Stuart Sherman

at Randolph Street Gallery, February 25 and 26

The ambitious four-week “Manipulations 2” series at Randolph Street Gallery presents eight very different artists who all use objects and text. The work shown so far has been by Crisus (a New Orleans-based group), Iris Moore, Christina Cobb, and most recently Stuart Sherman, an internationally acclaimed New York-based artist whose career spans almost 30 years. In Eighteenth Spectacle (Spaghetti Works), he plays videotapes, delivers texts full of wordplay and puns, and manipulates a suitcaseful of commonplace objects, including food and condiments.

Sherman’s performance work–he’s also a sculptor–is firmly rooted in semiotics and conceptualism: he’s more concerned with ideas than with the process or mode of presenting them. If at times the articulation of those ideas seems almost offhand, that appears to be his intent. His work also has elements of Dada, surrealism, and the theater of the absurd. But his performances do not fascinate, nor do they blind us with their subtle magic or nuance. The work is often ordinary, purposefully clumsy, sloppy, and humdrum, with the exception of a couple of the seven short videotapes that open Eighteenth Spectacle.

In “A Glass of Fish,” Sherman carries a small toy porpoise in a glass tumbler of water to an aquarium in what appears to be a pet store. As the real fish flock to the aquarium wall, Sherman says to the porpoise, “They must have all known you were coming.” The plastic fish bobs in the glass, appearing to smile and nod, as the fish gather. The juxtaposition of the insipid-looking porpoise with the real, fish is quite wonderful, reminiscent of Albert Brooks’s early short films–this video is clever, concise, clean, and permeated with a subtle sarcasm. In “Son of Scotty and Stuart” Sherman addresses the passage of time and his relationship with an older woman, apparently his mother or some other family member. What we eventually see is a film within a tape within a tape: as the video camera pulls back, we see that the black-and-white tape of the film is being watched on a monitor by Sherman and the same woman shown on the film. In one of the most strange and moving moments, later in the videotape, the woman and Sherinan sit in chairs facing the ocean, the waves approaching and crashing, the tide getting higher and higher: this video has glimmers of real poetry.

After the videotapes, the lights come up as Sherman enters. His costume is the noncostume of today’s everyman: dirty white tennis shoes, black dockers, a teal flannel shirt with a red-checked index card stuffed in the breast pocket. This he pulls out from time to time and silently reads to himself for cues before moving on to the next bit. We see his set for the first time–and almost every element is covered with red and white checks. There are a folding TV table, a black plastic suitcase of props on a tiny black wooden stand, a red-checkered menu on another table covered with a red-checkered cloth, and a similar plastic tablecloth mounted on the back wall.

Sherman does bits at the folding table with spaghetti (cooked and uncooked), Prego spaghetti sauce, a spaghetti box, and at least a hundred other little props–bowls, a colander, scales, a toothpick–most of them red, white, or both. After brushing his teeth with sun-dried-tomato paste from a tube, gargling with tomato juice, and spitting into a bowl of uncooked spaghetti, he walks to the other table and reads from the menu. Throughout the evening he alternates between. visual bits and reading texts. Particularly brilliant are the snippets of stories in which he turns phrases and fractures the language. These are often followed by a single question: “Are you fond of fondue?” “Do you quail at quail?” “Do you like fish?” “Do you like Italian?” “Do you like Thai food?” At times the questions seem to comment on the banality of mass culture, at other times on the emptiness of dating; sometimes the questions resonate with sexual innuendo.

Historically such artists as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati have combined their fascination with the absurd, the surreal, and the commonplace with brilliant stage movement and the manipulation of objects and stories to drive home their ideas. (Some consider vaudeville a precursor of much performance art in America and England.) Artful recent practitioners include Penn and Teller and Bill Irwin.

But these performers maintain a certain elan and grace. Sherman drops props as he picks them up, and throws them to the side when he’s done. If clumsiness is the point, even that is obfuscated by his deadpan delivery, his lack of charisma or charm. It’s as though he wanted to alienate the audience, almost taunting us with his fumbling, all-thumbs manipulations at the folding table. Despite his obvious wit and truly wondrous word sculpture (he was a writer before turning to performance in 1975), Sherman is a very difficult artist to watch.

It doesn’t seem that Sherman has been moved by the magic of anything but words and commonplace objects, which he seeks to disassemble, disentangle, and deconstruct. Like an autistic child, he can’t get beyond his own way of comprehending things and makes no effort to reach other people. Sherman is an adult and an artist, but he provides no charm, no grace, no beauty, not even artistry. The concept’s the thing-but where and what is it? And what does he want his audience to feel?

As the piece ended I felt sad. The writing has touches of brilliance. Why does he read it so poorly? It’s as though he’s chosen to be a naif despite his verbal precociousness. Perhaps some of these problems would have been obviated if the script and props were exhibited; then the audience might contemplate and savor what the artist has obviously gone to great pains to create. But are Sherman’s props in themselves so fascinating? Two weeks ago, Crisus brought to town a huge manually operated banner-waving machine, a 12-foot pendulum, and a treadle-operated signaling device, all self-lit. The group’s text was weak, the delivery worse, but the objects themselves were wondrous.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paula Court.