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Anthony Discenza @ Catharine Clark

Installation view: Anthony Discenza Presents: A Novel: An Exhibition by Anthony Discenza
 
by David M. Roth
 
Anthony Discenza, a conceptual artist with formidable literary skills, has staged what may well be his most elaborate spoof to date: Anthony Discenza Presents: A Novel: An Exhibition by Anthony Discenza.   The show purports to be the realization of a failed exhibit created by another artist named…Tony Discenza. Operating as Tony’s proxy and alter ego, Anthony uses the gallery to document Tony’s struggle to create a show that tops all of his previous efforts.  It is, as Anthony relates in an oversized broadsheet that visitors are encouraged to pocket, an epic struggle in which Anthony, operating as curator and confidante, finds himself having to sort through Tony’s bouts of brilliance, self-doubt, vacillation, self-sabotage and loss of nerve to assemble the show that Tony was unable to complete.   That’s a vastly oversimplified description of the show’s concept.
 
L to R: Materials list for an Unrealized Artwork; Proposition No. 4; Floor Study: Expanded/Collapsed

Large-scale photos of an opened book of literary criticism, supplemented by floor-mounted sculptures, digital photo collages and an audio installation comprise the physical aspects of the exhibition, the details of which I’ll describe later.  I do so because A Novel, while it assumes the posture of a visual art exhibition, is really more of a literary event: a seriocomic roman à clef-cum-gallery exhibition about the inner struggles faced by every artist worth his or her salt.  None of which would be noteworthy if Discenza weren't an engaging wordsmith and fabulist.  Here, donning both hats, Discenza thrusts deeper into the Borgesian territory he’s staked out in previous exhibitions in which mock horror stories, fake street signs, phony docent tours, scrambled videos and invented art-historical personages have messed with many a viewer’s mind.   

Complicating matters further is the fact that A Novel is based on a metafictional invention called The Disappointments, a novel written in 1969 by Lane Hobbs and said (by Tony) to be the touchstone for the exhibition at hand.   Hobbs’ story concerns the tribulations of an artist and critic living in New York in the late 1960s.  The narrator’s tortured existence parallels Tony’s in many ways, but those parallels aren’t nearly as important as the way Tony dissects them. His ruminations come to us in the form of a critical essay that unfolds across the back walls of the gallery.  To anyone familiar with Jorge Luis Borges or Roberto Bollaño, the tone of these writings will carry a familiar ring.  It’s an homage to the non-narrative methods of those authors and a parody of postmodern literary criticism, a genre in which all assertions are accompanied by opposing views, set forth in the belief that facts, always contingent, are liable to shift beneath our feet and make fools of us.
 
Discenza’s appropriations of the genre are masterpieces of tomfoolery that make for marvelously addictive reading.  A representative snippet: “The disappointments…does possess a distinct feeling of unreality, a suggestion that the events described could be taking place entirely in the mind of one of its characters, or perhaps in some alternate reality almost identical to our own.  This quality is underscored by the ambiguity of
 
Study for an Essay (On the Disappointments), 2015, inkjet print, 30 x 42"
 
the book’s central narrator, Greta Drubble, herself an artist.  The novel is maddeningly unclear as to the precise nature of the relationship between Greta and Albert; at times she seems to be his wife or lover, at other times possibly his younger sister; still in other instances there is the suggestion that Albert is simply a kind of proxy for Greta herself, a projection of her own identity onto a fictionalized male persona that allows her a degree of mocking and critical distance from her own narrative.”
 
To add yet another meta-twist: Greta Drubble could well be a stand-in for the author Margaret Drabble whose older sister is the author and critic A.S. Byatt.  If that weren’t enough, Discenza goes so far as to proffer a mock New Yorker review, designed to outflank the criticism he expects the show to draw.  Given this level of hyperbolic invention one wonders why Discenza doesn’t just scrap gallery exhibitions and write novels.  The

Composition 019, 2015, injet print, 24 1/2 x 19"

 answer, I think, is obvious:  Confounding gallery goers is too much fun, and besides, it’s far easier than writing…novels.  In the end, A Novel’s greatest strength is its ability to cast doubt: Does the book exist or doesn’t it?  From the elaborate backstories that enable Tony’s criticism of it, The Disappointments would have to exist; yet everything we know of Discenza’s past tells us it doesn’t.   Thus, Discenza, like the literary critics he so shrewdly lampoons, has it both ways.

As for the art objects populating A Novel, nearly all of them could have come straight out of The Disappointments, since its timeframe, the late 1960s, coincides with salad days of Conceptualism and Minimalism.  As such, the objects function as accessories to the texts; and like the texts, they flip back and forth between parody and homage, with possible targets being Dan Flavin, Eva Hesse, Carl Andre, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham and many others.
 
There are, for example, two pairs of Florescent tubes with words that read like rule-based mission statements.  (“The work as little more than a series of loose propositions that may or may not be capable of generating meaningful activity at some later point in time.”)  Also on view are three outsized wall labels listing non-traditional materials that were starting to become commonplace in sculpture during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  That none of the objects described by the labels appears in the show points to the possibility that Discenza may see emptiness at the core of such practices. 
 
Is Your Life Finished?  Have You Achieved Every Dream, Every Goal, Followed Every Idea and Had Every Experience You Wanted to Have?, 2016, PA speakers, guided Hypnosis MP3s, variable dimensions
 
Accordingly, the most prominent objects in the show are three pieces of scatter art.   One consists of rubber wheel chocks arrayed on the floor in the manner of Barry Le Va.  Another, in the gallery’s media room, consists of tripod-mounted speakers laid flat.  They emit overlapping snippets of unintelligible speech, which I take to be a potent metaphor for the project’s tangled conceits.  Also occupying floor space is a pile of black rectangular shapes.  They carry a gloopy surface texture akin to Richard Serra’s oil stick drawings, a characteristic that makes identification of their underlying material as tricky as understanding Greta and Albert’s relationship.  (The exhibition checklist identifies it as foam, but but it could just as easily be lava from the look of it.)   
 
The collages, with their obvious links to Man Ray and Robert Rauschenberg, are the show’s most original inventions, but also those with the weakest links to the post minimalist lineage of The Disappointments.  They’re created from downloaded images that have been electronically transformed.  Surface Study 006a, to take the

Surface Study 006a, 2015,

 most eye-catching example, calls to mind David Maisel’s aerial photos of large-scale strip mining operations.  The difference is that Discenza’s piece has the surface texture of embossed aluminum, making it both sculptural and photographic – and, perfectly consonant with the type of Internet-based photographic work that is now fast becoming mainstream. 

Whatever doubts Tony may have expressed about his abilities, these prints suggest that Discenza, if he so chose, could have a bright future as an old-school visual artist who makes salable objects as opposed to exhibitions based on words.  I’m not rooting for that outcome.  I’m only stating the obvious in hopes that Discenza continues to stoke his literary ambitions.  If they appear on gallery walls, so much the better.  The artist’s ongoing success with this approach strengthens the basic argument behind it, which is that art, regardless of how it’s presented, needn’t rely on a domineering visual component to fire the imagination.  The downside, of course, is that only those literate enough to be in on Discenza’s jokes will understand the true nature what he’s doing. 
 
“Anthony Discenza Presents: A Novel: An Exhibition by Anthony Discenza” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through April 16, 2016.
 
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