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April 13, 2004

Gallery Briefing

Saya Woolfalk's 'Lovescape' at Zg
Through April 17th

Saya Woolfalk: LovemonsterThe artist's statement for Saya Woolfalk's solo exhibition at Zg was, as far as I can tell, pulled directly out of some sort of stock theory source book:

Saya Woolfalk has created her own visual language to illustrate how contemporary culture has been co-opted by consumer driven forces and manipulated by the western idealized goal of material wealth and power. Her works are composed of a cadre of overgrown plush toys, sexualized play things, and animated cartoon-like characters interacting in extreme scenarios of consumption and desire run amuck.
"Lovescape" is an installation incorporating sculpture, painting, performance, sound, and video investigating consumerism and desire in the context of race and cultural identity. Woolfalk states, "Visual media such as advertisements, television, and film are narrative technologies that do much to shape consumer perception. They order symbolic language, integrate themselves into our daily landscape, and help inform the way we perceive the external world. FAO Schwartz displays miniaturized versions of cars, clothing, houses, and an assortment of other consumer products so that a child can practice the manipulation of social icons. Victoria Secret photographs models and presents mannequins scantly clad in lingerie. These practices appeal to a hegemonic model of desire.
Informed by feminist, race, and cultural theory, my work is a visual catalogue and critique of my experience in a world whose mass media, projects one-dimensional, Eurocentric, and commoditized representations of desire. It recognizes the power of representational systems of gender, sexuality, and race and how these visual systems help to construct and reinforce social and political hierarchies. It invites the viewer both to critique the system and to look for a more multivalent vision of the world."

She hits all her points here, perhaps short one appeal to the Death of the Author/Artist and the end of the Tyranny of the Genius (but I guess rejection of those myths is just a given by this point). I count one sentence (the second) legitimately related to the actual work in her installation.

As easy as it is for me to disregard this rambling as irrelevant, a token of critical adequacy or institutional appeasement, it nonetheless continues to amaze me that artists feel the need to defend utterly compelling artwork with such trite rehash. Woolfalk's installation is a brilliant success on its own, and I can't help but feel that reiteration of such long-accepted critical platitudes can only serve to cheapen it, or at least narrow our appreciation of it.

But our institutions and audiences demand easy textual guides. 'Context!' they cry, as if the only context that matters is that which can be neatly summed up in a paragraph or two. And, for the artist, such tired generalizations promise to be institutional shibboleths, granting passage to the cherished ranks of 'criticality.' After the Artist's untimely Death, she's left to redeem herself as an intellectual—no craftsman of merely retinal pleasures, no mere ape, rather a Master of Discourse.

But enough of my grousing. Suffice to say, Woolfalk would like to frame this installation as a 'problematization' of mediated imagery or a subversion of innocence by desire, as a radical re-envisioning of conventional forms serving to critique the hegemony of Western Capitalist culture industry. Certainly, bland formulations like the above sit well with those who would define art strictly in terms of critique, but such critiques were already a dime a dozen decades ago.

Saya Woolfalk: TrickstersFortunately, the work itself is not as stridently and drearily political as all that, and in fact proves quite a bit more complex and ambiguous, I think, in both intent and execution. (To be perfectly explicit: if I came off a little harsh regarding certain theoretical points, it is primarily because they key into general issues I find distressing; as far as Woolfalk's sculptures are concerned in themselves, I offer nothing but praise.)

On the one hand, the sculptures do partake of an evident sexuality, often bizarre or grotesque, featuring penises, breasts and nipples aplenty, with not a minor dash of danger and downright violence added to the mix. Yet these plush monstrosities and libidinous beasties are eminently playful, no doubt owing much in this respect to the nature of their soft construction. In fact they are not repulsive in the least. They are occasionally off-putting, but always approachable and engaging.

I do not deny that there is a strong subversive element in evidence here, but simply claim that this is not, as some might choose to see it, flatly anti-status-quo. To see it as such—that is as a pure undermining of conventional children's worlds—is, I think, to not give due credit to our fine tradition in that domain.

The best children's literature for example, (and admittedly this involves a hefty value judgment) is itself almost always subversive in some respect. In it we are confronted with worlds of imagination where the veil of innocence is lifted and where conformity and docility are always trumped by desire. Just consider for a moment the characters and worlds conjured by the Brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Theodor Geisel.

Saya Woolfalk: SweetheartsIn spite of an alleged innocence, these are worlds in which children exhibit true agency and thus, as a matter of course, subvert expectations of obedience, authority or simplistic morality. And far from being innocuous, this is the territory of imaginative desire with all its attendant dangers. These are worlds with teeth, the danger and darkness blunted only just enough through the comfort and security of rhymed meter, cartoon cats and happy endings. But make no mistake, these worlds remain far more similar to fictional adult worlds than we're generally prone to acknowledge. Perhaps this is why these stories continue to resonate with us as adults. (Further: informed as Woolfalk's work is by anime and manga, we can find ourselves considering a whole new can of worms regarding the coincidence and interpenetration of depravity and innocence, adult and childish forms, one that I can only superficially begin to appreciate.)

Woolfalk's work is in no way out of place in this context. Her sculptures, while certainly taken to something of an extreme in their articulation of these dynamics and transposed into a more explicitly adult vernacular, should only appear at total odds with the conventions of childhood to those who choose to mistakenly imagine these as being of a singular purity and innocence. Her work is not the perverse inversion of the values of conformist culture, but in fact the perfection of the perversity already staring at us from within the very heart of tradition, and presented here in what is possibly the most engaging form imaginable: plush toys.

"Gallery Briefing"
Posted by Dan at 01:58 PM


Referenced in this post:

Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales
Dr Seuss: Cat in the Hat
J.M. Barrie: Peter Pan
Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
Maurice Sendak: In the Night Kitchen
Maurice Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are
Roald Dahl: George's Marvelous Medicine
Roald Dahl: James and the Giant Peach
Shel Silverstein: Where the Sidewalk Ends
Zg Gallery
Zg Gallery: Saya Woolfalk