Though he has barely exhibited since 2000, and now reportedly lives a hermit-like existence, Meyer Vaisman is anything but an outsider. In the 1980s, the Caracas-born artist played a vital role in New York’s East Village art scene, co-running the exhibition space International With Monument, while having solo shows at Leo Castelli Gallery and Sonnabend and being chosen to represent Venezuela in the 1995 Venice Biennale. His work changed constantly – from ironic post-modernist paintings to taxidermied turkeys to a replica Venezuelan shanty filled with personal belongings from his childhood bedroom. After a solo show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in 2000, featuring a life-size cast of his corpulent female psychiatrist holding, Pietà-like, an empty harlequin suit stitched from remnants of Vaisman’s parents’ clothes, he seemed to slip off the art map. He moved to Barcelona to indulge in a spate of mid-life hedonism and suffered a series of breakdowns, followed by abstinence and immersion in a form of Orthodox Judaism. This exhibition’s title – ‘In History – In Future – Meyer Vaisman – Meir Ben David – 5774’ – which notes his religious n ame and birth date according to the Jewish calendar, is, however, the only evidence of his newfound spirituality.
The anecdotal momentum of this condensed biography, sketched out in the exhibition’s press release, creates a considerable counterweight to the actual work in the show itself, which is conspicuously light and visually slight. The motifs of the 10 inkjet prints on plywood panels, and one floor-based flower-shaped relief, play with notions of authorship: a modulation of the artist’s name repeated seven times (Vaismen x 7, all works 2015); his jagged signature reproduced and mirrored into a Twombly-esque scribble (Artist’s Signature in Chaos [Negative]) or his enlarged fingerprint (Under his Thumb [Negative]). While steeped in self-reflexivity, these works also interrogate the nature of the art object. ‘Stretcher frames’ adorn the front of these plywood works, despite the fact that they don’t employ canvas that requires stretching. This tongue-in-cheek trope is anything but naïve: it points to debates around the status of painting that have been around since the 1960s. Originality is likewise called into question, with the same motifs repeated side by side, or reproduced in positive and negative forms. In one pair of paintings, signature squiggles play the part of abstract gestures in a verdant landscape, while their titles allude cryptically to Eva Hesse (Artist’s Signature esseH avE). Another pair of eye-catching negative/positive works seems to approximate a Leonardo da Vinci landscape etching, and bears the wonderful subtitle Leonardo’s Junk. Despite the artist’s recent life as a self-imposed hermit, these works are the very opposite of ‘outsider art’: they know only too well the rules and strategies of the art game.
Whilst cannily trafficking in signs of identity, material integrity and reference, these works remain peculiarly flat and hard to grasp. The press release informs us that they were fabricated by an assistant, in order to ‘reduce [the artist’s] involvement in the production of his art to a minimum’. Vaisman does not meet his assistant, but delivers files and directions to him/her, which are then printed professionally. Nor does Vaisman see the final works; instead he approves them from a distance. The signature and fingerprint become proxies for absence and disinterest in an exhibition in which the artist’s own touch, and any accompanying aura, has been systematically evacuated. Is this a cynical take on art and its apparatuses from someone with inside knowledge, or a realistic attempt to continue, despite realizing the impossibility of an artwork to come close to the complexity of identity, or of spiritual beliefs? When asked recently why he began to make art again, he replied, deadpan: ‘It was simply a change in medication.’ Whether or not this show represents some kind of Beckettian endgame for Vaisman may only become clear when we see what comes next.
First published in Issue 171