Mark Roth and Susan Wexler

at N.A.M.E. Gallery

N.A.M.E. Gallery’s double bill of premieres by Mark Roth and Susan Wexler presented two artists with markedly similar styles exhibiting greatly different levels of skill. While both performed in casual, idiosyncratic, “unrehearsed” ways, Roth exploited this informality to tenderly mesmerize his audience, leading them through a series of bizarre and revelatory vignettes. Wexler left her audience out, inundating them with a flood of seemingly unrelated bits of information that ultimately made little intellectual or emotional impact.

Mind the Gap, Roth’s delightful 30-minute monologue, is made up of personal anecdotes and more impersonal narratives that revolve around a central motif of absence and longing. The characters in his stories are typically caught in a moment of transition–riding on a bus, swimming out to sea, walking down a grocery store aisle–when an unexpected and inexplicable event results in a sudden illumination. An old woman accosts Roth in a supermarket, lamenting, “Oh, it’s so sad, you’re so young, you’ve got what I’ve got, oh, it’s so sad,” while feverishly bundling him up in his scarf. In the midst of a bunch of packaged foods, impersonal and crass, Roth describes a bittersweet moment of attempted communion. In another story, Roth finds himself on a bus next to a woman who tells him passionately, “You know, I’ve hugged a tree.” As he tells us how the woman continued to describe her intimate relationships with trees, Roth unbuttons a lower button on his shirt to create an opening, which he then manipulates as a suggestion of the woman’s mouth. In this final image of the piece, Roth reaches a true moment of communion, as the character that he has dreamed up and made separate from himself is returned to him, speaking not from his head but literally from his gut. Roth examines the unformed and unnamed emotions that breed there and that he has projected onto the many characters he has created.

The unformed and the unnamed run strongly through Roth’s work, giving his piece a naive, innocent quality. Nothing is ever really finished here. He never reaches any conclusions. Most of his stories, though told as if the big punch line were just around the corner, suddenly stop before anything of significance happens. Instead of making a point, Roth shows us a detail, but a detail packed with layers of associational meaning. When the old woman in the grocery store approaches Roth, for example, she gets so close that he says she reached his “event horizon.” An event horizon, a term from astronomy, is the distance at which nothing, not even light, can escape from a black hole. The image is apt: Roth, an unfathomable void drifting through space, suddenly encounters another being who will remain with him forever.

Roth’s greatest skill as a storyteller is his ability to let his audience discover the subtleties. If you didn’t know better, you might think that Roth was speaking off the top of his head. But Mind the Gap is expertly crafted, treading a delicate emotional path between hilarity and despair. Roth is able to sustain this difficult balance because of his passionate commitment to the material. Even when telling the most absurd of stories–he says that sometimes when he’s out walking, his feet mysteriously get farther and farther apart with each step–he believes so strongly in what he says that it becomes true. Roth radiates vulnerability and sincerity. I’ve seen three of Roth’s performances in the past year or so, and with each performance, his material becomes cleaner, his timing sharper, and his audience more beguiled.

Susan Wexler’s Foggerinner, on the other hand, left me as frustrated as Mind the Gap left me enlightened. Foggerinner begins with a striking image. As we enter the space, which is illuminated simply by black light, Wexler, painted in fluorescent orange and wearing an unbuttoned vest and scant underpants, sits unmoving on a black box while two blank television monitors hiss. Because her eyes are unpainted, they appear as two huge black pits, making her glow-in-the-dark figure singularly grotesque. To her left is a large glowing sign reading “Now.” This volatile and frightening image seems ready to explode with meaning.

But the anticipated explosion turns out to be a fizzle. As the piece begins, a video appears on the two television sets. The video shows men and women dressed as if they were at once Roman citizens and beauty pageant contestants, and they go through a series of poses with huge cutout shapes attached to their heads. These delicate and surreal images, counterpointed with a sound track from an old movie in which people are trying to put on a show about the Depression, what the voiceover calls “the big parade of tears,” are severely compromised when Wexler, standing up to turn down the sound on the television, has to search for the volume control. Wexler’s first action in her piece reveals her unfamiliarity with her own materials.

She goes on to read a series of unconnected texts, describing such things as the intimate connection between gangsters and food and a war victim with aphasia who sees his body as being scrambled. All of Wexler’s texts are potentially fascinating, but she reads them at an unvarying rate in a deadening monotone and with intermittent self-conscious giggles. Hearing the texts is an empty experience because Wexler has no ability to illuminate or discover anything in them.

After that she plays a honky-tonk recording of “Misty” while hanging a graph on the back wall. Along the horizontal axis is time: prehistoric, near future, and now. Along the vertical axis are various human endeavors: relaxation, government, sex, and home. Filling in this grid with glowing cards like a demonic Vanna White, Wexler traces each of the human endeavors through time. Government, for example, under “prehistoric” is “teeth,” under “near future” is “corporate entities,” and under “now” is “smiles.”

Here again Wexler’s piece showed great potential, but she lacked the ability to frame her material. She merely plunked out all the cards and said, “Thank you,” and the piece was over. And why on earth was the honky-tonk “Misty” playing? And what did any of this have to do with the aphasic man with the scrambled body? And most frustrating of all, why was the performer glowing in the dark?

Perhaps, given all these texts and a few hours to read and reread them, I could have begun to make some sense of these disparate elements. But Foggerinner was a performance, an event to be viewed in one contained sitting. Wexler did nothing to help me through her piece, gave me no hint as to what direction she was taking. It seemed the sin she was most afraid of committing was clarity.

Foggerinner, like so many other performance pieces I’ve seen recently, merely held out to an audience a collection of interesting and quirky observations without any attention to how those elements worked together as a whole in time. This kind of work is like a recipe that lists ingredients but neglects to give cooking instructions.