Oursler retrospective ‘Introjection’ opens

There’s a point in one Tony Oursler video installation when a character breaks down from a stream-of-consciousness monologue and starts speaking in binary numbers. It’s a genuinely frightening and confounding moment, one in which language – as ancient a construct as man can imagine – involuntarily assumes the logic of modernity.

It’s a surprisingly appropriate metaphor for the effect of the museum on the art viewer. For a growing number of contemporary artists, the museum’s antiseptic, sterile environment is both a restrictive construct and a pervasive one. According to Oursler, the average viewer looks at a given piece of art for only 1.5 seconds before moving on to the next work. In short, the museum functions as a conveyor belt: it pushes the viewer ahead at disturbingly short intervals.

How, then, to explain the unique effect of Introjection, WCMA’s landmark retrospective of Oursler’s career to date? Audience members milled throughout the galleries housing the exhibit, stopping and staring at one piece for minutes at a time. Some crouched; some knelt; some sat down. Some talked to the art, and the art seemed to talk back. Introjection escapes the myth of museum as robotic ghost town and then some: it’s as unique a museum experience as one is likely to have in quite some time.

To be sure, it is no surprise that Introjection is quite an event. It is the first Oursler retrospective to appear in the United States; as such, it brings together many installations that have never before been shown stateside. The exhibit was arranged with considerable assistance from the artist himself, so the installation and arrangement promised to be exceptional. In short, Introjection is the kind of high profile avant-garde show that one would expect to find debuting at a major urban arts center, not in Williamstown. Still, the response Oursler’s work elicits cannot be traced to the hype it has generated; Introjection is as vital as it is comprehensive.

Even Oursler’s early studio material, much of it shown for the first time, is of considerable archival interest. It’s diffuse, fragmentary, and seldom fully formed stuff, but it predicts the artist’s thematic development despite (or, perhaps, because of) its disunity. In general, the assorted objects Oursler created during his early studio days function together as do Joseph Beuys’ blackboards or Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes: as stream-of-consciousness “waste products” that elucidate the artist’s mindset through shards of empirical, often unrelated evidence.

Studies of the human eye coexist with caricatures of Ronald Reagan. Oldenburg-esque sketches of Tylenol bottles and Winston cigarettes abut miniature, macabre wheels of fortune. Sculpture, painting and sketch play off of each other. Remarkably, clear themes emerge even in these formative doodles.

Oursler’s early works reveal a fascination with surveillance, expressed not just in his sets of staring eyes, but also in his sculpted video cameras. Furthermore, his product sketches all deal with poisonous or addictive chemical subjects, pointing to an interest in chemical contamination – “toxicity,” as Curator of Exhibitions Deborah Rothschild puts it. And then there are Oursler’s consistent references to mortality: his wall of early debris is peppered with skulls, weapons and other symbols of death.

What’s most immediately striking about this material, however, isn’t the subject matter alone; it’s the way in which the subject matter is presented. Oursler’s images are almost always depicted frontally. Virtually everything stares at the viewer – not just the eyes and the camera, but the pack of cigarettes and the giant aspirin tablet as well.

The result is a mini-oeuvre characterized by its frankness, but, strangely, not by brutality. When Oursler’s imagery is at its most violent, it’s also at its most childish. Take, for example, what may be the most singularly compelling of Oursler’s early works, a pillowcase he designed. One half revels in what appears to be an kindergartner’s version of Valhalla – green grass, bright sun, the usual stuff – while the other half is filled by randomly placed weapons of violence, crossed-out skulls and wild scribbles. The key to the work is that both sides are drawn in the same crude, unpretentious style. Oursler isn’t appealing to the cuteness of preadolescence. He’s using its unironic directness to send his message across to the viewer. It’s a disturbing image, but an oddly refreshing and sincere one.

One can see Oursler working out the implications of this directness in his first fully realized works, a series of single channel video projects from the first half of the 1980s. In one respect, the shift from static images to moving pictures is a clever move on Oursler’s part: the greatest fault of his drawing and sculpture lies in its inertness. Despite their often poignant frontality, few of Oursler’s fixed works carry any distinct narrative pull. Their thematic power doesn’t inhere. It comes from retrospective association.

Video, then, provides Oursler with a useful outlet for narration: his 1982 installation Son of Oil takes on no less ambitious a topic than the dehumanizing avarice of the oil industry (and linking it with the campaign of serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz). The film itself is a blast, but Oursler hasn’t yet figured out what exactly to do with it. What it gains in narrative thrust it loses in locative pull: even though it’s positioned in a graveyard set used in the actual video, it feels once removed. Oursler’s sculpted cameras represented a strange confrontation between work and viewer; Son of Oil’s television screen refracts and dilutes the confrontation.

Which is not to suggest that Son of Oil is an unimportant work. On the contrary, it finds Oursler honing an unpretentious but distinct cinematographic technique. Call it willful anti-auteurism: a typical low-fidelity Oursler video comes with background noise, a cartoonish set and hands popping in and out of the camera’s line of sight. And the director uses as little post-production embellishment as possible, preferring to pan, track and zoom rather than cut or edit.

As is the case with the pillowcase, the artist’s films gain a surprising weight from their conscious guilelessness. Whether he’s capturing an actor pouring oil into a coffin or eulogizing Karen Carpenter (in the 1990 music video he directed for Sonic Youth’s “Tunic [Song for Karen]”), Oursler works in the same unrefined style. It’s not artless, but it’s not “authored” in the traditional sense.

What’s Oursler’s motive? Judging from his post-Son of Oil installations, it’s simultaneously an act of removal and incorporation: 1984’s L7L5 and the following year’s Diamond, the Eight Lights trace a trajectory that finds the artist searching for new ways to implicate the viewer while further obscuring his own role as auteur.

L7L5, a response to the idealized, grand-scale aliens of then-recent box office hits Star Wars and E.T., is a particularly giant leap forward, physically involving the viewer and forcing him to make choices as to what he views. Footage of children playing with Star Wars toys lies through a peephole; a recorded testimonial of a woman who claimed to have been abducted by aliens plays on another screen; still another shows a claymation conflict between man and alien. The viewer doesn’t just have to move about from screen to screen; he ultimately has to infer his own bottom line – even the “testimonial” maintains a banal quality (“I felt a sharp sting in…is this the index finger?”).

Oursler goes even further in Diamond, the Eight Lights, constructing his installation in large part out of a series of mirrors reflecting both the viewer and the interwoven television screens: the viewer is now actually an integral part of the image. The subject matter of the piece becomes much more elusive, Paik-influenced psuedo-psychedelica narrated in French as if to repel the viewer back to the mirrors.

The artist has more on his mind than formal open-endedness, though. And so just as soon as Oursler seemed to be mastering the calibration of the film installation, he changed things up. Kepone Drum (1989) and 3-Methylfenytol and Heroin (both 1991) mark what could be considered the beginning of the third phase of Oursler’s career, one which finds him zeroing in on his favorite motifs: toxicity, psychosis and media.

Oursler has become increasingly confident in his handling of these Big Themes, which he attacks with a frankness equal to the early material and a seamlessness far surpassing it. Absolutely essential to this development is the unique form for which the artist is best-known: the figure constructed of pillow and clothes. Beginning with 1994’s brilliant Judy, Oursler creates his own characters by affixing clothing to a head constructed (usually) of a pillow. On the heads, he projects videotaped monologues, often delivered by longtime collaborator Tracy Leipold.

It’s an innovative strategy that Oursler expertly employs. In Judy, a particularly ambitious installation, one small figure moans horrifically (“Oh, God, no!”). Extending back from the figure is a string of clothes leading to a face (projected on a bouquet of flowers) mercilessly berating its unseen subject. Further back, a pillow figure under a couch curses incessantly; behind that a film of a nude woman rolling about like an infant is projected on the midsection of a dress. With four simple steps, Oursler creates a mesmerizing narrative of a woman who, as a child, was basically beaten into Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD).

Much of Judy’s power derives from Oursler’s skilled use of his materials: he distorts, reshapes, dresses, positions and sizes his figures with keen focus. The décor and dress, a clashing melange of flower prints, is trashy but not exploitative or stereotypical. The whimpering Judy’s face is miniscule; the belligerent Boss’s is considerably larger.

Oursler’s manipulation of such simple details is often stunning. Getaway #2 (1994), a prone figure lying under a mattress, forces the viewer almost to lie down to see it; then it lashes out, screaming to “leave me alone!” The piece draws its visceral power by luring the viewer down into an unnatural position and then, in a sense, attacking.

But it’s not a one-sided attack. The title of the exhibition, is, after all, Introjection. Fittingly, the key to Oursler’s best recent works is that appropriation works both ways. The character in Getaway #2 isn’t unreasonably venomous; it’s more violated than the viewer is. Along the same lines is 1996’s Six, a set of projections of the eyes of people watching movies about MPD. By charting not film but the response it evokes, Oursler creates a sort of inverse voyeurism: the viewer starts to compare the shifty eyes to the calm ones and extrapolates not just the qualities of the movies but of the movie watchers themselves.

This inverse voyeurism makes for the rare museum experience where it’s fun to observe not just the art but the audience. Almost universally, Oursler’s characters invite reaction. Keep Going (1995), a logical choice as a second floor greeter of sorts, not only attracted crowds consistently, but it elicited responses as well. In the piece, an overzealous film director (played by Tony Conrad) barks, prods and cajoles the audience with impossible commands (“I want to see lust…I want to see trees bend with passion”). The art doesn’t just stare at the viewer; it actually demands action of him.

More often, though, Oursler’s art introjects through an insidious sort of suggestion, one best exemplified by the 1996 installation MMP1 (Red), in which a projected Oursler recites a list of true/false questions from an MPD-detecting test (“Sometimes it seems I cannot tell the difference between my daydreams and reality…The weather has a great effect on me.”)

MMP1 is an especially effective work precisely because a good portion of the questions Oursler asks could be answered in the affirmative by almost anyone. The parallel Oursler constructs is a disconcerting one, made even more so when he lets out a perversely satisfied laugh after asking/stating “I’m a moody person.”

Is the implication that there are traces of MPD in everyone? In the end, Introjection suggests as much. If the curation at first seems a bit cluttered or confusing, step back from the art and look at the exhibit for a moment. Listen to the disembodied voices cutting in and out; observe the viewers weaving through installations, and you can imagine Oursler smiling. It’s not just a macrocosmic reflection of his art; it’s a larger-than-life nerve network. And it’s not reciting binary numbers.