with a degree of darkness, a sad finesse, which is directly connected to gay sexuality.”

In his 1917 essay on “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud elucidates the structure of melancholia. It is, of course, rooted in loss. When you lose someone you love, according to Freud, you subsume that person into the structure of your ego. You take on attributes of that person; in doing so, you are able to sustain them, you are able to sustain your love for them.

Because time moves too fast for us, there is a reason for preserving and idealizing certain forms. We don’t know what Schoeler’s personal relationship is with his models, we don’t need to know. Love occurs on several layers; in the human realm of relationships, in the aesthetic realm of beauty and idealized form. It is the latter form of love that Schoeler prefers to talk about when asked by an interviewer whether he is currently in love, referring to the work of fellow artists with whom he feels an affinity.

Whether you choose to view the male figures in Schoeler’s paintings as projections of the artist’s past-present self on the vulnerable precipice of becoming, or as literal figurative representations of models with whom he may or may not have a more intimate relationship, the same othering device is at work. Contrary to classical psychoanalytic definitions of melancholia, however, this is a form of love-loss projected externally through the creative act, rather than subsumed within the artist’s ego. I would even go so far as to argue that this is a tactic of ego-destruction, which aligns Schoeler with a number of (namely literary) explorers of extreme states of being, from Rimbaud to Kathy Acker.

An act of melancholy – for example, a painting – is then a method of preserving something that will otherwise, inevitably, be lost. And Schoeler is correct in linking this to homosexuality. Via Lacan and Hegel, Judith Butler has identified traditional Western conceptions of gender as equating “having” and “being” with “masculine” and “feminine,” respectively, with regards to the Phallus. Such divisions have been naturalized through the stringent laws of heterosexual discourse that dictate societal norms. Women (and, I would argue, “feminine” boys such as those typically found in Schoeler’s paintings) must cope with the ludicrous expectation of having to “be” the Phallus while having to conceal their lack of the Phallus; this compromise is conceived as “appearing,” or masquerade. Butler writes: “The mask has a double function which is the double function of melancholy. The mask is taken on through the process of incorporation which is a way of inscribing and then wearing a melancholic identification in and on the body; in effect, it is the signification of the body in the mold of the Other who has been refused. Dominated through appropriation, every refusal fails, and the refuser becomes part of the very identity of the refused, indeed, becomes the psychic refuse of the refused. The loss of the object is never absolute because it is redistributed within a psychic/corporeal boundary that expands to incorporate that loss. This locates the process of gender incorporation within the wider orbit of melancholy.”

This returns us to that curious statement of Schoeler’s regarding the tension between ethics and aesthetics. Lost in an orbit of desire, stranded between their own private sexual battles and their position as potential sexual objects, Schoeler recognizes that the essence of his subjects is their vulnerability – something a more sinister artist might try to exploit or de-sensitize. Furthermore, I would have to add that there is a sense of shame in desiring – to love, to become, to subsume – another, a shame that is intrinsic to gay identity-formation. What we have is the classic vision of homosexual-as-outsider, a melancholic refusal to cope by feigning gain; a celebration, really, of loss and the humanizing beauty of suffering through memory, nostalgia, and hope.

Of course, in suggesting this, I risk suggesting that Schoeler is a wispy person deluded by dreams, unable to act but through art. To clarify, I have to propose that Schoeler, on the contrary, is an artist who understands that dreams are, in fact, the stuff of real life. Further, he is able to intuit that pain is the being of “being well.”

In the end, we give in to the desire to see Schoeler’s boys as characters or totems in the formation of a future epic. An elimination, a denial of the meta- level, brings us back once again to a joyous affirmation of the surface. A surface that is, perhaps, not sexual or even tactile – a distancing effect is used to fog these subjects in the dreamlight of a parallel universe. Youth will fade, the twinks will become something else – kings or else tyrants, fools – we cannot know, a picture tells no stories – art is not life, but a dream, a moment captured. Time’s formidable absence from the cause of being elevates these snatches of becoming into relics of affirmation, providing the illusion of a living continuity of beauty uninterrupted. Chaste and refined, Schoeler’s paintings are still lifes with living beings.


Trash, the Body, an Accident

But enough about corporeality – we are dealing in two dimensions here. Is this a problem? If so, how to articulate this challenge, how to articulate it in a way that it may be overcome?

Argument: There is, in fact, a sensuality that takes place when no bodies are present.

The sensuality of solitude is closely related to the act of creation. I’m not talking about a masturbatory process that is linked to ego fulfillment; rather, the depths of a field that transcends the confines of the self, the gulf of selves that is our inevitability, as each one of us is not one – is, in fact, a collective entity. [1] That is why each time we are painted, a completely different figure emerges. Just as a landscape never stays the same, the body, the inner being that it reflects, is a constantly shifting and evolving field of perplexities.

To find this sensuality, we must look beyond the figures, at the backgrounds. What do we find there. Total abstraction, most of the time. No, for the totality is in fact always a merger between those blotted-out forms that articulate nature for us and the human body structures that are struggling to find their expression. There is a competition between the two forms of life here, one that is not necessarily resolved in, by the painting. Painting, an unnatural act, can make anything come alive. This is its animating paradox. And, when it is successful, the apparent formlessness of nature is just as important as the (mostly precise) human forms inserted into the landscapes.

Doing “bad painting” is easy, Schoeler asserts, when the question of German neo-Expressionist terribles like Baselitz and Oehlen comes up. There’s no challenge in that. It’s a generational thing; Schoeler is no longer part of that generation that feels the need to break those rules. This points to a shift in the cyclical notions of badness in art. Now it’s more risqué to try and paint beauty.

Is Schoeler painting beauty in the classical sense? If so, he worries, then maybe what he is doing is kitsch. It’s a subject that comes up a lot in my conversations with the artist. Am I doing kitsch, he asks, and if so, is doing kitsch a bad thing? Sometimes he says that he’s proud to be painting kitsch, that he’s engaging in a dialogue with it. That to make a beautiful painting in the 21st century is something like penning Romantic poetry, an endeavor that no serious contemporary artist or critic would accept anyway. (Greenberg actually sources the roots of kitsch in Romanticism at one point, in its identificatory impulse towards the effect of poetry on the poet. Great art, avant-garde art, always identifies itself rather with cause rather than effect, argues Greenberg.)

“Democracy isn’t something to eat,” a Kurdish Iraqi dissident once stated. To that, we might add: Kitsch isn’t, necessarily, something to shit. Artists like Schoeler seriously trouble the old Greenbergian dialectic. Writing in 1939, Greenberg identified then-still-emergent abstract art as the forefront of the avant-garde, as it was the first time in history wherein artists had begun to imitate the processes of art itself (rather than, say, nature, presumably.) At the same time, as the result of rapid industrialization and improved living standards, a state of supposed universal literacy was attained as the masses began flooding into the city from the countryside. With this new enlightenment and work schedule that allowed for amounts of free time hitherto unknown, the masses met with boredom for the first time, and thus required their own form of culture – though they could only tolerate one situated on their “lower” level, lacking the refinements of the master classes. “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas.” [2] Chez Greenberg, kitsch is incendiary, deceptive – something that one must always be on guard (avant garde) against; hence, he invents a role for the critic, while simultaneously identifying the moral stance of the avant-garde artist, whose duty of upholding the standards of good art is rooted in a natural instinct; the avant garde artist “has an organic sense of what is good and what is bad for art.” [3]

If abstract painting represented the heroic avant garde of good taste, then outside of popular culture, within the art historical canon, romanticism was enunciated as the enemy, veering dangerously close to kitsch in its attempts to dissolve the barrier of the medium that is the dividing force between the emotions of the painter and the spectator. And, insofar as he flatters the spectator, Schoeler could be said to be performing a feat of kitsch romanticism. Though the dichotomy is not that simple, because according to Greenberg, the artist who flatters cannot simultaneously enlighten. Schoeler shows that it is possible to do both.

Schoeler feels forced to identify his practice as engaging in kitsch because, in the eyes of the art status quo that believes its duty is to uphold these categories, what he is doing is somehow too physical, intimate, dirty, present. In short, it is a sort of anti-conceptualism. What makes it so is the central presence of the body. Body becomes an expression, an extension, of being. For expression is extension: a point that Greenberg misses in his bitter dismissal of Romanticism. How can one truly separate feeling from thought in the authorial or spectatorial experience of the work of art? The main problem with Greenberg is that he never managed to throw Descartes in the trash where he belongs. In such discourses, mind always perseveres over body. What’s left for the body? It becomes a thing only women and gay men need concern themselves with: this burden of being and not-having.

But a warring and combative physicalist viewpoint proposes that mind is but an extension of body, so why isolate one from the other? The idea of extension is infinitely productive, enabling thousands of tiny universes to appear. We are all, to an extent, victims of the era we live in. Intoxicated by the endless whirl of technological “progress,” it hardly ever occurs to us that the most essential questions may, in fact, be the most primitive ones. By confining these questions – to which no easy answers have ever been found – to the toilet bowl, by trashing history in our arrogant obsession with contemporaneity, we are only accelerating the process of universal destruction. It is with this knowledge, this supra-physicalist perspective, that Christian Schoeler moves forward. He very well might be asking the same questions as Rembrandt and El Greco before him, but it is not done in willful ignorance of the world he is living in. He knows this place is a world of ugly accidents, of brutalism, ignorance, and danger. It is a radical gesture to deal openly and directly with beauty in times like this. Christian Schoeler is a radical traditionalist, a neo-Romantic.

There is a boy, he is naked, he stands on the precipice, the edge of a body of water. The water is green, which means it is not completely clean. Not necessarily dirty, but polluted by foliage, by the efflorescence of its surroundings. He puts one step forward, into it, to test it. He does not know if he can trust it, what that is. It is a moving forward: that is all, seems so simple, and yet it scares him. Scares us. So many of us. For us many, those of us who are scared, it is much better, safer, to stay put, avoid the uncertainty of the future unknowable.

On the other hand, how silly this fear seems. Look over there, you can see the other side, it is not so far away.

He wants to be always walking. But he cannot go where there is no surface to be seen.

It could also be a field, of course, not water at all. But in this version of things, it is a lake, a sea, a body of water. It may be vague, but it is still liquid, that much is certain. Maybe it is different for you.

Total immersion entails, more than entails, is akin to loss. We must move forward in order to make new discoveries, but we’re giving up control by doing so. Uncertainty is a tall order. We turn our back on past experiences, reject the sentimentality of nostalgia. But the longer you ignore that gulf of lack that forms the center of your selves, that multiple being that each of us is, the more it widens, threatening to drown the you that has to live this life, that must stay afloat, live and love and hate and die.

Schoeler manages expression without a face. And yet not. There is a reversal of orders going on here. The boy has his back to us, we cannot see his actual face. His face is turned towards the landscape, the same thing we are facing towards. And yet what looks back at us. Faciality – screens, surfaces, images – a hylozoic force that not only receives our gaze but projects one of its own back in our direction. We are looking, the boy is looking. Looking, looking. What looks back? The answer is simple. The face is the landscape. What does this face-landscape consist of?

The question of flatness is an interesting one. Ultimately, it is something that Schoeler totally rejects in his painting. This greatly troubled his professors at the Munich Art Academy, ardent Color Fieldists, who wished that Schoeler would abandon painting figures and simply leave in the backgrounds. A lot has happened since Color Field painting. Ever the bad student – like a lot of great artists, a dropout, a reject – Schoeler not only persisted in his loyalty to the figure, he sought to disrupt the “pure” painterly qualities of his backgrounds by making them, by and large, accidental. Taking a photograph of a spot of dirt on the studio floor, enlarging it to make a full distorted splotched landscape, then fucking with it in the post-processing, various layering effects, to get it to the right degree of blurriness, contrast – a troubled surface. While the illusion of depth is always the most classical effect, the surfaces of his figures – not only their skin, but their clothing, the objects they hold in their hands – remember, we are dealing with extension here on a grand, endless scale – are similarly tortured, usually by the strange way the light inevitably violates their bodies. For this is a violence being done to them – a subtle violence, maybe – but it is violence nonetheless and it is the violence of vision, the violence of this world that we were brought into without choosing and must now make our way through.

Being: always a lack. Awareness of one’s sensitivity to a living field does nothing to lessen or deplete it. For this is what the body becomes: a landscape. The living organism a confluence of forms. He works at and on the surfaces to lessen the affects, diminish the sharpness, a field of being. A protective shield against the violence that the eye is capable of. Or not. For what is often mistaken as a softening of forms, of the overall image, might also be seen as a brutalistic assertion of something.

So when Schoeler has an accident in the studio – when a mess is made, when a field becomes tarnished, a plane polluted – then it is always a lucky accident. A piece of trash is photographed, becomes a landscape, or perhaps even the surface of the skin – one of many surfaces. For, ultimately, the body is the landscape, vice versa. Being a part of something is being apart, the networked indulgence of a total sensuality that does not need to be zoned-in on in order to siphon out its definitionality, all liquid and pure. True, the painter is the architect of visual meaning. But the store by which he sets up his practice can also get sucked in. You are in the way, you piece of filth, and thus, you become a part of this wider mess, even as it is transformed into beauty. There is nothing “soft” about these images, beautiful as they may seem. This is Schoeler’s crowning achievement, this rendering of a hardedge beauty, something very coarse and rough, the body in its blurred causality. The sum of all the conditions that led it to get to that point, the interpretative state it is in when it is projected on the canvas or on the paper.




untitled #066, 2011

Memorialization – something that takes place within the doctrine of safekeeping. I am haunted by a memory, and so I wrap it up in protective layers, the folds of an image, I externalize it, it is then there, outer, projected into space, it is something I can look upon, a safety latch. The colors of my memory crackle in the thinness of the daylight. I retreat into a permanent darkness – the only place I can be truly alone with these thoughts. Ever mindful of the interactions going on around me, I remain silent, untranslated. What escapes me – certain things that might have happened in the past, certain things I might have been. All those selves that once trespassed me, so many of them have died now. So many of them gone into the silence. A wry new day. A dull light that shudders. Now I have grown my hair long. It falls down way past my shoulders, I smoke a cigarette, I am pretending to be. Pretending in the half-light, that glow that signals late afternoon, hour of all permanence. Mood effects every movement I make, even the tiniest gesture, I am one of those guys. I have that glint. Don’t worry, it signals no violence. I am tired of having thoughts. I only want to be depicted. I don’t wanna be surrounded. Look, my shoulder, it looks so messy. When I grow my hair long, I become an example: primitive man. There are no shadows on the wall behind me, he’s been sure to block those out. No one wants to distract from this façade.

Though maybe in the background, it is true, you can make out traces of a ghost. Or an image removed, something that has been erased to make way for this focus. You could conjecture that it is smoke from the cigarette he is holding that forms this specter. The way that smoke begets a separate image, separate from what you think you are actually seeing.

I am not a fag and I do not want to be seduced. I do not have a sexual orientation and I am the answer to this mayhem. I am my own definition of maleness, I am what can never be believed. The family has fallen away, the individual can be re-heroicized. Schoeler does not work within the confines of any “community” in the normative sense. We’re not fighting any of those old wars anymore. The battle within and amongst the selves takes precedence over the old political identity dichotomies: male-female, straight-gay…

Memorialization can be thought of as the process of creating out of loss, the substitutive recovery of a lack. Sometimes that process manifests itself in physical form, as in a painting. But that doesn’t mean that the painting is capturing an (auto)biographical memory. A memory can also be forged, the end product of a forgery that is embedded within the creative act. I risk suggesting here that there is something dishonest about the creative act by noting that forgery is inevitably involved. Here we go again, another contradiction that this type of painting reveals: Within forgery, the production of a truth takes place. (In China, we were confronted with another version of truth. Everyone knows that China is the global capital of the simulacrum, the fake. Capitalists and intellectual copyright obsessives paint the Chinese as a race of pirates, out to destroy our precious legal-financial system in the West that says that ideas and artworks belong to individuals – not all of mankind. That by stealing my work, by replicating it so that you can profit from it yourself, you are stealing my identity, you are stealing my truth. In China, people fail to see this Western wrongness that is behind, nay, thrust on what they are doing. Their tradition is not ours. In Taoism and Buddhism, chanting – ritualized repetition – presents an alternate model of truth-forging, wherein the more you repeat something, the greater the degree of truth and potency it assumes.)

Boy in the forest squatting naked, rests his hands upon his knees. I knew him as I was painting him, that was our moment together. I could not know him after the fact, it wasn’t allowed. He was so full of life then, the dead expression on his face, I caught him believing in something. That’s what’s poignant about youth, especially the cynical ones, for no matter how bleak the outlook, belief – that which keeps them going – always shines through. When I catch him believing, when I depict it, I know I am depicting my own belief. That foreshadow of a future world that will blacken out all of this world’s failings. I’m not talking about heaven, ideality. The boy wears red sneakers, he is still rooted in this world, he looks to another.

It is in the forest that so many memories get made. You can look at this shelter in two different ways: as being generative of life or else the advent of decay. Both are the same thing, really. It is possible to look at the forest and only see decay. Because from decay springs life. What’s important isn’t so much the fact of the forest itself but of the things that happen inside that lend themselves towards the forging of the truth, the forged truth, that is the memory. It can be so simple – you just being there naked. Another boy stands behind a tree, looking. Next to the tree, he sort of competes with it. You think about it later when you are in the studio, painting another picture, and then process closes in on itself: you paint another one, a boy, and this time, his torso becomes a trunk. His arms raised above his head, the truth of his bone-thin anatomy is concealed when you use the brush to go down down down, from his armpit down to his pelvic bone, where the frame interrupts and the image abruptly cuts off. He was there – that is the substance of the memory – though the real thing that’s going on cannot be seen, for it is the thoughts that are being thought inside his mind, the thoughts I am thinking as I paint his picture.

Painting and Writing


Painting is a language, as well, but it is one that can be very hard to read. You have to look hard for the signs, and even if you manage to find them, there is no guarantee that you will be right. Painting is the language of metaphor, it is true, and yet not. It does not always present us with something we want to see.

I am standing in front of an image, it is a figure, male, he is naked, he has his face hidden by his arm, his genitals with his left leg, arched upright, he is splayed out on the floor, his right leg providing support, it is a stressed, not entirely comfortable position, it is a being-thought-of. Today is more like yesterday. It is a dark image, what’s happening here with the light is very strange. Schoeler has chosen to accentuate the softness of the light by restricting its expression to a grayish, earthy blue – the dirt beneath your fingernails as a child after a full day at play. It is also a blue of exhaustion, a blue that says that night has come and so the normal, expected thing to do is fall asleep. This man cannot fall asleep, though, the distress is evident in his body. He is interrupting the darkness, it is cruel to be awake. His eyes all splotched out in the rendering by the shadows, one of these shadows forms a black burnt-out star. The image spells hesitancy, a not-giving-in to sublimation – that is what insomnia is all about also. Look at the blue, the man is being raped by the light, it is not at all clear where it is coming from. The background neither. I imagine it is an attic, for attics are spaces that generally have no windows, and the light cannot be coming from the moon, it is artificial. The only thing that’s bright, white, is that arched leg…He is cowering, because he is somehow mortified by the light, by what it might bring, the consolation. His body forms a constellation. He is a sort of moon and I am the planet when I am looking at him.

To be displayed.

There is a ghost inside that shadow, most of them. That ghost has a name; it is called absence. One can fill that absence, inhabit the ghost, with words. But this tactic presents its own set of problems. Narrative implies movement. To impose any sort of narrative on to a static image is, then, inevitably – whether we like it or not – an act of trespassing. My day-to-day thus varies a great deal from Schoeler’s, although necessarily there is a lot of movement in each of our actions. But the ultimate destination is very different for each of us. The role that invention plays…Don’t get me wrong, we’re both filling empty spaces up, we’re both spilling something down and then ordering it up. There is a loneliness in doing all of that. But we’re not talking about the psychology of the process here. Save that for another chapter on the obvious, melancholia. What’s interesting is the two different forms, purposes of movement.

Describing versus inhabiting. The image does something that the words can fill? No, that’s like a bubble. A thought came to me today while I was writing something else that the words can somehow fill out, inhabit the scenario that the image introduces. But that’s somehow unfair to the image. When I say image, it doesn’t have to be something physical; an image can occur in, occupy memory. Sometimes that type of image more powerful than a painting.

Sometimes the two have a very strained relationship. Gertrude Stein saw what Picasso was doing, said “I can do that,” and picked up her pen. Wonderful things happened, even though it wasn’t really Cubism, as some have strained to explain. But then one day, when Picasso started to write poetry and (briefly) decided to give up painting altogether, Gertie wasn’t all too happy about that.

It is perhaps best to view the two abstractly – that is to say, from a very far distance. That is to say: to see their similarities more than their differences. Magnify those similarities, to the extent that we can view a novel as a painting and read a painting as a novel. Get rid of all narrative, conceptual, pictorial prejudices. Perception is the last frontier. It is the gateway to everything else, the entire politicognitive superverse. Liberating ourselves from the prison of our categorical prejudices, we are able to see, for instance, the body as landscape and the landscape as body.

The difficulty then becomes considering writing as an act of seeing. This is the challenge posed by the new art writing. Will it overtake what is busy being there in another form. But writing has a materiality to it, as well, let us not forget. The base form of its materiality is sonic, a fact that all poets intuitively get. Writing should have a rhythm to it just as each painting has its own rhythm. Participating in a synaesthesia of circumstances, we arrive at leveled ground, a new sense of order.

[1] Here, as elsewhere, I am freely adapting one of the key Deleuzo-Guattarian conceptions of schizoanalysis, as posited in their famous dual work Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus), wherein the self is not a single, unitary being, but always a multiplicity. See, for instance, p. 3 of A Thousand Plateaus.

[2] Greenberg, Clement. The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988, 12.

[3] Ibid., 28.

Ceal Floyer at Esther Schipper

by Travis Jeppesen on November 25, 2015

“Ceal Floyer is a savvy swayer, a maven cracker of aesthetic one-liners that burn with a sustained snap.”

A review of Ceal Floyer’s exhibition at Esther Schipper, Berlin, is now online at Artforum.

Car/Holly Herndon

by Travis Jeppesen on November 23, 2015



Side One

Robotic feedback fuzz, the language of malfunction. Suction-feeder leads into ambulate bliss bog, now I let the machine drownscrape me forward. Forward, foreword: the arm is a tomato. The waves of yr brain get scrambled toilet-like, if the toilet could electrocute you. I don’t want to live in a world with verbs. Do you? Crypto-bionic brainfuck warrior. An underlying suction radio fuzz, tuning the radio. “literally sleeping at the office.” A brand new trivia question. “This summer I will be in a car accident.” Head collides with windshield, death comes so fast. Joke about the obsolescence of technology: this is a cassette tape. Why don’t you join the twenty-first century already?

Who wants to be a part of the scanner ray. So nefarious, reading you. When it stops, to be a part. No mutant commando, no knowledge. No way to stop what has already taken place, the transcription as it guides by and by.

Chorus of automatic windows going down. Car soundtrack.

Then there are these dense vibratory waves that waver, their tones don’t stay steady, nothing is guiding. It is like to be a part of things. Thin electronic interference perhaps, someone’s car. This is just density, the body. No rhythms, no pop references, except what accidentally pops up when tuning the radio – the unbearability of (g)listening.

A siren in the distance as monotones fuzzed-out through distortion are intoned for an uncomfortably long duration. But the siren passes you by. The authorities not coming to save you. Is this horror movie soundtrack? I am thinking how I can be this, a human wristwatch.

Jolt and death can alike be such sexiness, no there is no body (a joke!) This is music that fuzzes out your head, wait are you dead yet. Music for a corpse perhaps, to be played alongside him in the grave. The suctionality of overbearing.

Matte-face? No. At least not ratte race! But as the suction of yr face might prove to be-go, oh all willilly. Eyebrow, a butterfly molesting yr lashes. As the souptones kick in. And the fins of variability know a knowledge that is pre-anniversary memories. Crinkle in the softness as the gege kicks yr spine. Suddenly a neckbrace might make the equation get unremolested. If only I could be myself to you.

Bass undertone kicks in no cut that out. Like another room. Still the scratch-crinkle that says this is darkness, no temporality. Nothing to be measured by. That is not a sin for me, really.

Bathroom toxins in that bass. The fundamability of a helicoptered silence. Stray to ray-in the radiance of that battled vestibule. Matte-face doesn’t want shit for a toxin. Matte-face only wants what’s breath to be the pure upon the horizon. Every breath that’s pure is one that divorces itself from toxin. I am ugly and about it, to be you is to frame me-lessness beyond loath-buttery.

The notes of dryness massage yr ears. Oh fuck, a thinness. Little breath synthesized through a repetition device called maverick insignia. That is what I cane here for. I mean a violence. Something with nails to live by. Through me.


Side Two

Starts with a breath but goes away real fast, kind of like after a car accident. The buzzing of cars on electronic night highway going on all around us. We don’t want to have “elements,” epiphanies of belonging. We belong in our units, from which we cannot mustn’t separate ourselves.

An aerial aether.

True, the gradual fade in, the crunch of the tires at arrival time. Within the exhaust pipe, low baritone emitted – see, play this vehicle like an organ (!?) The merveillance of projection, when to be arrived at implies some sort of implicit machinal fandangling into a spot. You know my name, creature. I only act out in order to fathom the pause, to create some confusional missteps on the way to the party. The bubbles might even have a seaness to them. Tap on car door to get re-let inside, you are in a dangerous hood, that McDonald’s just don’t feel right. You’re picking at the lid of the gas cap but you can’t remove it it is stuck oh fuck. Bugs crawling on me at a time I feel I didn’t deserve it. All the people spilling into my inbox this morning. Get in a car and drive away from them. I hear the sound of the air. A rattling goes about it. This music meant to drive a person insane while driving a car; the rain on the windshield; a noble pursuit.

Open the car windows up to the nature forces that are going to destroy you anyway, come on, let’s let outside get inside for once, it is sexier that way: sprinklers on the yawn, the scifi encounter that is the car wash. Car is a type of engulfment, the different scapes you traverse could actually be different planets. The need to get past then, there – what’s that – an artificial scream? I don’t even know where I am anymore. Morphs into a filterfuck. A slight beam.

The cars going past you that you have nothing to do with. Some dilapidated space age vehicle starting up – thinking it might throw you. Mostly it is lonely, car. Going from one place to the next, it is a bit like a mechanical failure to ontologicalize upon the right carpet. And now the sounds of the truck gods that will take you up to heaven. Yes – always to be there, waiting.

My ride just arrive and then something weird happened. Bubbles of melancholy spilled out of her car. What I wonder is if the safer zone dialect I’ve developed has any key-in to the numericals being shoplisted right off that value site. Crush bubble mechanics are crescendoing in yr ear as you hear this, you are in yr car, going going going, do you even know where it is you are going anymore, I don’t. Hear in the machine’s cruel whisperings a message from god. He wants us to turn off and just be for a little while, but so many processes are happening at once here. A cigar in my car, we are covered in smoke. You unseen a person that may soon get invited somewhere. You can’t drive you want the car so bad. Car envy, like diamonds. The thing that boxes us in, crashes us. Sexy in our onward coming. And when in another direction comes right up to ours on an otherwise empty highway road. Oh the engines roar, they are mechanical lions. When I get inside that animal, I will be it (a separate answer?) A zone cushes out the flagrancy of our tush loan. See you in the next blockbuster that needs you to explode.





by Travis Jeppesen on November 9, 2015

A review of Jia’s Berlin solo exhibition at Artforum.

Site, Specific, Objects

by Travis Jeppesen on October 22, 2015

A review of Site, Specific, Objects at Galerija Gregor Podnar, at Artforum.

Moving Image: on Ryan Trecartin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 7, 2015

My essay, “Exploding the Frame: Ryan Trecartin’s Bad Language,” appears in the new anthology Moving Image edited by Omar Kholeif, part of the “Documents of Contemporary Art” series from Whitechapel Gallery.

The essay can also be read below.

Trecartin 2

The RealityTV script is, by now, formulaic, easy enough to decode by nearly anyone. It’s been around for a generation, the youngest among us has known no other function of television other than constructing and presenting a mediated form of reality. Ryan Trecartin’s work, and in particular his film I-Be Area, is both an amplification and distortion of that script. RealityTV changes our whole perception of reality; reality is now something you watch on a screen. In I-Be Area, we get screen upon screen upon screen upon endless screen. The screen is both filter and transmitter of heavily performed and heavily edited reality. Although there are many different settings, the entire action of the film occurs within a single zone, which is both RealityTV amplified and Reality© amplified, a space where all interactions are heavily scripted in order to orchestrate the illusion of chaos and a natural collusion of conflicting wills, a locale controlled by a god whose iterability manifests itself in a total situationality that is occluded by the all-recording digitalized presence. Affectation and gesture become just as important as the text being deployed by the participants in these multiproliferatory screens; they become the emotive norms that encase the seemingly random collage of words and ideas that form the script—thoughts melting into one another linguistically because one thought can never be completed: a New Real Order.


There are many different ways of watching I-Be Area. It’s like taking a different ride each time: There is the participatory way, wherein you join the party, projecting your own zone of being and becoming into the “total minimal situation” that the film proclaims; the narrative engulfment, in which you attempt to navigate the “multilinear” (Kevin McGarry) pathways that the plot entails; the linguistico-linear tributary, immersing yourself in the piece’s pure language stream, finding the sense in the seeming nonsense; imagistic engulfment, giving yourself over to the sensory overload in the piece’s manic cuts, the repeated strains of neon color, the detailed visual anarchy of the sets and costumes; the energo-intensive path, wherein affectation becomes your beaming guide; the elemental way, in which you attempt to sort out the millions of parts that form the spectral collage of the whole.


In all likelihood, however, your way of taking in I-Be Area will combine all or many of these methods, thus putting you in a schizo delirium that may repel or enliven you, depending on your openness towards destabilization and the manic mediation that forms the fabric of RTV and R©. All of your impulses become amplified, the aim of your desires is no longer certain, stable identity becomes a joke.

It can be a discomfiting ride to take, which makes it all the more worthwhile.


It should be noted, however, that there can be no characterological way of watching I-Be Area, because in a topia where identity is so fluid, there can be nothing so solid as character—thus there is no such thing as a standard linear narrative. Rather, the triumph of simultaneity—both the multiplicity inherent in being and in situationality. (In one of Trecartin’s subsequent films from the Any Ever series, a character suggests re-writing the US Constitution and replacing the word “God” with “Internet” and “people” with “situations.”)


If the film can be said to be “about” anything (this “about” is always the worst thing anyone could ask of an artist—though we often do), then it is the dissolution of identity into a sort of digital being—a hallmark of the New Real Order. Don’t like your identity? Buy a new one online, pay with plastic. Don’t react; redact! “Sometimes I feel like a prequel to a horrible person,” says one persona early on in the film. This embrace of becoming—a multiplicity of selves (every one is different people, different genders)—is certainly a generational influence; an abundance of youth marks every Trecartin statement. Despite the current shadows looming over the civilized West, we must keep in mind that the RTV generation was reared into an attitude reflecting an overload of confidence, unafraid of the consequences of taking risks — unafraid of appearing stupid. It is this latter fact that allows for so much of the vileness of RealityTV, and which I-Be Area subtly mocks. “What will I be when I grow up?” asks I-Be after he has been transformed into a new avatarial persona, Oliver. “A production company!” he/she answers. Media and the means of mediation are newly morphed into one with technology’s showboating and accessibility; not only is everything shot in HD, the cameras are often visible and frequently held by the speaking persona. Nearly every line of dialogue in the film is spoken directly to the camera, reflecting a consciousness of the process of mediation, a demolition of the fourth wall borrowed from the theater, which RTV typically attempts to avoid, in its artificial framing of “authenticity.”


Departing from the recurring concept of adoption—of babies, but also, by extension, implying the incorporative becoming of new selves—individuals drift into new personae readily and without hesitation. Everything is temporary, and so the heavy burden of ontological meaning is absent. An avatar can become “a toxic bisexual wearing unstable flip flops” before finding her/himself a living, walking meme. In this zone, everything is temporary. Dialects and personalities can be picked up and discarded alongside wigs and make-up. Tangible is intangible and vice versa. Interactions are pure—no psychology, just a super-psychology, overburdened with mediated emotions. “Major” and “minor”—events, personae, substance, objects—become equal and are thus no longer worthwhile distinguishing.


The loss of agency this process entails is not necessarily a bad thing. In the film’s “Moms” scene, in which a group of mothers gathers together in a middle-class suburban living room in order to vote one of the mothers off the show that the film has suddenly become, the excluded mother proclaims, “I can’t believe New Jersey happened to me. It was like writing a book I had no control over.” Instead, in such an equalized universe, a realm where agency is absent or altered, in which subjectivity is therefore spectral and momentary, it all comes down to mattering. “That will be a good day,” shouts the excluded mom: “When it won’t matter!”


Projectile bodies mattering all over the supra-mediated normvoid.


“Do you know what your dad is?”


“My dad is a building that we lit on fire.”


Just as you begin to think it’s all like a high school drama improv class gone totally haywire, the setting shifts and enters into…well, what appears to be a high school drama improv class. While narrative shifts occur all the time throughout I-Be Area, in keeping with the multi-linearity that is the underlying aura of the piece, a major shift nonetheless can be detected about an hour into the film. Or, perhaps: a shift of realms. This new realm is a classroom compound overruled by a pregnant authoritarian teacher, Jamie, and her muse, Ramada Omar. Jamie sits with her legs spread wide open and squats constantly while standing, always about to give birth. Ramada Omar rolls around on the floor, squealing “This is my favorite interactive!”


“It’s not phone you person go call yourself!” responds Jamie.


How does all this mattering come to resolve itself in the light of the total minimal situation? Perception, after all, can also be a physical object in these heightened terms. Saying is an object; so is this gesture. “No symbols where none intended,” Beckett famously wrote at the end of his novel Watt, but how to read in the absence of symbols? Do reading and being become intertwined through projection and participation? How does the frame manage to function when its contents’ aim is to completely decimate the material structure of its container?


We have to see the RTV zone for the metaphysical failure that it is. Just as, say, human laws cannot physically prevent someone from committing a crime, our own physical containers can no longer contain us, if they ever did. I-Be Area is the drama of this failed containment, a literal and ritual purging of the frame. Don’t tell me what something is; rather, inhabit it.


In the end, the personae trapped in the zone that I-Be Area inhabits are desperate to get out of it, to bust it up. They are constantly picking up hammers, breaking glass, destroying the set, fueling the increasingly frenzied chaos that is the artificial guise of their inhabited voidosphere.


Where to go once one finally manages to escape? Escaping is never about re-location—it is about the very act of escaping. The answer is never “there,” more like “there-ing.” Perhaps it’s too unsettling, this sudden cognizance that there is no final destination, only constant movement in store. If there is any true reality, then it is in the machinic nature of shifty becomings, the drive to escape the inescapable. Perhaps the right attitude is best expressed by one of Trecartin’s all-too-“real” personae: “Fuck you and sign out.”




by Travis Jeppesen on September 8, 2015

She wore a dadaistic dildo in her cooch that most men were immune to – but not I of the flying saucer. I have licked of the remnants that most mere earthlings are not politically savvy enough to taste, and warm bread is more my bloodline than the arthritic pawings of the brainiac clutch that tends to inflect the barbarian’s smoothie burpjaw gesture. So grandness grins up at the mauled forces and shops right back at them. Whomever “Softy” was meant to play, it ain’t coming across in the well that was wishing. Don’t you want my grandma to be for sale on top of us all? The most worrisome thing is fucking. For when will the cops arrive? It’s a private shock, and one that the rafters are keen to be jealous upon. Wrote all night until the aliens’ knowledge. Can I memorize this book of horrors? It’s for someone else – too much ink, I mean.

Declaration of faith

by Travis Jeppesen on September 7, 2015

Standing up for a world

I suddenly believed in –

I found god in the back

of my coat. The harshness

of each moment rings an-

gelic to me. Fuck death,

Rodefer said.

Reading Capital in Venice

by Travis Jeppesen on September 1, 2015

A work of ficto-criticism, in the September issue of Art in America.

Tania Bruguera

by Travis Jeppesen on August 29, 2015

My interview with Tania Bruguera, from the September issue of Art in America.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ... 29 30 31 Next