I still don’t know how I feel about Jesse Harris’ new solo show AD NAUSEUM at Cooper Cole.
Harris is an established and much-loved figure in the Toronto art scene (you’ve probably seen his YOU’VE CHANGED mural on Queen West) and I really appreciate his work in general. I find that it always hits the right balance: rascally and satirical on one hand and smart and restrained on the other, combining DIY immediacy with the dedication and thoughtfulness of a maturing art practice (see links below for examples).
However, I’ve been thinking a lot about this current show and have found it to be a little hard for me to grasp…
Let me explain my thinking.
The show’s themes reveal themselves in two parts.
In the main space of the gallery are eight paintings, all around 4x4 feet. Five are hung on the walls, two sit on the ground on white boards, and one is affixed to the inside of the front window. These works are rendered softly in oil on canvas with an expert hand. Smooth surfaces, hidden brushstrokes, and a subtle use of colour that conveys a naturalistic sense of light and shadow. Upstairs, there’s also a fun cartoon wall vinyl in Harris’ signature cartooning style, and a single painting with a more graphic appearance — it looks like it might be spray paint — featuring a skeleton caressing a tombstone that reads “R.I.P. COMICS”. I get the sense that the works upstairs are there to give us a little context about Harris’ practice. The real meat of the show is the eight works below. Let’s focus on those.
Aside from an outlying split-portrait entitled Culture, the paintings are simple and direct (and maybe just a little bit dark) in terms of subject matter. Two hands with a tangerine manicure ripping and crushing up a pack of cigarettes (Stop Smoking). A neatly arranged, black & white still-life of artifacts from bygone and nearly-bygone eras of media tech: a CRT television, film reels, newspapers, VHS and cassette tapes, a radio (Mass Media). An American dollar bill shattered like glass (A Dollar). A salad of lettuce, tomato, and twenty-dollar bills flanked by a fancy set of gleaming cutlery (Dollar Meal). Money, advertising, capitalism, mass media, destruction, and disillusionment are the threads which tie them all together. And, like the advertisements these images reference, the emphasis is on the clear legibility of the subject, the backgrounds are kept plain and monochromatic.
Comedy Tragedy Pepsi, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 36 in (121.9 x 91.4 cm) Image Courtesy of ArtViewer.org
Dollar Meal, 2018, Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in (121.9 x 121.9 cm) Image Courtesy of ArtViewer.org
Money and its relationship to taste and to art is an important and ever-expanding topic in cultural studies, one certainly full of contradictions and hypocrisies. As is the conversation about advertising and cultural consumption. But, within these already complex dialogues, the paintings address the issues in a sort of superficial and overly-obvious way.
Part two is where things get more interesting and more complicated:
The show’s conceptual punchline, an invisible but crucial element, is disclosed in the exhibition text: the hand that painted the pieces was not, in fact, Harris’ own, but that of a professional art forger.
Oh! Well, that changes things.
What new possible interpretations are opened-up with this revelation? We can help our thinking along by going into a bit of art historical background regarding the notions of authorship and the artists’ hand. If you’re already familiar, skip the next paragraph!
I’ll start, where many do, in the early 20th century with Marcel Duchamp and the idea of the readymade. At a time when the Western painting tradition had only just begun its journey into abstraction, Duchamp made the provocative decision to take “readymade” found objects, like a urinal, a bottle rack, and a bicycle wheel and exhibit them in galleries, just as they were or only very slightly altered. In doing so, he disputed the importance of a uniquely-skilled “artist’s hand” in the creation of a work of art. Once this ground was broken, the sentiment was expressed and explored many times over by other artists associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements. In 1967, theorist and writer Roland Barthes formally proclaimed the “Death of the Author” in his essay of the same title (which the Harris’ exhibition text makes brief reference to). Now, Barthes claimed, we should not search for the meaning of a work of art or literature in the life or psychology of its creator, but in its many possible interpretations as a text by itself. Conceptual artists in the latter half of the 1900’s were also concerned with eliminating traces of their authorship as were artists who used appropriation to push ideas of authorship to the extreme.
So, this is not a particularly contemporary conversation, and Harris recognizes this, given the title of the show and the acknowledgement in the accompanying text by Jenine Marsh that “Nothing new is happening here”.
Now, this where I’m stuck. How do these old questions about authorship relate to the subject matter of the paintings? What novel considerations of these themes does Harris’ current show offer its audience?
Mass Media, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 48 in (121.9 x 121.9 cm) Image Courtesy of ArtViewer.org
Ad Nauseam, 2019, exhibition view, COOPER COLE, Toronto. Image Courtesy of ArtViewer.org
I think of the Internet and its ability to hide the origins of intellectual property. Images (even those with stock logos stamped across them) are used, reused, and repurposed. Music is sampled and remixed over and over again, and memes are shared and stolen without any kind of regard for their creator. Any act of communication is just a recombination of symbols and signs. It’s just like Barthes says in Death of the Author, “if [an artist] wants to express himself, at least he should know that the internal ‘thing’ he claims to ‘translate’ is itself only a readymade dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum” . There is no pure originality, in art or in life. But I am doubtful that Harris’ show is about the extremity of this notion in our post-Internet world specifically, as there is nothing I can find that indicates this: painting is a traditional art medium, and the reference imagery for the works comes from vintage advertisements.
My other line of thinking, and it took me a while to get there, is that Harris is making a sort of joke about the artist’s role as a self-marketing mini business. All the paintings in the show seem to be flattened representations of themes he has dealt with in the past. As if he has taken words from his artist statement and made them into literal images, symbols, and stand-ins. Easily-consumable. In doing so, could he be showing his audience the parallels between commercial marketing and marketing within an artist’s practice? Perhaps we need to recall the sly humour of his previous work and think of the show in that light.
My last thought is that I’m looking too hard for an explanation: as Barthes and Marsh proclaim, there’s nothing original left to be created, and the whole show is just a meta example of this. Could it really be that there is just “nothing new happening here”? I’m beginning to think that my fruitless search for meaning in the show is testament to our collective need to manufacture new meaning in general in response to the same old stuff. What do you think?
Barthes, Roland. “Death of the Author.” Translated by Richard Howard. UbuWeb Papers, www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf.