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    Raw Pathology
by Donald Kuspit
Composite Still Life
Fear Flower
1999 (left) and
Small Green Devil Head with Black Light
Underwater (Blue/Green)
Getaway #2
F/X Plotter
"Introjection: Tony Oursler Mid-Career Survey 1976-1999," Apr. 2-July 9, 2000, at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art at California Plaza, Los Angeles, Cal.

Tony Oursler is super-clever. He knows that we unreflectively absorb television images and voices, making their public content part of our private lives, so he literally makes television part of us -- our heads -- and uses it to project our inner lives back into the outer world. Without our heads we wouldn't be who we seem to be, for without our expressive faces and voices we couldn't reveal our particular identity in all its complexity and absurdity.

Oursler's talking video head -- an oval screen with a face and voice projected onto it -- is an ingenious puppet-robot-performer, at once theatrical plaything and clever machine. The works in his mid-career survey (1976-1999), ironically as well as descriptively entitled "Introjection," are visual and auditory projections as well as clinical accounts of the introjects that constitute various selves -- show him to be a master of stagecraft. What at first glance seem to be turbulent installations of disparate objects turn out to be situational psychodramas resembling soap operas.

After he was shot, Andy Warhol came to the conclusion that life, after all, was not the television soap opera he thought it was, but then he realized that his shooting confirmed that it was in fact a television soap opera. This is not as ironical as it sounds, nor is Oursler as ironical as he seems to be.

If television is so pervasive that we no longer suspect its presence, and unconsciously think of it as a friendly robot who can supply us with information and ideas as well as entertainment and distraction at the touch of button -- then why not express ourselves through it?

This is what Judy, 1994, Oursler's most lovable, disturbed character does. (The characters in Autochthonous (1994) and Keep Going (1995) are somewhat more hostile, if equally disturbed.) She may have multiple personalities -- her drama grew out of Oursler's research into dissociative identity disorder -- but each one of them is a television personality, that is, in the show-and-tell business. She sounds like a lot of real people -- even though none of them are made of flesh and blood -- but she's a whole television soap opera cast in one figure.

Television soap opera is the mimetic model of our times, and Oursler is a master of it -- of the mimicry of emotions that characterize it, a mimicry that sometimes seems like mockery, all the more so because the deep emotions often seem to exist independently of the pasteboard figures who express them. Oursler is a master of this paradoxical effect: the medium through which he presents the emotions seems to trivialize them in the very act of doing so. A soap opera is a cartoon of life, but then life is a tragicomic cartoon, at least from the perspective of television.

The survey was rather crowded, and the sound tracks of various pieces sometimes overlapped, resulting in a certain Tower of Babel effect, perhaps deliberate, as though to convey the competing voices of different television programs. But one thing seems clear: Oursler's ambition. Not only does he want to be a social critic, as Kepone Drum (1989), and Molecular Mutation (1987-89), indicate -- the former deals with a toxic chemical, the other with the equally toxic power of ultraviolet rays, which can cause mutations on the molecular level -- but he wants to be a critic of the medium he himself works in him, which can also be toxic, in an equally sinister way.

Television -- the popular visual media in general -- can rot the mind just as toxic chemicals can rot the body. Indeed, Oursler's disembodied heads suggest just how far the rot has gone. A series of 1997 "drawings" -- Early Cinematic Device in Red (a distorted skull), Rating System (a mock movie rating system, with images of imbecilic movie-goers) and Reception (a television antenna from which various emblems dangle, including Christ crucified) -- make the point succinctly.

Raising the question whether Actions Speak Louder than Images, 1997, Oursler suggests that images have a more insidious, durable effect than one-time actions. Again and again he shows us death's-heads, sometimes with facial features projected on them where we least expect to find them, as in the marvelously surreal Composite Still Life (1999), sometimes as a kind of haunting ghost, as in Feedback (1998), suggesting a pessimistic vision of the popular visual media at odds with his funhouse use of it. But then to live in a world of ghostly images, however carnival-like, is to live in the world of the living dead.

The hysteria and rage that many of Oursler's figures express -- their raw pathology, however sometimes tempered by tears (often the tears of a temper tantrum) -- suggests they belong in the same dubiously human category as Max Beckmann's figures. Indeed, their abject situation -- they are often on the floor and under furniture they are too small and weak to lift -- resembles that of Beckmann's figures, who are often dominated by threatening objects.

The sense of the disproportion between verbally and visually animated figure -- but otherwise inert and hollow [there's no body under the suggestion of clothing] -- and inanimate object is a crucial aspect of Oursler's work. It is symbolic of the discrepancy between the small powerless child and the big powerful parents. Oursler invariably gives us a child's eye view of the dangerous lifeworld.

Oursler is the artist of American abjectness -- the abjectness underlying American mastery and superiority -- just as Beckmann was the artist of German abjectness -- however different the situation of Germany between the world wars and America today, and however different their mediums.

Both Oursler and Beckmann trace the pattern of individual pathology which is the fault line where society breaks down. They convey human nature at its deepest and most desperate -- extreme emotions and existential vulnerability are their forte -- however much they also recognize that human beings are social constructions, often media determined or dominated, at least on the surface.

Oursler's "The Darkest Color Infinitely Amplified" is currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, July 13-Oct. 31, 2000.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.