First American retrospective of installation artist Tony Oursler to show at WCMA

It’s been a good year at Williams for connoisseurs of 20th century art. Not only has the lecture circuit been enlightening – video innovator Gary Hill and the generally dynamic Vito Acconci made appearances – but the Williams College Museum of Art brought a unique exhibit of Romare Bearden’s photomontages and an important one of Abstract Expressionist works from the Albright-Knox Art Museum in Buffalo. All fascinating stuff, but the show-stealer – at least in terms of the museum’s own art world prominence – may be yet to come.

When Introjection: Tony Oursler Mid-Career Survey opens April 17, it will become one of the rare Williamstown art exhibits to carry with it a sense of historical import: it is the first retrospective of Oursler’s work ever to show stateside.

For those unfamiliar with Oursler’s work, the exhibit’s title provides valuable insight. According to Curator of Exhibitions Deborah Rothschild, the word “‘introjection’ is a psychological term for the unconscious borrowing into one personality of another person’s traits or characteristics.” This is a compelling description of Oursler’s work: much is concerned with the corruptive influence of the media on the individual, while much focuses on the confused sense of self felt by sufferers of multiple personality syndrome.

With a very few detours (music videos for Sonic Youth and David Bowie among them), Oursler’s body of work is marked by a fierce wariness – of society and of self. His early works find Oursler shaping societal iconography to fit his own preferred leitmotifs of paranoia and decay: L7L5, a caustic response to the idealization of aliens in films such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, gathers an alien abduction story from a (mentally unstable) woman, while Son of Oil reimagines the implications of serial killer Son of Sam with regards to, of all things, oil embargo. Rothschild refers to this early work as Oursler’s “Toxicity” period: its “main thrust. . .is that media has homogenized and dumbed down everything.”

More complement than counterpoint is the second period of Oursler’s career, which Rothschild calls his “Psychosis and Neurosis” period. The artist developed a fascination with the ramifications of multiple personality syndrome and interpersonal violence in confrontational installations such as Don’t Look at Me.

The concept of the installation is absolutely essential to Oursler’s work. Contemporary in the most semantic sense of the word, Oursler is known primarily for his installations: Don’t Look at Me, for example, involves mixed media – couch, pillow, prosthetic body – along with video and sound projection. In the “psychotic” work, distorted faces, projected on pillows, utter violent, often abusive, non sequiturs. Some of the earlier work is less technically sophisticated – often single-channel video – but equally concerned with its own modernist medium.

The installation-oriented nature of Oursler’s work presented a series of unique problems to the organizers of Introjection. Rothschild and her associates, including WCMA Director Linda Shearer, have devoted especially careful attention to the curation of this exhibit. The meat of the exhibit will occupy three galleries on the museum’s second floor, one devoted to the “Toxic” works, two devoted to the “Psychotic” and “Neurotic” ones. Even within these rooms, installation placement becomes vitally important: in order to maintain an appropriate separation between the works incorporating sound, Rothschild notes, the curators “tried to mix things that talk and things that don’t.”

And this is just the tip of the iceberg: other works appear throughout the gallery. The complex The Watching, initially a five-floor installation, will be recreated by Oursler in the museum’s atrium. Other site-specific installations include a talking light in the museum’s entryway and a computer set up to run Oursler’s 1995 CD-ROM project, Fantastic Prayers. Twenty-six works are slated to be on display, but Rothschild said that the unusual nature of the exhibit makes it flexible: a work or two could be moved or removed.

The flexibility of the exhibit is matched only by its unprecedented comprehensiveness. This is not merely the first Oursler retrospective in the United States, but one of truly ambitious breadth and range. In fact, the show’s greatest appeal might come not from its inclusion of Oursler’s best-known works but that of his oddities, some of which have never been exhibited stateside. Rothschild notes that one critic wrote of the European installation of The Watching: “Will we ever see [it] again in its entirety?” Other rare works – Son of Oil, L7L5 and Diamond, the Eight Lights are being specially reinstalled by Oursler himself.

Oursler’s involvement in Introjection is very exciting. In addition to reinstalling many of his pieces, he will be on campus frequently during the exhibit’s run. He opens the exhibit on April 17 at 4:00 p.m. with a free lecture at Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall. According to Rothschild, the lecture should be an intriguing one. She has asked the artist to comment on films that inspired his unique understanding of the medium.

Oursler will then return to deliver a gallery talk on May 29 at 1:30 p.m. at WCMA. Co-organizers Rothschild and Curatorial Assistant Ian Berry will give a gallery talk of their own the following day at 11:00 a.m. In addition, Oursler will contribute an essay and an interview to a fully illustrated, 100-page catalogue of the exhibit, which also includes texts from Rothschild, Berry, Mike Kelley and MASS MoCA Associate Curator Laura Heon.

Heon will be among the key figures in what is the most singularly dynamic of Oursler’s local appearances: a groundbreaking new installation at MASS MoCA. The piece, an “Electronic Rube Goldberg” scheduled to coordinate with the North Adams art museum’s official opening, finds Oursler paired with North Adams computer animation giant Kleiser-Walczak. WCMA promises that “the piece will incorporate up-to-the-minute animation technology projected onto an Ourslerian combination of everyday objects and abstract shapes.”

The exhibit is comprehensive, the list of events compelling. The only question to be answered is “Why Oursler?” Rothschild answers by referencing one of her favorite Oursler works, On Our Own, a video in which Oursler and his friend Joe Gibbons play mental patients forced out of an asylum because of budget cutbacks. Oursler notes that “they encounter myriad threats, real and imaginary: the mailman, Halloween goblins, their pet dog, a corpse in the woods, ghosts from the past, Plato and Socrates and even each other, as each imagines the other is plotting to kill him.” It’s a funny concept, but, Rothschild is quick to point out, as deeply infused with pathos and poignancy as with comedy.

It is this balance of accessibility and avant-garde that makes Oursler a perfect fit for WMCA. Rothschild said that the museum was “trying to find works that will engage people but are also cutting edge. Oursler’s work in particular appeals to a broad range of people.” The exhibit opens at WCMA April 17 and runs through October 24, at which point it travels to Houston, Los Angeles and Des Moines.

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