After seeing Ben Worley’s (a.k.a. Bean Summer) SYNTHESIZ at Get This! Gallery, I almost decided to simply copy and paste Jerry Saltz’s entire New York Magazine article, “Generation Blank,” as a review. Within the first few seconds of seeing Worley’s video work, I was reminded of one of the first lines of Saltz’s bashing of the Venice Biennale: “[…]many times over—too many times for comfort—I saw the same thing, a highly recognizable generic, institutional style whose manifestations are by now extremely familiar. Neostructuralist film with overlapping geometric colors […] projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction—it was all there, all straight out of the seventies, all dead in the water. It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements.” For me, the formula reads something like this:
Although Saltz’s description may not be a 100 percent fit for the work of Worley, it is uncannily accurate. In an interview with the artist, he says that the work is “an ongoing series of direct collaborations that can be called appropriations in action. It’s a very simple honest process in which [he uses] the shape, color, and prints of early Post-Abstract Expressionist and Color Field painters as a basis to build [his] video and prints with [his] own animation devices for the show within the space.” The foreground of the video for SYNTHESIZ is dominated by colorful, morphing geometric shapes that are based on the formal manifestations of Post-Abstract Expressionist artists like Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland. Under that, there is some kind of grainy, filtered imagery, but it is impossible to make out, and thus becomes only confusing visual texture. The soundtrack is a lo-fi mangled mash-up of orchestral tunes reminiscent of early Hollywood, rounding out the apparent comment on the heroic, yet failed attempts of Late-Modernist efforts; a tried and true criticism with equally worn methods.
I don’t want readers to think that I am some kind of romantic Neomodernist looking for originality or genius in a work of art; in fact, I have written and spoken extensively against such a view on my blog and at this year’s SECAC convention in Savannah, among other places. I sympathize with Worley’s understanding of the process of synthesis, but wonder about the implications of copy-and-paste culture with regards to ideas such as meaning transmission and cultural progress. For now, I can forego the problematic discussion of progress, but with regard to creating meaning, I share Saltz’s worry that, “Their art turns in on itself, becoming nothing more than coded language. It empties their work of content, becoming a way to avoid interior chaos.” [My emphasis added.]
In our interview, Worley insisted that, “All work in any space is inherently charged with meaning, to make art is political. To be an artist is to always strive to create meaning in the world,” and according to Worley’s artist statement, the visuals “communicate messages both random and intentional.” Obviously, all work is open to interpretation, but what could be random or chaotic in SYNTHESIZ is lost because the cipher is too easily decoded; each segment of video is well-defined by a set of glossy-print video stills accompanied by titles like After Joseph Albers and After Mark Rothko.
The strengths of appropriation as a method come in many forms with multiple functions: as cultural critique, by way of the Letterist and Situationists’détournement; as semiotic lexicon, in the way described by Nicolas Bourriaud in Postproduction; or as critique of originality and genius in the vein of Sherrie Levine, which has been swallowed whole and thoroughly digested by many, including Rosalind Krauss in the 80s, and more recently the sister websites afterwalkerevans.com and aftersherrielevine.com. (Wait, did I forget to mention Marcel Duchamp?) Ultimately, it seems that Worley touches on many of these in what he calls “very original appropriations,” but does so in such a broad fashion that it creates little conceptual impact.
In the statement for his video, Worley asserts that through “simple design and color schemes, [his] overstimulated visual experiments are translated and clarified.” Although his work does recall a kind of Nam June Paik–esque experimental-video psychedelia, to call it overstimulating is an overstatement. When I think of overstimulation, another video artist comes to mind, one who synthesizes a twenty-first-century attention-deficit-hyperactive-disorder version of psychedelic imagery. Ryan Trecartin remixes corporate lingo and utilizes readymade objects as props in videos that critically comment on contemporary identity formation vis-à-vis a corporatized suburban existence. His objects function as easily readable signs and symbols that create a semiological bottleneck that directs the viewer onto the razor-sharp fine line that he wants us to consider. In contrast, Worley’s work seems to utilize the visual equivalent of name-dropping to prop up the thin merits of his final product; the art historical references acting as a declarative stamp to label an otherwise muddy experiment as art.
As a standalone video, it is too easily understood, but the saving grace of Worley’s vision for SYNTHESIZ may rest in is his intention to reverse the role of live video mixing as subordinate to live musical performance. In a promising series of performances at GET THIS!, Worley plans to have other artists and musicians accentuate his visuals, not the other way around. In the same way that Frank Stella sought to break the habit of a four-sided canvas, perhaps these live collaborative veejay sessions can break the rectangle of the video screen, and actively elevate Worley’s project to the progressive critical level it aspires.
Ben “Bean” Worley’s exhibition SYNTHESIZ will remain up at Get This! Gallery through January 7, 2012. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from Noon to 5PM. There will be an artist talk on Saturday, December 17 from 1 to 2PM. For more information on related events, visit Get This! Gallery’s facebook page.