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Jordan Wolfson's Video


by Emily Nathan
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A concerned Jordan Wolfson fluttered around his opening at Alex Zachary Peter Currie last Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012, shushing the crowd. The gallery’s lights were off, so the faces of obedient, whispering patrons were lit only by the glow of the artist’s new 12-minute-long CGI video, Animation, masks, which played on a loop throughout the evening. Wolfson’s insistence on both silence and darkness, hardly ideal conditions for an art reception, seemed bold, and even brazen, at the time, but it indicates just how seriously he takes his own work -- in this case, a computer-generated cartoon.

Born in 1980 and the 2009 recipient of the Frieze Foundation’s Cartier Award, Wolfson has been the subject of more than one write-up in the New York Times, most recently a creampuff from Roberta Smith, who said that his new video has “the hallmarks of a classic.” He’s also a darling of Artforum’s chatty Scene and Herd” column, which covered the dinner following his show’s reception (it was held at the eccentric Ukrainian Institute at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue).

Wolfson and dealer Alex Zachary, who recently joined forces with fellow dealer Peter Currie, make a good pair -- Zachary opened his homey space in a townhouse on East 77th Street last year to comparable buzz, and has since been included on Forbes’ “Hottest 30 Under 30” list and given a shout-out by Whitney curator and former Artforum staffer Scott Rothkopf, for showing “off-beat” art. Wolfson’s work is certainly that, but despite a colorful, whimsical esthetic that belies its complex subtext, it is consistently smart, thoughtful and meticulously constructed.

At Alex Zachary Peter Currie, his exhibition consists exclusively of Animation, masks, a video he produced with a team of professional animators, including Henning Koczy and Craig Kohlmeyer. Its protagonist is, controversially, a character the artist compiled from Google Image searches for “evil Jew” and “Shylock,” literature’s most flagrant personification of anti-Semitism. The resulting mash-up -- unofficially called the Jew by Wolfson and his cohorts -- is not overtly sinister: he has kindly eyes set beneath heavy brows, a balding head crowned by a yarmulke, endearingly gnarly teeth, a wiry beard and a big, Semitic nose.

We find him, at the start of the video, harmless enough -- sitting with his back towards us in the dark while he flips through an issue of French Vogue. The glossy advertisements for Prada purses and L’Oréal wrinkle creams don’t seem to intrigue him much, and he rarely hesitates long before turning to the next one. The meaty stubs of his fingers fumble with the delicate cardstock; his thick neck is silhouetted against image after image of golden-skinned, ruby-lipped models, a contrast that highlights his remove from their beatific physical excellence.

Next thing we know the Jew is facing us and, speaking directly to the camera, schizophrenically adopting two different voices -- one seemingly male and the other female. He performs both as if they are in dialogue, keeping his eyes locked on ours while he forms his hand into a pistol and points it first at his own temple, and then at us. Things become increasingly lascivious: “Do you know what you want from me?” he oozes in a female’s scratchy soprano. “I want to have sex with you,” he replies, in a male’s breathy tenor, to himself. “Tell them how I am.”

The female voice responds with graphic details -- including her surprise at his ample size -- and the back and forth continues, punctuated visually by a sudden elongation of the Jew’s nose into a phallus. Meanwhile, the video’s black background has been replaced by a rotating catalogue of non-descript apartment interiors. We are witnessing the faceless enactment of a certain sort of relationship that is characterized by kinky, impersonal sex and the games it entails, and the Jew, a caricature himself, plays both parts with cold, disinterested detachment.

Inexplicably the video cuts again, and now our mercurial protagonist, still facing us, abandons his wayward lovers to adopt another series of disembodied voices, in which he recites Richard Brautigan’s Love Poem over and over again: “It’s so nice to wake up in the morning, all alone, and not have to tell somebody you love them, when you don’t love them, anymore.”

As he speaks, brand logos and images of cartoon characters flit across his face, temporarily masking him, and he flirts with the camera, raising an arm coquettishly above his head or turning to the side and gazing at us sidelong. Every element of the scene’s construction enhances the disparity between what we see and what we hear: the voices don’t match their speaker; the superficiality of the mass-produced, commercial imagery and the Jew’s impish posturing clashes with the melancholy cynicism of the spoken sentiment that accompanies them. As the video fades to black, we are serenaded by a deliciously ironic sampling of some classic French chanson.

Wolfson, though playful, is dark. The visual, aural and narrative disjunction viewers experience while watching Animation serves to reinforce the unsettling alienation that is also its subject, and, finally, its enduring message. The Jew himself is a stereotypical confection of what a Jew should, might or does look like -- political correctness notwithstanding -- and Wolfson places him in dialogue with a number of similarly artificial constructs, all of them projected by society as exemplars: the fashion magazine proffers paragons of beauty and style; the catalogue-perfect interiors represent the prototypical “downtown New York loft”; the logos and cartoons written all over the Jew’s face, in a manner of speaking, are symbolic of a specific sensibility, esthetic or type of humor. Surrounded by these various frameworks for success and happiness, the Jew is driven to madness -- and, as his adoption of so many anonymous voices might suggest, so are we all.

But aside from asserting the cliché demons of American materialism, what does Wolfson engage here? His main character revives the difficult, if complex figure of Shylock, whose use to poisonous ends is not confined to the sleeping annals of history, but rather lives on. Given that character’s attendant connotations, the artist’s intended application of him seems relevant -- are we meant to consider the Jew as a vacant sign, emptied of its history, representing “Stereotype” writ large? That reading is superficial, and even puerile, like a frat-boy’s joke. Does Wolfson see himself, somehow, in the Jew?

Amidst these questions, we are left to wander, but one thing seems sure:  “Love” in all its vagaries, from seedy lust to the tragic aftermath of committed romance, is just one more gestalt to which we are doomed to eternally aspire. To that end, we will put on as many proverbial hats -- or masks -- as it takes, and, Wolfson implies, probably fail to achieve it nevertheless.

“Jordan Wolfson,” Jan. 15-Feb. 18, 2012, Alex Zachary Peter Currie, 16 E 77th Street, New York, N.Y. 10075.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email