Space-Ape on Mars/Self-Portrait
© ArtNet Worldwide 1997
Dance of Life
Candles in the Wind
Hysterics are undoubtedly our imaginative artists.
-- Sigmund Freud
Sean Landers loves you very, very much, or so he says in the open letter to his fans that doubles as the press release for his latest New York show. But if Sean loves us, then why has he stopped writing to us, at least in the compulsively honest confessional way he used to? The once notoriously logorrheic diarist has shut up. He says he is sick, sick to death of writing.
Instead, for his new show at Andrea Rosen, he's produced a group of large figurative oil paintings and an impressively detailed figure sculpture made of wax, as well as an audiotape of himself singing almost 20 pop songs (available for $15, a bargain).
Landers just wants to be "close to you." The piped-in karaoke says so -- it's Landers crooning the Burt Bacharach tune, Close to You, that Karen Carpenter made into a hit in the `70s. In fact, the paintings in this show begin with such `70s pop motifs. Space Ape on Mars: A Self Portrait, for instance, depicts an astronaut chimp artist, standing impotently before an unfinished easel painting on an airless and forbidding planet. Though insulated against the harsh nature of an alien landscape by his life-support system, Landers' simian stand-in is still in jeopardy. This is Planet Sean, a place where, as Maslow put it, we are simultaneously worms and gods.
"Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time," said Shakespeare, who may have well been thinking of the flaccid daisy chain of nude bohemians framed by a forest glade in the painting Dance of Life. Engaged in a preposterous hippie bacchanal, the dancers look more somnambulistic and distracted than frenzied -- Dionysius don't come easy! As if to mediate libidinous abandon and neurotic self-absorption through a compositional conceit, the artist has significantly positioned the dancers so that all genitalia is hidden.
Another self-portrait, Robot and Bunny (Me and Michelle), presents a big-busted bunny and an amorous Robbie the Robot violating "natural law" by self-consciously engaging in interspecies "miscegenation." Here, amidst the trappings of a pastoral picnic, a multi-"carrot" diamond engagement ring is the locus of the pair's desire. Is Landers saying that a marriage of faith and reason is imminent? The late Craig Owens, in his seminal article, The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Post-Modernism, defined the characteristic works of our time as allegorical, i.e., a text read through another text, "any person, any object, any relationship, can mean absolutely anything else."
A case in point is Landers' eponymously titled painting Zorkon. Seven gimlet-eyed space aliens sprawl on the listing deck of an ocean-going sloop. One of the "little green men" points a listless finger at a waterspout in the distance -- nature threatening. Cartoon spacemen, such as these, are stereotypically large-brained and from a technologically advanced culture. Here, however, they are unaccountably adrift -- adrift on an outdated ship, stylistically adrift in a dated rendering, and paradoxically executed in the most archaic of artistic mediums, oil paint. This heroically scaled allegorical painting raises traditionally large questions of origination and destination -- an inquiry that is overshadowed by Landers' role as social satirist to the "slacker generation."
The monstrously comi-tragic Candles in the Wind is the sculptural axis around which revolves this relentlessly ironic pastiche of images. A 3-D hippie couple, cast half-scale in puce-colored wax, frolic apathetically as the crowns of their heads dissolve into flaming candle wicks. O' the tragically fragile flame of our existence, guttering for a short season atop the precarious seat of reason, ah, the loss, ah, the irony.
What are we to make of this dyspeptic amalgam of retro imagery and earnestly inept painting? How, specifically, shall we relate it to Landers' earlier work? In the past I've found myself inexplicably fond of his frustrated fly-in-a-bottle buzzings. I was entertained by his bratty subversion of the high dudgeon tone of much text-based work, and I appreciated him more simply as a voluble eccentric.
His current exhibition suggests that Landers' failed writing is more potent than his failed paintings. Landers' whiny, solipsistic musings made sense. In their banality they spoke directly to the provisional nature of the human condition.
With his new pictorial work, Landers is attempting to expand his repertoire. He deserves credit for his derring-do, but I'm not sure I prefer oblique allegorical subterfuge to "full frontal nudity." Landers' literary artlessness charmed me. The artlessness of his new pictures leaves me feeling cold and alone on a hostile planet. I preferred Landers' self-indulgent glossolalic endgame to this -- just another archly bad painting show.
Frankly, these works raise my issues of abandonment. Sean, if you really love us so much, if you want to be close, stop withholding, for God's sake man, talk to us, we can make this relationship work. Honest.
ROGER BOYCE is a New York artist.