How does memory function in the 21st century? How does nostalgia? These are questions bound up in the work of Jordan Wolfson, on view now at David Zwirner. Spread along a series of assemblages, video, and the artist’s notoriously eerie animatronic robot, the show is a striking step for the artist, showing his unique approach to art-making in an ever-stronger expressive capacity.
Wolfson’s work has drawn particular attention this spring thanks to (Female Figure), the dirt-strewn, disfigured femme fatale that dances to Lady Gaga and spouts cliché texts about death, belonging and sexuality, all the while never breaking eye contact with the viewer. The work plays heavily into its own spectacle, but seems to challenge viewers’ interest at every turn, staring back in defiance of the visitor’s attempt to consume it as such. Similarly, his assemblage works and video Raspberry Poseur seem obsessed with testing the viewer’s limits, showing bizarre imagery of Wolfson dressed as a punk rocker cavorting around Paris, or shots of HIV viruses cavorting around a scrubbed-clean SoHo.
Wolfson has frequently asserted that his imagery is not intended for any higher meaning, or even any meaningful reading in some cases at all, but this seems more like an open provocation than a real artistic statement. The idea of pristine SoHo interiors as the site of dancing HIV bugs seems too aware of the relation of history to aesthetics, of the downtown arts scenes of the 70’s and 80’s that were decimated by the virus played off against the high-end luxury the neighborhood espouses now. Similarly, his conflation of a waving condom filled with three-dimensional hearts floating around a teenage girl’s bedroom is too heavy with implications of physicality, sexuality and youth culture to be left alone as mere “content.” Even his presence as a smirking skinhead in the film seems too self-aware to be really ignored.
That being said, if there’s something that could be called jarring about Wolfson’s work on view, it’s perhaps this irreverence for context. Past, present and future are placed on an equal playing field, dancing between the banal and the taboo, the understandable and the alien. But, as the artist notes in his concept of the “formal bridge,” these formats are second only to the act of connection, the compulsion caused by the work’s acknowledgement of the viewer. After that connection, translation can form from any series of juxtapositions, even if the viewer finds themselves still contending with the deeper meanings of the imagery. Going back to Female Figure, its a similar combination of intensely personal narratives with the cold automaton and its ambivalent pop moorings that make the work so jarring. Nostalgic undertones are laid over with the most bland bits of contemporary culture, yet the viewer must force themselves to contend with the work’s personal address, its intense, near-human gaze.
At the same time, the most compelling take on Wolfson’s work may stem from this same stated indifference towards his subjects, whether intentional or not. Rather than approach them and the larger compositions from a carefully laid symbolic framework, he sets whole lineages of cultural history (the decimation of downtown NYC by AIDS in the 1980’s, the history of Punk Rock, cartoon violence, interior design) against each other, and captures the result. For the artist, history is a vast reserve of aesthetic techniques, set on an equal playing field from each other. Much like the non-linear editing platforms of contemporary video software, all time frames, all cultural signifiers are reduced to the same system of value.
While countless artists document the shifting formats of globalized, multi-cultural awarenesses, Wolfson is on the other side, exploring the breaks and ruptures in meaning caused by globalized pop, mass culture and information overload, and reducing their cultural symbols to mere compositional elements. Cunning senses of history, culture and consumption are set against each other in a way that ultimately seeks more to understand their relation to each other than to make any sort of objective or subjective judgement.
Just like the grammatical wrinkles of his works’ titles and the multiple languages of his website, Wolfson seems to be subverting language itself, if only to prove its de-prioritization in the face of the ever-broadening archive. His work is on view through April 19th, but appointments to view (Female Figure) must be made in advance.
Jordan Wolfson at David Zwirner [Exhibition Site]
Artist’s Website [Jordan Wolfson]
“Holding the Gaze: The Sexual Power of Jordan Wolfson’s Animatronic Doll [Art Info]
“Say Hello to Jordan Wolfson’s Terrifying Animatronic Dancer at David Zwirner” [ArtNet]
“Critic’s Picks: Jordan Wolfson” [Artforum]
“Jordan Wolfson on Transforming the “Pollution” of Pop Culture Into Art” [Artspace]
“Jordan Wolfson at David Zwirner” [Purple]