Contemporary art fixates on the darker side of human nature. This dark art aspect of creativity is a central psychological component of the codification of art seen in major galleries in New York, London and other cities. Figures as varied as Charles Ray, Peter Coffin, or Maurizio Cattelan all demonstrate an ironic mode of ressentiment in their work. Whether tongue-in-cheek irony or general angst (of the I hate the world but I am better than you variety), there exists an inherently cynical and false darkness to what constitutes the majority of work and art criticism in contemporary art collections and publications.
This falsehood of darkness, of posturing, of pretending, or wanting to be seen as dark, is in reality a pose, much like a model trying to look serious or sad in front of the camera when she is bored. True darkness, true depth, can only emerge when it is a product of authentic emotional striving and life experiences that do not put oneself before the experience of creation. Contemporary art is divorced from life and death and this is its central problem. True darkness cannot be self-conscious.
This self-consciousness may be the decisive thread that runs through artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.
It is this self-consciousness that prevents an art of true sincerity from appearing in places like the Matthew Marks Gallery or the New Museum. We cannot be true to ourselves when we are always pre-occupied with the “I”, with what we are wearing, how we are speaking, and how we are being perceived. The condition of pre-self-awareness is psychologically and creatively crippling. It does not matter if this is the cause or a symptom of fraudulent cynical art. What matters is that art in the contemporary sphere is a closed system that cannot stomach true darkness in much the same way that our political sphere cannot accept true alternatives to the Republican/Democrat binary. To do so would destabilize the assumptions of contemporary art and make it more true to life and hence, more democratic – the last thing elite collectors and curators want since the very presumption of eliteness and rarity is central to the (artificial) valuation of a work of contemporary painting, sculpture, video, performance, etc.
The truth, as we all know, is that contemporary art is not inherently “better”, “more intellectually stimulating” or “of a higher quality” than other modes of making. Contemporary art is, however, inherently built with consensually fraudulent values. It is this way for one reason and one reason only: so the wealthy patrons can re-assert their difference from others and feel culturally, intellectually, morally, and financially superior. But this need for superiority is itself a drive born of guilt and insecurity. The relationship between contemporary art and economics is tied to the latent terror prominent in all attempts at status distinction and hierarchy. To understand the false darkness of contemporary artists you must study the economics of fear.
The names of colors are stories in themselves. There is poetry in “burnt sienna”, “royal blue” or “payne’s gray”. The names of colors are also tied to subjectivity, perspective, and even something as banal as branding. The paint samples at your local hardware stores are filled with pseudo-literary titles for hues that range from the mundane to the sublime. The great irony of names for color is that everyone conceives of a specific hue as uniquely as we conceive of love or experience the taste of a peach.
It is true that colors play on our emotions. We experience different sensations with different juxtapositions. But what about the names? Does a name sway us? For a painter, colors are both fetish objects to adore and the very elements of the art of putting paint to a surface. For conceptual artists as varied as Yves Klein or Gilbert and George, color can be suffused with symbolic power (International Yves Klein Blue or the gold of the performance “The Singing Sculpture”).
There is mystery and poetry in the relationship between language and color. There is no limit to the historical and political implications of this relationship. Politicians wear their predictable dark blue suits and the environmentalist clothes himself in the green of photosynthesis.
William Earl Kofmehl III’s recent exhibition, “Dear Father Kickerbocker, I Just Googled You”, that inaugurated the new space Lombard-Freid Projects camouflaged the gravity of the wild under the cover of play. More specifically, the show – an exercise in boyish (as in boy scout) playful wonder in the wild – dramatized the urban – rural divide as represented in the peculiar presence of the squirrel. The exhibition consisted of four principal elements: a suite of embroideries on canvas, a large-scale hollow (approximately 12’ high by 16’ long) plywood squirrel sculpture, a bronze full-scale statue of the artists sitting on a wooden park bench interacting with a handful of other life-size bronze squirrels, and an opening night performance (or anti-performance) of Kofmehl and various accomplices situated within the plywood sculpture. The performance also included two individuals outside the Trojan squirrel, one signing at random and the other reciting texts from an open laptop.
Kofmehl’s work, here and in recent shows, continues its exploration and exposition of the boyhood. The boyhood here is a love of other boys and boyhoodship itself. This boyish love is not based on sexuality but rather on shared boyishness. By boyishness I am referring to the acts of innocent play and silliness that are commonly associated with kids in their teens: inside jokes, secret handshakes, and creating one’s own world of referents that can then be exploited for laughs and tapped for self-referential drama. Kofmehl’s meditations on the boyhood can be seen as a meditation on, or a reflection of, the inherent youth-obsessed nature of contemporary art. But this perspective would be misguided as the artist concerns himself more with the friendship among boys/men than with any underlying critique of contemporary art’s homoerotic boy obsession
Ultimately, Dear Father Knickerbocker is also a blind countenancing of the loss of the boyhood and the approaching calls to the manship that are the rites of passage for all who must leave home to mature. The dissipation of innocence, as a casualty of maturity into the manshiphood underlies much of the artist’s work on a subconscious level, particularly as it pertains to the transfer from asexual boy to sexual man.
The innocence of which I speak is the freedom not to long for a woman (or another man) and the freedom from responsibility- be it artistic, moral, or sexual. It is the freedom of being unencumbered by even the knowledge or articulation of sexual longing and its pull. This is also an innocence that comes with the freedom to be a boy and play even when one has already reached the physical age of the manshiphood. Quite apart from, or in contrast to, the pathetic immaturity and awkwardness that characterize Judd Apatow movies, for example, Kofmehl’s study of the boyhood ventures into ancient Greek terrain in that resuscitates love among boys into the Platonic notion of agape, a love among fellow (boy)friends into something both silly and sacrosanct that is devoid of sexuality and whose nature is playful and filled with an implied, if not articulated, respect.
Our culture is far too quick, almost desperate and trigger-happy to assert sexual tendencies or tastes into human relations, be they between men and women or between men. When we see two men behaving kindly, warmly, affectionately with each other in a film or TV show it is almost always assumed that they are gay lovers or that there is some undercurrent of homo-eroticism at play. True, deep, compassionate friendship, love based on respect and Platonic ideals, is almost never depicted in the popular imagination. This largely under-explored landscape is precisely the terrain upon which Kofmehl’s playfulness and explorations of the boyhood, and consequently, Dear Father Kinckerbocker, unfold.
In the case of his show and performance, this love is demonstrated by the boyish gang at play in and around the squirrel, and it becomes the ancient Christian notion of agape, a love that is between friends, and between humans and animals, and is transmogrified into wood and bronze. The play between wood and bronze, two materials whose polar opposite relationship to fire represents the contrast between youth and maturity and is characteristic of Kofmehl’s work. Where wood is destroyed by fire, bronze cannot emerge without it. The materials exemplify the leap from the boyhood to the manship. In the artist’s work, this leap is a gaping void of femininity, a leap over and away from the womanhood or the girlhood. More specifically, the void identifies the absence of woman in Kofmhel’s work. The absence or almost invisibility of the female body or aura in “Dear Father Knickerbocker”, as well as in nearly all of the artist’s previous performances, amounts to a world of monastic boyish play and is a common enough element of boyish relations.
This chasm is the unspoken concealment in the artist’s entire oeuvre and a curious element when one considers the importance three older sisters (the artist’s only siblings) and his mother have played, and continue to play in his life.
But what about the squirrel? What is role does this curious creature play in the work at questions. The answer lies in the role the squirrel plays in the relationship between man and the animal kingdom. An examination of the video loop of the artist interacting with Bernhard Goetz elaborates on this question and raises others. I write “Bernhard Goetz” with the assumption that he is known, a celebrity or a famous person with his own background narrative. In choosing to write his name rather than treating him as an anonymous player as I treat the others in Kofmehl’s performance (who in fact play a much greater role in the execution of the piece than does Goetz himself) I am addressing Goetz’s notoriety implicitly
Goetz’s presence in the video piece and in the opening night performance is camouflaged by the squirrel. The squirrel represents a good cover for the artist since Goetz breeds and trains them as his personal pets and Kofmehl treats this aspect of Goetz’s life as the subject, or at least backdrop of his performance, and indeed, the entire show. Here, Kofmehl is channeling Joseph Beuys when he makes of the squirrel an animal symbol of boyhood fascination in much the same way Beuys made the buck a symbol of male virility and pro-creation. The sight of two grown men playing with squirrels on a park bench, as seen in the video loop, elicits suggestions of absurdity, of innocence and perversity all at once. The squirrel is that rare urbanized animal still somewhat caught between tame and wild but always seeming to lead a life impervious to the impact and concerns of the human. Boys hunt squirrels for fun, here, Kofmehl is a young man channeling his inner boy while he plays with squirrels and giggles with Goetz. The effect is disturbing, almost chilling and one has to question the authenticity of the encounter and the motives at play, be they ironic or innocent. In this video piece, two grown men become boys in their seeming loss of self-consciousness and their silly or playful interaction with these animals caught in the purgatory between the freedom of the wild and domesticity of pethood.
A boy becomes a man when he must concern himself with the well-being of others as much as, if not more than, his own. A man conjures gravity by nature, a boy levity. A man becomes a hero when he risks his life for a higher good. Perhaps this is the central phenomenological question to be reckoned with in “Dear Father Knickerbocker” and contemporary art in general. With so much of contemporary art seen in the galleries of New York and elsewhere made by people in their twenties it is hard to escape the two faces of youth: optimism and immaturity.
That contemporary art is ageist is obvious and a sign of the very fear of death suffered by collectors and curators, or at least their worship of youth, the flip side of the same coin. That this ageism can be critiqued, torn open to reveal a decadence and fear of living, is beside the point. The issue at hand is the psychological or existential position of the vast majority of these babes in the woods producing work whose limitations are glaringly obvious, like the sexual ministrations of a 15 year-old, despairingly awkward, however earnest.
Overwhelmingly, today’s young artists are perpetually childish, weak, feeble, and hackneyed. That these qualities are over-looked or celebrated in some cases, speaks volumes about the void in art criticism. Today’s artists know nothing the true struggle of a man, or, if they do, they choose to repress it or turn it into some tongue-in-cheek ironic gimmick in a half-hearted attempt to avoid countenancing their demons. Today’s art lacks evidence of intensity, hardship, adversity, and other tests of will. The result is cynical, weak, and feeble work, which largely explains the irrelevance of contemporary art within a larger cultural context. Art is play, boyish play, childish play at the expense of the manshiphood. The art of woman or the womanhood is a topic for further investigation, not entirely relevant to Kofmehl’s work.
In this boyhood realm Art is all-too-often lame, ironic, cowardly and devoid of any true gravity. It is this way because it lacks the moral maturity to countenance the horrors of our contemporary existence: environmental havoc, global warming, rampant corporatist oligarchy, expansion of inequality, globalist disenfranchisement, and much more. That not a single memorable work of contemporary visual art was produced in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, is a testament to contemporary art’s fallowness.
This strife between play and work, between levity and gravity is one that takes a central role in the work of William Earl Kofmehl III. Kofmehl, now 30, is still pondering the role of the boyhood at the expense of the manshiphood. The artist’s boy perpetually reveals itself as it conceals the man ready to emerge within his work. Like the Trojan horse that concealed the Greek warriors in the days of Odysseos and Achilles, Kofmehl’s Trojan squirrel conceals the play of art boys, boys like scouts ready to emerge from the woodlands of their youth out into the battle of the manship.
1. This is not to suggest some sort of adversarial relationship towards women or the woman, either towards those in his family or women in general. On the contrary, the absence of the female in Kofmehl’s work is only one more indication of wanting to maintain a purity of boyhood innocence that would only be corrupted by the presence of women (with the exception of the occasional token female performer, as represented in “Dear Father Knickerbocker” by the singer, not withstanding). It is akin to the boys playing in the fort who do not allow girls to taint their world.
2. The question is, does this camouflaging work? Is Kofmehl trying to uses Goetz’s reputation and notoriety as a springboard to bring attention to his own exhibition? If so, this can be seen as a cynical gesture on the artist’s part, one that is revealed once the cover of the squirrel conceptual camouflage is pulled back. If not, if we choose not to attack this angle then we must at least pose some questions on the impact and validity of the uses of the squirrel as a stange type of anti-icon, in juxtaposition with Joseph Beuys’s use of animals in pieces like “How to explain pictures to a dead hare”.