Let Me Borrow That Top
(Caution: Saucy Language)
When the choice between dallying in front of a video projector or hitting a half-dozen other galleries is increasingly a cinch, the jolting energy, nerve, and intricacy of twenty-four-year-old Ryan Trecartin’s work in the medium comes as no small shock. A lifelong interest in indie rock, goth, psychedelia and other hot topics don’t discriminate his practice from that of other artists of his generation. But everything aesthetic about his videos do: From the baroque screenplays that polish flippant teen slang into cascading soliloquies to the dueling fascinations with profound loneliness and extremely affected behavior to the swarming, jumbled, yet precisely composed shots that pack each frame to the rafters with visual stimuli-displays a near obliviousness to what’s going on in his field, whether it be the clichés of current video art or the signature styles of past experimental films. Trecartin shares a fancy for full-frontal gayness and a love of extravagance with the movie directors his work most immediately brings to mind: Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, and early John Waters.
Trecartin was “discovered” when a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art showed visiting artist Sue De Beer a piece of crazy video he’d found on the dating/networking website http://www.friendster.com. Upon her return to New York, De Beer told writer and former New Museum curator Rachel Greene about her find. With only the artist’s first name to go on, they searched Friendster’s database until they found Trecartin’s profile, then wrote him to ask if he would send them a copy of the video in its entirety, a forty-one-minute work titled A Family Finds Entertainment (2004).
Floored by what she saw, Greene began showing the video to enthusiastic artists, curators, and gallerists. Several months and much buzz later, Trecartin’s first solo show opened at the Los Angeles gallery QED. The Getty Research Institute, an institution not exactly known for supporting young, unproven artists, commissioned a new work and AFFE, the video that started it all, appeared in the Whitney Biennial.
All these details aside, Trecartin is not your classic outsider. Raised in rural Ohio, he designed costumes and stage sets in high school before picking up his first camera at the Rhode Island School of Design. While at RISD, he made a number of short films, including Yo, A Romantic Comedy (2001) a messy, hypergay exercise in genre, and the heartfelt, bratty Valentines Day Girl (2001) and helped form a multidisciplinary art collective called Experimental People. After graduating in 2004, he moved to New Orleans with the group, whose members were among the huge cast appearing in AFFE. Then Hurricane Katrina destroyed Trecartin’s elaborately painted, decorated home (featured prominently in the video) and with it virtually all of the nondigital artwork he’d ever made. Following a period of drifting and homelessness, Trecartin now lives and makes art in Los Angeles, thanks to the support of an admiring collector.
If A Family Finds Entertainment can be reduced to a thumbnail description, this might be it: Trecartin stars as Skippy, a clownish but terrifyingly psychopathic boy who has locked himself in the upstairs bathroom of his family home during a wild party. Ignoring his siblings’ and friends’ pleas that he come out, he paces the little room, cutting himself with a knife and musing opaquely on his existential dilemma in a kind of King Lear-style delirium. Downstairs, the partyers are experiencing wild mood swings and having complex, disassociated conversations (mostly about him) that are constantly interrupted by bursts of visual effects and animated sequences that disorient the cast of characters like so many lightning strikes. Eventually Skippy emerges, borrows money from his creepy, sexually inappropriate parents, and heads outdoors, where he runs into a documentary filmmaker who decides to make a movie about him-but then Skippy is immediately hit by a car and, apparently, killed. Back inside the house, a hyperactive girl named Shin, also played by Trecartin, gets a call on her cell phone with the bad news. She spends twenty or so hysteria-filled minutes trying to focus and construct a sentence linear enough to tell her friends what has happened. When she finally does, a band plays music that seems to magically raise the young man from the dead, and everyone runs outside and sets off fireworks. Then everyone runs back inside before the police show up.
A wonder of Trecartin’s videos is that his approach seems as intuitive and driven by a mad scientist-style tunnel vision as it is rigorous and sophisticated, grounded in his expert editing and inordinate gift for constructing complex avant-garde narratives. For this reason, his movies resist the kind of deconstructive analysis through which one normally manages to strip new, challenging art down to its nuts and bolts. It’s early yet, but the great excitement of Trecartin’s work is that it honestly does seem to have come from out of nowhere.
We’re in a house of many tight, messy rooms. In the suburbs? Cyberspace? Hard to say. Anyway, it’s night. A door bangs open. A girl, who is also a boy, dashes in, talking, talking. Other people are already there, in gaudy attire, dire wigs and makeup like paint on de Koonings. Everyone moves in a jerky, speeded-up, look-at-me way and speaks superfast to one another, to the camera, into a cellphone. Phrases whiz by about cloning, family, same-sex adoption, the art world, the end of the world, identity, blogging, the future. Suddenly indoors turns into outdoors, night into day, and we’re at a picnic, in dappled sunshine, with a baby. Then this all reverses, and we’re indoors again. A goth band is pounding away in the kitchen. The house is under siege. Hysteria. Everyone runs through the walls.
This is a highly impressionistic account of Ryan Trecartin’s sensationally anarchic video I-Be Area, which made its debut in the Elizabeth Dee Gallery in Manhattan last fall. The piece caused a stir, in part because most people had never seen anything quite like it before, certainly not in an art gallery. Art video still has a funny reputation, left over from the 1960s, of being a serious medium, made for function rather than pleasure, as opposed to film. Yet I-Be Area was pleasure all the way. It was nonstop visual razzle-dazzle. It drew on every cheap-thrill trick in the digital graphics playbook. More radically, it was the length of a feature film. More radically still, it told a story, one with dozens of characters and multiple subplots, which is what entertainment, not art, is supposed to do, if you assume there’s a hard and fast difference between the two. Mr. Trecartin, apparently, does not assume this.
At present it is shaped by a combination of pop fantasy, ingrained cybersmarts, neo-tribalism and an angst-free take on contemporary life that marks an attention-deficient Internet culture. The relationship of this work to an art world structured on galleries, museums and fairs is, potentially at least, one of detachment. You can experience I-Be Area on a laptop wherever and whenever you want. That may be a reason why few of these new video artists feel the need to live in New York City. They have chosen a medium that is not only flexible and affordable but has a history of embracing experimentation.
I-Be Area is so giddy, so different. But it’s also just plain strange, which is part of the larger appeal of today’s video art. It represents a possible way out of something, out of the renewed tyranny of the precious object, out from under a boutique art market that has amassed grotesque wealth and power while making art itself seem small and utterly dispensable. Mr. Trecartin directs his videos, writes the script, designs the costumes and takes several leading roles. But he also describes his art as a collective project very much shaped by a circle of family and longtime friends. One of these friends, Lizzie Fitch, he lists as a collaborator; she is almost as prominent in the videos as Mr. Trecartin himself.
Finally, as is true with several other artists working in narrative video, Mr. Trecartin’s work is part of a second or possibly third wave in queer identity politics. The big change lies in emphasis. For queer artists of Mr. Trecartin’s generation, cross-dressing, cross-identifying and cross-thinking are part of a state of being, not statements of political position. Like the work of John Waters and Jack Smith, his art is about just saying no to life as we think we have seen it and saying yes to zanier, virtual-utopian possibilities.
Mr. Trecartin is at an outer, experimental edge of video, narrative and time alike, pushing all three further out with every new piece. In a time of accelerated production and marketing, he is making art that runs by a different clock. He is also making art that does things that objects can’t do. And he is, potentially and some cases actually, reaching audiences by a new route. When you have YouTube at your disposal, who needs Chelsea?
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