Without a Name: Jon Campbell

by Travis Jeppesen on November 12, 2008

Below is my catalog essay for Jon Campbell’s exhibition in Paris, which opens on Saturday, November 15th at Galerie Jeanroch Dard.

Faced with the difficulty of writing about Jon Campbell’s work, I can only try and identify the source of that complexity and get through it that way. Because we’re not talking about a simple formal dichotomy here that can be readily broken down – the abstraction is figurative and the figuration is abstract. Nor can I imply that we are witnessing a rendering of the artist’s innermost thoughts without inadvertently digging up the exquisite corpse of surrealism, soliciting the ghost of psychoanalysis. There is nothing gimmicky in these pictures to lend itself to a crude definition – they are without affectation – and there is certainly nothing “cool” about them. None of the blatant infatuation with irony that burdened so much of the painting done late in the last century. We’re in a new century now, and the truth is, I’m writing this during a time when art writing – writing about art – has run out of steam, having bogged itself down in heady conceptual paradigms and didacticism, losing most of its audience in the process. Language, when not directly employed by an artwork, has effectively abandoned us. Jon Campbell feels this abandonment – this lack of language – but on a deeper level, beyond the mere literary. Now artists are expected to become indoctrinated via a multitude of (visual, etc.) languages from a young age. Jon, still at a young age though past his apprenticeship, has already chosen to reject all received languages. This is a daring move to make at any age in our era of mixing-and-matching, “sampling,” whatever you want to call it. It means going at it all alone, without a safety net to fall back on. And this is painful, not just for the artist, but for us, who must contend with the work.

Yet there are also others, present in a series of portraits, executed in an extremely intimate manner in the artist’s cramped studio in a delicate span of some ninety minutes each. They are portraits, and yet there is a sameness to them that effectively obliterates their subjects’ uniqueness. It could be the artist himself we see projected. Lined up together, it is the sum of their expressionlessness that unites these men. They all become the same No One. By Campbell’s own admission, the surfaces of his subjects are far less important than the situation that produces their rigid vulnerability. But this situation is absent – there is no background here to contextualize their placement.

In the accompanying works, what we find is pure situation – but again, without a clear context that lends itself to interpretation. Occasionally a figure may emerge, but it is always accidental – a shape designating a pole of thought, one that is necessarily private. So firm is the artist’s belief in the autonomy of these images that he refuses to name them – for to name is to force an interpretation and to again rely on a fixed referential language as agent.

Campbell’s situations, then, force me to contend with my own battles in the realm of language. Campbell tells me that his grand theme is identity, and what is language but a projection of identity. But identity, in Campbell’s paintings, is always masked. He has no interest in painting a particular personality. If he is evasive, then it branches from the same evasion that ultimately coats all human perception. Painting as a negative act in which the negative loses its value in a sea of specificity. The painter becomes a host of possibilities in this retrospective denial of arrival. What we are left with are the raw recordings, and the invigorating opportunity to explore them without a guide.

Social Disease

by Travis Jeppesen on November 11, 2008

Social Disease, publisher of Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the “Contemporary”, has a new website.

Richard Serra at Gagosian Britannia

by Travis Jeppesen on November 8, 2008

The philosophical rigidity of Richard Serra’s sculptures stands for raw endurance. They last, they extend themselves past momentary interpretations, and yet they are not momentous; rather they nearly pass as organic forms. One at Gagosian is a vaginal maze that you can readily get lost in, its walls narrow and claustrophobic — a metallic birth canal. Visitors express their concern aloud to one another as they move through it — they want to get out as fast as possible, but the further you move, the longer it lasts. There are no easy exits here: once you make the decision to enter, you’re caught. A lot of people won’t make this decision. Too much of a risk. I remember hearing a story, and I don’t know whether it’s true or not, about a Serra sculpture falling on someone and killing them. His work includes this threat, a masculine apology of interruptive force. And yet the wholeness of the shape that’s created, the enclosure it forms, is a nod to classic eternal beauty and all its paradoxes. I think Richard Serra laughs at attempts like these to sum up his work in words. Perfection contains its own criticism, and maybe Serra’s work isn’t quite perfect because it contains nothing but that criticism. The ineffable power of wordless thought; a static intrusion in the zero realm.

Ryan Trecartin at Whitechapel Gallery

by Travis Jeppesen on November 8, 2008

Having sat through so much bad video art in the past, I had until fairly recently come close to giving up on the medium altogether. Lately, however, my prejudices have been dissolving, as a new generation of video artists — people like Mark Ther, Keren Cytter, and Ryan Trecartin — has been opening up possibilities of expression within the medium that don’t necessarily rely on technological wizardry. While wildly disparate in sensibility, if these three artists have anything in common besides the fact that all work in video, it is that they are not afraid to embrace theatrical conventions in their exploration of issues surrounding gender and sexuality. That they also explore these issues in a novel way — without falling back on tired theoretical conventions — is not only refreshing, but necessary.

Ryan Trecartin is showing several short videos now at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. He’s an artist who has embraced not only the gallery scene, but the Internet as well — many of his videos can be downloaded for free online. His videos are non-narrative freak-out films that attempt to capture the amplified reality of a teenage acid trip. Actors are dressed in ridiculously colorful costumes and forced to regurgitate lines that sound like they were scripted for some sort of metaphysical soap opera; think Richard Foreman crossed with the hyper-banality of some MTV reality show. Despite their apparent formlessness, the films are so interesting that you can watch them continuously and still discover hidden meanings each time. Here’s hoping we’ll be seeing a lot more of Ryan Trecartin in the future.

McDonald’s Razor Burger

by Travis Jeppesen on October 28, 2008

Yeah, I know. This isn’t about art, and it’s not like you need another reason to not eat at McDonald’s. But this was so hardcore, I couldn’t resist reporting it – especially since no explanation whatsoever has been forthcoming from McDonald’s HQ, which confirms my impression that they simply don’t care about either their customers or their stockholders.

A few weeks ago, after a long drinking session, we ended up at the Hermannplatz McDonald’s in the Neuköln district of Berlin. Imagine my surprise when I opened up my L.A. Beef Barbeque to find this. Notice anything special (besides the fact that it looks extra disgusting than the usual McDonald’s culinary efforts)?

A little bit of silver, perhaps?

That’s right – what appears to be a huge razor blade in the sandwich.

Think about that next time you get a Mac Attack. Or at least take a good long look at what you’re about to bite into, or else it may very well be the last thing you ever taste. <shiver>


by Travis Jeppesen on October 27, 2008

The 3. Porn Film Festival Berlin reached its ecstatic climax last night with a screening of Claudette, winner of the Maleflixx.TV Award for Best Gay Film at this year’s festival – even though it’s not a gay film or even a pornographic film, but rather an intimate hour-long portrait of one of Switzerland’s leading sex work activists, who just happens to be a 69-year-old hermaphrodite prostitute named Claudette. Claudette herself was on hand to answer questions after the screening, and put everyone else to shame at the after party, getting down on the dance floor into the wee hours of the morning. I guess this is as good a demonstration as any of the fact that an active sex life keeps you healthy and fit, as Claudette tells a group of students in the film. The fact that she also happens to be a bike racing champion might also have something to do with this amazing lady’s enviable prowess.

I was also fortunate to catch Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon yesterday. In recent years, the porn star documentary has effectively become its own genre, as rigidly codified as pornography (or horror) itself. Wrangler is different because Jack Wrangler himself is (seemingly) such an anomaly. He was a pioneer who was able to enjoy his success and never became a victim of the industry that elevated him to superstardom. It’s nice to see a positive portrayal of a porn star for once.

Afterwards, I stayed to watch one of Wrangler’s best known features (from the first, gay part of his career), A Night at the Adonis. Filmed on location at the Adonis cinema in New York, the movie is a celebration of gay sexuality in its heyday. Watching the film in a movie theatre, at a film festival, in 2008, brought up a lot of interesting issues. The film is a porn movie about guys watching porn in a cinema and fucking to it. As audience members, are we supposed to watch this in a strictly “historical” context, ignoring the stimulating content or pretending that it doesn’t arouse us? Two guys in back of me seemed to answer this question as it popped into my brain. As far as I know, they were the only ones in the audience doing anything sexual as A Night at the Adonis played. Everyone knows that porn lost a lot in terms of quality in the transition from film to video to where we are today, and a lot of that has been blamed on technology. I agree to an extent, but watching A Night at the Adonis in the context of the Porn Film Festival made me realize another important fact that wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise: namely, that whereas porn films were once made to fuck to, now they are made for the purposes of masturbation. Porn is no longer a public spectacle, but a private ritual – one that is meant to be hidden, that we are supposed to be ashamed of. Yet another reason why events like the Porn Film Festival are so necessary – to get rid of that stigma and treat sexuality as something that should be celebrated, rather than muted.

Todd Verow at 3. Porn Film Festival Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 26, 2008

I have to admit that I haven’t seen any of Todd Verow’s previous films, but I admire the abrasive, fuck-you aesthetic you find in his latest, Where Your Heart Should Be, which received its world premiere last night at the Porn Film Festival Berlin (the film also screens tonight at 22:15 at Kino Eiszeit for any Berlin readers out there.) While I can’t say that the film is easy to watch, Verow obviously knows this and wouldn’t have it any other way. He wants the experience of watching the film to be as painful for the audience as it was for the filmmaker in making it.

Impossible to summarize, the film works as a sort of visual diary recording its author’s de-infatuation with love and sex. As Verow states early on in the film [paraphrase alert!], “You want a tagline? I’ll give you a tagline: Film is dead, porn is dead, love is dead, sex is dead.”

The texts employed throughout the film are as brutal and confrontational as the author’s own words, but most of them do not originate from him. Rather, they are taken from letters and e-mails sent by disenchanted ex-lovers. The film is spliced with lots of footage of Verow and his current partner fucking; otherwise, in interview/monologue segments, Verow hires various actors to play him, recounting painful memories of a pre-adolescent gang rape in graphic detail.

Where Your Heart Should Be had a noticeably divisive effect on its audience. There were quite a few walk-outs – always a sign that the filmmaker has done something right. For the fact is that most people are sadly average and don’t want to be confronted with words and images of ugliness and brutality. Those who test themselves by facing it head-on, however, often discover that there is also a lot of beauty embedded within those images. This is odd, because disenchantment isn’t supposed to be pretty. And the ambiguous barrage of emotions provoked by Where Your Heart Should Be tends to have a choking effect. Taken as a whole, though, I think Where Your Heart Should Be is a beautiful film – and the beauty lies in its very abrasiveness. The mere fact of its unclassifiability signifies a unique rogue presence in the world of independent filmmaking. I’m looking forward to tracking down more of Verow’s films.

Katharina Klewinghaus at 3. Porn Film Festival Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 26, 2008

As someone who was addicted to slasher films as a child in the 1980s, and who went on to read a ton of feminist and queer theory at university in the 1990s, I’ve long been fascinated with the contradictory ways that women and sex are portrayed in the horror genre. It is a subject that has fascinated academics throughout the last decade, as well, and one that’s been in dire need of a documentary treatment for some time. Now, thanks to Katharina Klewinghaus, star of Bruce LaBruce’s new film Otto; or, Up with Dead People!, that documentary has arrived: Science of Horror, which was screened this weekend at the Porn Film Festival.

Klewinghaus had the savvy to bring together some of the more well known directors of the horror genre, as well as a range of writers and academics who have illuminated the subject through their work. While you might not agree with all of the arguments being put forth, Klewinghaus never appears to take sides and none of the points ever seem belabored – a sign of great filmmaking. Considering that this is Klewinghaus’s first feature, this is quite an impressive feat.

Women were largely relegated to one of two roles in the strictly codified proceedings of the horror film – the studious virgin/hero or the party-harty whore/victim. If I have one minor criticism of the film, it is that the (largely male) filmmakers interviewed failed to address the topic of gender. While they were eager to speak about the function of sex in the films – drawing comparisons to the language of pornography – it would have been interesting to hear their thoughts on the function of gender. Were they conscious of what they were doing in relegating the role of women in their filmic universes, or were their values so engrained in the cultural climate of America in the 1980s, wherein the moral majority was forcing its “family values” propaganda on the population, that they felt it necessary to reinforce these values through their art?

That aside, Science of Horror is one of the most intriguing documentaries I’ve seen this year.

Charles Lum at the 3. Porn Film Festival Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 25, 2008

One of the highlights of this year’s Porn Film Festival was last night’s screening of a suite of short films by Charles Lum, The HIV Collection. Taken together, the films form a fractured feature of sorts that sustains itself thematically through a deployment of repetition that borders on confrontation, yet is never tedious. The films are extremely personal, and address various facets of the artist’s life as an HIV-positive gay man – particularly his pained ambivalence surrounding issues of sex and discretion.

Morning, Noon & Night serves as a sort of “day in the life” of Lum. Park, at only seven minutes, is one of the best (and funniest) films about cruising I’ve yet seen. The longest film, facts. SUCK, is as blunt as its title, portraying Lum’s conversations with his own doctors, shrinks, nurses, and pharmacists, then juxtaposing these interactions with footage of himself speaking directly to the camera on issues of desire and self-image. In Indelible, we are bombarded with a manic collage of the famous “pig guts” scene from the movie Carrie and footage of cumshots in bareback gay porn; the film is as disturbing as it is funny. Overdue Conversation is a split-screen conversation with one of his close friends, wherein each films the other, about whether it is necessary to disclose your HIV status before having sex with someone. Finally, “black” is another recorded conversation that takes place backstage at the Black Party in New York, wherein Lum interviews another friend about an unsafe sexual encounter he engaged in only moments before.

What makes these films feel so fresh, I think, is Lum’s near total disregard for cinematic convention. In many ways, his approach reminds me of that of the writer Peter Sotos, for whom the direct and explicit conveyance of information takes precedence over lofty notions of form and aesthetics. Lum brings the camera wherever he wants to go and uses it as a tool for his own ends – not to serve some unified conception of art or even a preconceived final product. At the same time, he is never grasping at straws in these films – the camera and the process of recording become an extension of his own being, and work hand-in-hand with whatever the situation happens to produce. There is nothing contrived here, and so it is never boring to watch – you literally don’t know what’s going to happen from minute to minute. It would be interesting to see if Lum could sustain this momentum over the course of a longer film.

In short, Lum’s willingness to submit to the momentary chaos of the life he lives, and generously presents, makes for fascinating viewing material. Taken together, the films comprising The HIV Collection form a complex self-portrait that lingers in the mind long after you watch it, sparking as it does so many questions: questions that are so important, most of us devote our lives to ignoring, rather than confronting them. It is for this reason I believe The HIV Collection will come to be regarded as a classic.

PORN AGAIN: 3. Porn Film Festival Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 24, 2008

This week I’ll be “reporting” from the third installment of Berlin’s Porn Film Festival. By reporting, I mean that I’ll be catching films here and there, discussing what I’ve seen, exploring general issues that arise in the conflation of art and porn, and delivering final verdicts – not on the Festival itself; I think the mere fact of its existence is a wonderful thing – but on the films I happen to see.

This is my second year attending the Festival. For me, the highlight of last year’s festival was the discovery that, despite the blatancy of its name, the organizers’ interpretation of what constitutes “porn” was actually quite open. That meant getting to see such treats as LLIK YR IDOLS, the recent documentary on the New York No Wave scene of filmmakers, many of whom arguably employed elements of porn in their work; a beautiful documentary exploring the nature of bestiality, the title of which I’ve unfortunately forgotten; the first Israeli gay erotic feature film; plus a whole host of shorts, including Bruce LaBruce’s recent Give Piece of Ass a Chance.

This year’s Festival will include a special focus on Asian porn cinema; directors Charles Lum, Petra Joy, William E. Jones, and Ola Ege; an exploration of the career of porn legend Jack Wrangler; plus the usual program of features, documentaries, shorts, and an ambitious program of lectures, workshops, and nightclub events.

What has impressed me so far about the Festival is its curatorial integrity. The fact that so many filmmakers have refused to allow their films to be screened at the Porn Film Festival because of its name just shows you how stupidly moralistic and righteous our culture remains in the 21st century. Ironically, a lot of films focusing on some aspect of the porn industry – even films including the word “porn” in the title – have refused to show at the Porn Film Festival Berlin. (See this interesting statement from the Festival organizers for more on this.)

While there are films from hardcore porn studios being shown, these films comprise a small segment of the Festival program. What you find when attending the Berlin festival is a rigorous filmic examination of the very notion of pornography – from both contemporary and historical vantage points. It seems to me that the Festival’s primary focus is on constructing a bridge between two superficially separate realms – “art” and “porn” – effectively uniting them. That there is no one correct way to go about doing this is testament to the Festival’s diversity and legitimacy.

Even if the filmmakers who refused to show in the Berlin Porn Film Festival don’t get this, at least the audience does. Judging solely on looks alone, this is no porno convention. You won’t find cliché plastic blonde vixens, shaky old men in raincoats, or overweight pony-tailed sleaze merchants haunting the halls of the Porn Film Festival venues. Instead, artists, intellectuals, and bohemians of all ages and sexual orientations are filling the halls and auditoriums. While it may not draw the largest crowds, the fact that it attracts the elite of the cutting edge endows the Berlin Porn Film Festival with a buzz sadly lacking in more mainstream film festivals.

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