Dressed only in a black bra and panties, spiked fingerless bondage gloves and a curly blond wig, writer Chris Kraus once braved six degree temperatures in the snow, while ranting about murdering her sadistic husband. “I was trying to build a gendered two-legged snowman, thinking the legs would join together at the pelvis and the dick. Never got there,” she recalls. The ordeal was for Foolproof Illusion (1986), a 17-minute film about Artaud from a feminist point of view, and the snowman’s lack of completion resonates in light of Kraus’s aborted filmmaking career.
Nevertheless, a few Saturdays ago in May, a day supposed by some to mark the end of the world, an exhibition featuring Foolproof Illusion, along with four other films made between 1983 and 1996, opened at the two-year-old Brooklyn artist-run gallery Real Fine Arts. Since abandoning movie making, Kraus has become known as a publisher (Semiotext(e), Native Agents), art critic and novelist. Her breakthrough book was I Love Dick, a title that promises pornography but delivers a devastatingly self-revealing real-life tale of obsessive infatuation.
Coincidentally, Gravity and Grace (1995), Kraus’s all or nothing last and most ambitious film, is a strangely buoyant feature about a cult predicting doomsday and a young female artist in New York named Gravity. Kraus wanted it to be projected during the opening, but gallery directors Tyler Dobson and Ben Morgan-Cleveland were afraid to place expensive equipment in the middle of a crowded gallery floor. Like the expected apocalypse, the show’s main attraction was absent that night, although it will be projected at 4 pm every day the gallery is open.
When the films were made, they garnered enthusiastic blurbs from the likes of Nan Goldin, David Wojnarowicz and Eileen Myles, but the response from the rest of the world (according to Kraus) was null. The highlight of her moviemaking career may have been a much-anticipated meeting with the film curator of the Whitney Museum, who wound up explaining in detail why he would never show her work.
“In the ‘80s,” explained actor Jim Fletcher, who’s featured in several of Kraus’s movies, “a lot of people were repulsed by Chris’s films. They are very potent, but also almost deformed, not easy to embrace. Her formidable intelligence is so fast that it doesn’t really touch the ground -- it flies right over its object.”
Curiosity about her films is now on the rise, especially among young people, and not just in New York. Future shows are scheduled at Herald Street in London, Pro Choice in Vienna, and Monash University Gallery in Melbourne. “It’s exciting to see Kraus’s gritty Super-8 film noir,” says 23-year-old artist (and sometime Delusional Downtown Diva) Joana Avillez, “especially after having known these early movies only through her writing, a body of work whose honesty and clarity are incredibly essential to me.”
Other works seen on wall monitors with earphones at Real Fine Arts include Traveling at Night #2 (1990), a study of the underground railroad filtered through a children’s field trip to caves that once sheltered slaves, and How to Shoot A Crime (1987), which was made in collaboration with Kraus’s husband Sylvere Lotringer, and plays his interviews with professional dominatrixes off actual police crime scene footage. Screening announcements and scripts fill two vitrines, and posters and recently printed archival inkjet stills are pinned to the walls.
“This show wasn’t something that I would seek out,” Kraus says, distancing herself from more than a decade of dedication, “but it’s great that Tyler and Ben wanted to do it. My films no longer mean much to me, but I’m glad to see that they now may mean something to others.” In addition to being a study of failure’s poetics, the exhibition exemplifies the meaning of one of Gravity and Grace’s strongest lines: “opinions change so fast. What's ignored or hated one year is celebrated the next. . . Things can turn around anytime, the trick is to keep: your own direction."
“Chris Kraus: Films,” May 21-June 19, 2011, at Real Fine Arts, 673 Meeker Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11222.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.