Friday, September 4, 2009

Portrait of an Artist

Lately this is how I've been feeling...

But then I went to David Cunningham Projects, SF, and I felt better all over. Talking to yourself is very important is the title of an installation by Pawel Kruk. Talking to yourself is very important especially if you know who's who in the conversation.

Kruk has previously created videos in which he impersonates famous persons. Larger Than Life, for instance, is a interview with basketball star Michael Jordan, in which Kruk himself speaks for Jordan, mouthing sentences lifted from the autobiography Rare Air: Michael on Michael. He's also assumed the role of Bruce Lee and the amazing Olympic swimmer Dara Torres. Who we root for, we identify with. Projection or introjection: a bit of them in us, us in them.

This time he's taken on the persona of... the artist. Being an artist and playing an artist, which is it? Both I suppose. A crafted piece, the video that is one half of the installation, has the feel of an autobiographical confession, the young artist pondering his craft.

The Video

A black and white film projected upon the wall of the rear gallery: an enigmatic space, work tables, monitor, work lamps glaring in what seems to be an old gymnasium. Sure. A gymnasium, an indoor basketball court. Enter the artist, Kruk himself as himself. He walks the court lines painted on the floor, sits at the table, takes up a pen. There are profile shots, shots from behind, shots of the pen poised but making no mark. The artist speaks from a text appropriated from a novel, Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami. Murakami was inspired to write, to become a novelist, while watching a baseball game. The text is about the dilemma of making art. Despite the title, What's So Bad About Feeling Good? the tone is self-conscious; the feeling is guilt. There's some business about looking to the Greeks and how art then was made while the slaves worked. At one point, after Matthew Barney has been invoked, the artist gets down on the floor and performs push-ups. Barney is all about resistance. Resistance, tension, meeting the challenge. Barney also started out an athlete, that goes without saying I suppose, and did his first works in a gym.

This is a portrait of the artist as a young man. A youthful portrait of Barney is taped with painter's tape to the monitor. The monitor shows a rocking figure, face taped to disfigurement Douglas Gordon-like. Gordon is another athletic artist, wrestling as it were, with himself, persona and identity.

By the end of the film, even though Kruk has a degree in drawing, the pen he holds has yet to make a mark. Drawing Restraint is evoked.


The Installation

... in the fore-gallery, the furnishings of the studio are set up as in the film and if he is not otherwise occupied, the artist, Pawel Kruk himself, sits at the table tracing a limited edition of hand-drawn business cards: Pawel Kruk, a young artist. This is not an "Open Studio," Kruk points out. No. This studio is a construct. This is a performance and the issue is the work of art. Work as a verb. Is it an elite preoccupation or slavish, painstaking effort? Is it justifiable? Does it need to be? And what about fate?

Joyce grappled with these concerns in his Portrait of an Artist. Murakami too. It is par for the course for a künstlerroman. Barney climbed the walls testing his athletic-artistic metal, and then proceeded to enlarge upon his own particular concerns and obsessions until a whole personal mythology of interconnected narratives, signs and symbols emerged and like fecund sheep bred and multiplied.

Fate shows up in the content of a painting and a small projected work lurking like a footnote (its title in parentheses) near the floor. The story is this: on September, 1, 1939 a flock of sheep in Utah were hit by lightening. 835 out of 850 died. The shepherd and 15 ewes were knocked out but survived. Now that's a stroke of fate. September 1, 1939 was also the day, across on the other side of the globe, the Nazis invaded Poland. I can't do the math, but given the millions killed in the war, the ratio of survivors—certainly Jewish survivors—is comparable to 15 out 850. Did I mention Kruk is Polish?

This curious story of a decimated flock is inscribed onto canvas, pockmarked with paint blots as if by burn marks. It is a painting.

We have a studio, we have a painting, we have business cards. We have an artist constructing his own mythology out of history, infatuations, and weird twists of fate. The world responds with synchronous happenings. This show marks the second year anniversary of the gallery on the 70th anniversary of the invasion. The work for the show was created in a studio in a gymnasium while the artist is living in the city where Matthew Barney was born. If the show were extended a day, it would close on the birthday of Douglas Gordon.

It all comes together—and it is art. Performance. Construct. A self-portrait that is complex, thought-provoking, interesting. The map is not the territory, but it points to something. And that something is and is not the thing represented. At least, that's what it got me thinking. My point exactly: thought-provoking indeed.

Tim Ulrichs' photo courtesy of Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland.