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Too Complicated for Human Brains

March 24, 2015 | by

Gary Indiana’s art “recasts voyeurism as wonder.”

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Untitled, 1976, collage, 10" x 8".

Gary Indiana does not have a Web site. If you Google him, you might find his writing scattered among street views and crime reports from the destitute and dangerous place he chose to name himself after. When I asked friends if they knew his art, they told me, Only that LOVE sculpture—the one by Robert Indiana—or, worse, they began to sing that song from The Music Man. Those who do know him, though, rank him among the great American novelists, even if most of his books are out of print. When I looked, all had been checked out of the public library.

Maybe someone like me—curious, researching—had found them first, because at sixty-five Gary Indiana is having what you might call “a moment.” The third solo show of his visual art opened on Sunday night, and when I spoke to him on the phone the following day he told me three more exhibitions are scheduled this year. His books are being reissued, and a “kind of memoir, though we’re not calling it that,” is due in September.

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Untitled, 2012, three mounted inkjet prints, 9" x 16".

Once I knew where to look, what I did find was his art criticism—impressive, elegant stuff, acrobatic but always firmly grounded on Lower East Side concrete. And there’s his obituary for Susan Sontag in the Village Voice, in which the last line inflects the whole with retroactive profundity.

That’s what it’s like, in a way, to see his show at Envoy Enterprises on Rivington Street: though it appears humble at first, it collects power later. When I arrived early on opening night, it felt alarmingly spare: the gallery was nearly empty, and there were only ten works on view. It wasn’t long before the space was filled by Indiana’s distinctive, delirious laugh, and then by friends and admirers, everyone getting tipsy on not the typical white wine, but the artist’s choice—Kalashnikov vodka and orange juice.

Maybe I had expected more because the show has two rather grandiose titles. The first, “The Great Debate About Art,” refers to a series of four shows dreamed up by the gallerist Jimi Dams, based on the book of the same name by the linguist Roy Harris. The first installment was a gimmick called Anonymous, which lambasted art-world name-dropping by installing works of established artists beside emerging ones and refusing to provide identifiers. Coincidentally, Indiana had already done this twenty-nine years ago in the Voice, when he wrote “The No Name Review,” omitting proper names as a rejection of “fucking art magazines”—in which, as he once wrote, “the proper names just start to stand in for whatever it is you’re looking at. Everybody becomes a brand in the art world.”

Dams chose Indiana as the next logical step in antimarketability, the embodiment of a dead breed: the Renaissance man. As a playwright, novelist, actor, critic, and artist, Indiana is, in Dams’s words, “a complete person.” “In the past,” he explained, “the more complete you were, the more wonderful you were. Now the art world wants the ‘professional,’ a person focused on one thing. If you don’t fit in a certain box everyone is lost.”

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Untitled, 2001, inkjet print, 10.5" x 14.5".

This is why the second title, “From the World of Entertainment: Collages and Prints 1974–2014,” is particularly preposterous. Other than one piece featuring photographs shot bootleg-style from a Kurosawa film and the porn Indiana cut up for his collages, the show is more of the street than the screen. The date range suggests a span of retrospective proportions, but with the exception of two collages from the seventies, all the work comes from the aughts up to the present day. Dams may want to erase the borders of creativity, but his gallery’s erudite press release and flashy conceptualism confine Indiana to the white box.

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Untitled, 2012, six mounted inkjet prints, 9" x 12".

“Once you put something out in the world, it doesn’t belong to you anymore,” Indiana told me. But when he saw a recent photograph of a stranger seen through a hotel window hung adjacent to an early erotic collage, he admitted he was worried. “I thought, God, are people just going to go on about ‘gay this’ or ‘gay that’? … I mean, I can do stuff like that. I did it in the Participant Inc. show”— referring to his 2013 exhibition, which featured a large silk panel printed with a photograph of a well-endowed man showering. “Everybody took it as some sort of provocation. It wasn’t that at all! We were trying to get a certain wet-looking effect with this silk, and that’s the only image that worked.” In this case, the hotel photograph had been made out of clean curiosity. As he put it, “I have this fixation on people I don’t know—strangers in the street, people living their lives. I find them so moving.”

When you’re dealing with an artist whose work is largely unknown, any representation ends up bearing a lot of weight. Judging from what was chosen for this show, I can see that the work itself is messy. In the combines, the cut edges of each mounted board fray; in the digital photographic works, pixels spread into jagged lines, focus is either in or out; in the video, what looked to me like camera-stabilizing technology causes the borders to lean, warping the square into deranged shapes. Indiana has shown a consistent irreverence for frames, peering through windows and into broken ones, leaning over the protective ledge to get his shot so that even the body frame of his subject gets deformed. Foreshortening overthrows familiarity.

“I have fountains of pictures of people I’ve taken from balconies overhead, from all over the world,” he explained. “Even when you see people engaged in ordinary everyday things, there’s a weirdness about it.”

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Untitled, 2013, inkjet print, 10" x 15".

This sentiment extends to the collages, in which Indiana cuts up porn and leaves behind something stranger. He told me these works, made in LA, when he lived next to a porn bookstore (“every time I looked out the window, without fail, someone was in their car jerking off with a magazine spread over the steering wheel”), had been lost for twenty years because he had forgotten he even made them, having left them in storage in Chatterton’s Bookshop.

Behind the makeshift bar, in the back room of the gallery, hangs a triptych of collages not included on the checklist, but that I find the strongest of the works on view. His choice of imagery isn’t cock and tits, but hands resting on skin, bodies leaning into each other. They’re erotic less in the act than in the pressure of their stilled, altered form. Movement comes from the angle of the cut, which eliminates the individualized features that force narrative and recasts voyeurism as wonder.

“I travel a lot and I take a lot of pictures when I don’t know who’s around me, when I don’t know that much about where I am.” Indiana explained. “And often what I like later on is something that’s not identifiably anyplace, that shows the granular differences within the homogeneity of the modern world.”

Indiana’s work is too personal and cryptic to be documentary, but it keeps a watchful distance. It's the kind of work that doesn’t remind you of anyone in particular because it reminds you of everyone. “My work is so far from diaristic or autobiographical, and that includes my visual work, too—it’s sort of a record of what I’ve seen, but I’m really not into autobiography. My first novel was totally autobiographical, and the other ones were based sometimes very closely on things that had happened in my life, but they weren’t about me.”

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Untitled, 2014, inkjet print, 10" x 15".

I found that the key to judging his work was to read it as you would characters, plot, and scene. It’s not conceptual; it’s anecdotal. Of the video, which is the most recent work in the show, Indiana said, “I feel very much that that’s a piece of my writing.” In Havana, a man is being soaked through by a sudden downpour. Deranged by drugs or crisis, he moves as if his whole body is fixed on spitting something out, but the narrative details of his soliloquy don’t make it up to the window from which Indiana shoots. Though unedited in one six-minute take, the angle captures his swinging body in a way that cuts and changes it.

“That, to me, is the condition of people in the world today, and it’s what I’ve described in all of my books—it’s this condition of being mad and clueless in a world that’s too complicated for human brains.” He laughed. “Which is not to say I might not give a completely different definition of my work at another moment.”

Sarah Cowan is a freelance writer and a video editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She lives in Brooklyn.