Jesse Bercowetz: Stall Writings

at Beret International Gallery, through February 17

Robert Blanchon: Gum, Waste, Indentations, Stains, and Envelopes

at Randolph Street Gallery, through February 10

By Fred Camper

Several hallmarks of contemporary art–replacing the artist’s hand with a machine, using found materials, substituting texts for images, elevating mass culture–are found in exemplary form in Jesse Bercowetz’s “Stall Writings,” but I was nonetheless rattled by these untitled bronze-colored plaques memorializing graffiti Bercowetz copied from bathroom stalls. Though I’ve long been interested in this subject, and a few of my own favorites are long committed to memory, it’s a bit unnerving to see such writing, with all its offensive subliteracy, engraved and framed on more than two dozen plaques at Beret International Gallery.

Bercowetz’s plaques are anodized aluminum, made in a shop with a computer-controlled laser etching machine. Each plaque contains as many as six or seven entries, but sometimes just one. Forced to choose among the 300 samples he collected over three years, Bercowetz aimed for a representative selection. “I try to get everything exactly like I find it…not to have any bias toward more interesting or more humorous,” he told me about his all-inclusive collecting. Bercowetz calls graffiti “important reminders of still-current mentalities regarding sexual orientation, social distinctions, religious proclivities, as well as other societal norms and abnormalities.” Tellingly, the material is full of contradictions: one plaque reads “Jesus loves even me,” and another “Sullen Girls Suck Hard.” On yet another “KKK” is followed by “Black Power.”

By honoring a form of speech that’s usually dishonored Bercowetz also creates contradictions. Most viewers will have trouble accepting blow-job references as if they were award inscriptions. The messy handwriting of graffiti somehow suits their bad grammar and spelling, but reading “Tomorow W Dye” neatly etched in a standard font in metal is disorienting. On the one hand Bercowetz elevates the vulgar, but on the other he underlines it by printing these messages so clearly and cleanly.

This presentation heightened my awareness of the peculiar form and content of graffiti, especially in the longer texts, strings of words by different people that make sense only occasionally. “Craptor IIIII” is followed by an old ditty (“Some people come to sit and think / Some people come to shit and stink”), followed by “Veloci,” “Take It With Urin,” “Booty IIIII,” and some words that are apparently names (“ZRD,” “ABDUL”). The concluding entry is a cross between cultural commentary, materialist philosophy, and the old “get a job” injunctions to hippies: “The Magical Mystery / Has Been Dead For Years / Wake Up With Education / Nothing Is a Mystery.”

There is something irritating in Bercowetz’s presentation, however. By removing the hand-scrawled spontaneity of these messages he risks sterility. The bronze surfaces are so reflective, almost aggressive in their sheen, that one sometimes has to move to read the text. Though Bercowetz has heightened the “importance” of the words, he also risks imprisoning them. As long ago as the 1920s the young Allen Walker Read, later a noted language scholar, collected bathroom graffiti observed on a trip across the United States; only in 1977 was he able to publish it here, as Classic American Graffiti. To read it today is to be reminded of plus ca change: the slang may be different, but the referents are the same. And one can peruse this book, or another, with a reader’s freedom to skip some pages and return to others. Bercowetz’s plaques seem to freeze the words in space and time.

Bercowetz has planned or carried out several related projects, so perhaps the plaques should be seen as part of an ongoing investigation rather than as closed works of art. He intends to publish a book of the graffiti he’s collected; he’s also hung a few plaques in the original sites of the graffiti and photographed them there. Perhaps his peripatetic childhood helps account for the interest in public restrooms. Now a Chicagoan, Bercowetz was born in Boston in 1969 to parents who “were kind of hippie types.” They moved to Kentucky when he was young: “My father had a flatbed truck with a box on the back which he had built, and that’s what we lived in at first.” He left home more than once in his teens, hitchhiking around the country when he was as young as 13, at one point living in a tent in a park. Later, rebelling against his parents, he spent two years as a street preacher. Speaking of the graffiti, Bercowetz says he’s “familiar with this language and these mentalities–it becomes almost second nature to me, and I question it and want to investigate it more in different contexts.” The plaques are “kind of like little research projects.” Less neodadaist gestures than an artist’s attempts to come to terms with a key language from his youth, these highly personal works don’t sufficiently transform their material.

If Bercowetz’s show was immediately engaging, the same cannot be said of the eight Robert Blanchon works grouped together in the projects room at Randolph Street Gallery. Currently residing in Los Angeles, Blanchon was born in Boston in 1965 and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; this is his first one-person exhibit here. Knowing nothing about him, I first saw this show as a modest collection of things assembled with a randomness all too familiar to gallerygoers. There’s a hole in the wall, a shirt on the floor, some enigmatic photographs. The complaint about such works is that any meaning in them requires the artist’s elucidations–but Blanchon has provided the gallery with virtually no information.

Yet something about this work nagged at me, and instead of leaving I turned for another go-round. This time it came alive with the force of a revelation: this was an autobiographical show by an artist who has AIDS. Blanchon confirmed this fact for me but was reluctant to allow its mention: “I think there’s many levels to my work….I don’t sit around and think I don’t feel well and the work comes out, that’s not how I work at all.” And it’s true that, in contrast to Bercowetz’s reification of graffiti, Blanchon’s objects are allusive, suggesting multiple metaphors, always ready to be transformed.

Seven of the eight works immediately suggest AIDS-related readings. Three photographs identified by LA street addresses recall microscopic photos of viruses but actually show wads of gum on sidewalks. This substance expelled from the body could suggest semen–the blobs look like little wads–and by implication AIDS: Blanchon says that each address is the location of a gay sex club. The hole in the wall, Untitled (Self-Portrait/Waste), is framed with a round metal band and placed at crotch or anus height. Illuminated by a red spotlight that suggests blood or skin, it might refer to a gap in the body, a wound, and also to the anus as a sexual orifice and the principal route by which HIV enters the bodies of gay men. The arms of the shirt lying on the floor, Stain no. 6, are spread crucifixion style. This white dress shirt, “RB” embroidered on one cuff, is stained with something ugly; I thought of shit, and of the diarrhea that often afflicts those with AIDS. Together the stain and the way the shirt is laid out on the floor suggest a loss of control, a body coming apart, a person on the brink of death.

The two photos called Atlantic(s) are hung side by side: on the left the ocean is in focus but on the right the identically framed ocean is a blurry haze seen through a piece of glass in sharp focus, revealing water droplets and two bugs. There’s no obvious explanation for the glass and bugs, since the camera is high up; instead they seem metaphors for obstructed vision. Sadly, Blanchon is now losing his sight, though he first conceived of this work before his vision problems began.

The one work that I couldn’t supply with an AIDS reading Blanchon helped to explain. Untitled (Envelopes) is a floor-to-ceiling vellum roll on which the same black-and-white photograph of stacks of envelopes repeats: it’s like a continuous role of film, part of it curled up on the floor. “The envelopes are about the cluster of people who’ve died,” Blanchon says, representing all the associated correspondence–death notices, condolences. The roll’s long stretch and repetition become metaphors for a never-ending chain of death.

Blanchon has placed two casts of his teeth made of silver-plated chewed gum on a velvet pillow in Untitled (My Teeth as of November 26, 1995). But while the plating and placement have a sanctifying (and perhaps self-mocking) effect, the date in the title suggests the artist’s sense of the body’s impermanence. In the context of the exhibit, this seems his attempt to memorialize a part of himself and a particular day in his life. But this, and the other works in the show, can also be seen more generally as portraits of an identity that’s unstable, shifting. The castings both stand for the self–dental records are sometimes used to determine identity–and question the idea of the self: can a person be represented by his bite? The hole of the self-portrait seems almost laughably reductive, the artist representing himself as only an orifice–but that is how some feel some of the time. For Blanchon, one aspect of his work is the question “whether I exist at all.” The equal status Blanchon gives the two views of the Atlantic similarly undermines the stability of the self behind the camera: how can the same person see so differently? Blanchon’s self-portraits suggest a world alive with transformations–the self can become an object, an object can suggest the self.

A month ago I received two hard-to-find art books in the mail. They’d belonged to my old friend Kirk’s best friend, Ken, whom I’d met once. Throughout 1995, as Ken’s illness progressed to late-stage AIDS, he grew increasingly despondent; twice he tried to kill himself. Finally, a few months ago, he simply vanished, and his friends and family arranged to disperse his belongings among those who knew him; Kirk wrote that he could think of no one who would appreciate the art books more.

I do appreciate the books, but what makes the gift extraordinary is their wealth of allusions, from fatal disease and suicide to the way Ken met my barbs with raucous good humor the one time I met him. I can’t look at these books without thinking of a person I barely knew, and of the void his disappearance has left in his friends’ lives. Does some of his identity reside in the books? If I read and enjoy them, does some of his identity live in me? It’s that sense of physical objects evoking a fragmented, shifting identity that haunts me when I think of Blanchon’s art.