In a 2004 interview with art historian Sabeth Buchmann, Josephine Pryde observes that ‘the word “critical” is made to work very hard in art. My new theory is that a lot of the art that says it is critical is actually more like failed journalism. Journalism with the actuality or force of the story taken out, shipped around the world and treated as art.’ I agree; in many exhibitions, what is really being criticized and who’s listening? How often does art really brook any sort of crisis? It’s easy to express whatever feather-soft leftist position you have – being against war, say, or the art market – from within art’s specialist systems because such criticality is usually only made possible by those very same systems remaining unchanged. Relatively little is usually at stake.
So what, then, is this ‘failed journalism’ doing when it’s labelled art? In her recent show at Reena Spaulings, Pryde suggested – with tongue in cheek, I suspect – that such images and objects become therapeutic. Entitled ‘Therapie Thank You’ (the use of the Germanic spelling here reminds me of the Mittel-Euro accent I’ve heard affected by certain Anglo-American artists living in Berlin), Pryde’s exhibition featured seven colour photographs of extreme close-ups of clothing on a body, and four sculptures made from half-finished woven baskets and metal butcher’s hooks. According to the enjoyably droll press release, the show tried to imagine what kind of person might invest in the formal qualities of, say, a piece of designer clothing, or a heavily symbolic hanging sculpture. It imagined a woman who might wear ‘a technologically advanced blouse of an evening and, while [...] holding glasses of water or occasionally wine, would tirelessly promote the artifacts of her computations, things in whose formal use she believed.’ Therapy as emotional investment in form.
The photographs concentrate on texture and pattern: cheery colourful patterns in Do You Want Children (all works 2010); deep, black fabric punched with holes (1998, 19…); something that looks halfway between haute couture and an unfinished basket (I Don’t Want to Take Away Your Creativity). They’re attractive images: in some instances, like shots from a clothes catalogue, skin or the shape of a body is discernable beneath the fabric – hints towards a portrait of their wearer. Yet it was mainly in concert with the accompanying hanging sculptures that they gained their charge. With their combination of basket work and meat hooks, the sculptures – ‘The Mystery of Artistic Work 1–4’ – gave the show a certain sarcastic tone. That is, in contrast to the high-production ‘tastefulness’ of the fabric images, the objects’ symbolism seemed hilariously heavy-handed: domesticity and violence, handicrafts and industrial production. The clothing in the photographs – ostensibly form at work in a ‘non-art’ way – seemed sophisticated in contrast with the dumb art objects. Together, the works could be read as being about how their imaginary owner might be over-invested in form, but how this might not necessarily equate with an understanding of it. This, perhaps, is where the idea of art as a therapeutic surface on which we can project our subjectivity came in.
However, for me, this therapy aspect remained hazy. The show’s implied criticality – let’s imagine how other (no doubt wealthy) people might treat objects and images – was rendered rather coy by the oblique approach and the question of what kind of person might invest something (financial, emotional, intellectual) in Pryde’s work itself. Yet, in relation to other strands of art being made right now, there was something pointed about ‘Therapie Thank You’: like a sneer in the direction of the introspective, ‘beautiful soul’ turn in art or even recent American ‘abstract’ photography, with all its coy nods and winks at realism. In contrast with the directness of ‘La Vie d’Artiste’ (Artist’s Life, 2009), a series of unsentimental baby portraits about reproduction and making art that Pryde recently exhibited, ‘Therapie Thank You’ seemed somewhat aloof, but there was a healthy cynicism here perhaps worth listening to.
Dan Fox is the US Editor at Large of frieze magazine and is based in New York. The author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016), his latest book, Limbo (2018), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
First published in Issue 132