In his exhibitions, Sam Pulitzer likes to stage the ways authorship is constructed within the art industry. For his solo show at Artists Space, New York, in 2014, titled A Colony for ‘Them’, Pulitzer assembled mostly work by other invited artists – it wasn’t the first time one of his exhibition titles included scare quotes to point to rifts between in-groups and out-groups. For both Gauges for ‘Them’, at Real Fine Arts, New York, in 2011, and Nine Scarlet Eclipses for ‘Them’, at Lars Friedrich, Berlin, in 2013, Pulitzer used the ear-stretching accessories popular in subcultures such as hardcore and emo as sculptural accents of insider/outsider differentiation. Highly aware of his heteronormative privilege and its accompanying surroundings – all artists in A Colony for ‘Them’ were friends, and male – Pulitzer’s approach to revealing the power of cronyism in larger processes of legitimatization, and the role of aesthetic codes in these processes, is critical, even if it’s shot through with ambivalent irony.
Pulitzer manipulates such codes of insider and outsider valuation, and leverages their advantages in his own work, too. His new series of 22 bust-size works on paper presented at Lars Friedrich in November continues his ironized pursuit to legitimize a combination of antique craft and early digital interfaces. Using a grid-like pattern to compose flat images in red with coloured pencil, ink and correction fluid, or Xerox, Pulitzer’s new works are like keepsake camp scenographies of folk traditions and American literature, as well as other, cultural minutiae. A PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, the US’s most prominent public broadcaster) logo from the 1980s, in which the classic ‘Everyman’ trademark was multiplied to become a public ‘Everyone’, is depicted on a pillow in Public heads at rest (all works 2015). In one work made from a series of eight Xerographic prints, freakish characters from the past – including the horse’s head in Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare (1781), Deloy’s cryptozoological ape, and the Marvel character the Maker – mingle in a salon style hang of smaller keepsakes in the gallery’s kitchen-office. Suggesting both pedagogical torpor and domesticated deviousness, Pulitzer’s presentation of this symbolism plays up how aesthetics charged with meaning are reduced to simple surface materials. Additionally, the artist’s references in his pictorial allusions to HyperCard stacks (an early graphicled database system) emphasize how media spaces lead more and more to pseudo-intellectual trivia and partisan ‘expertise’.
Yet Pulitzer’s biting pattern recognition redeems these works from their self-conscious overindulgence, and discloses the artist’s literary bias. In Waste Transfer Stations, Pulitzer presents facilities used as material outhouses that are designed in the modern architectural style of the Shakers, the religious sect known for their communal lifestyle, pacifism, and model of gender equality. And instead of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter ‘A’ (from a 1850 New England novel about adultery now common in US school curricula) we’re given a ‘B’ health rating in the wrought-iron facade of Restaurant ‘B’ Letter Grade (in New York City, letter ratings for restaurants were introduced only a few years ago, requiring restaurants to show how clean they are by posting grades based on the letter system also common in schools). The power of endurance of Hawthorne’s heroine, Hester, who maintained a years-long defiance of her whole society – its religion, morality and sense of election – is the narrative of one of American literature’s most well known outcasts, and that this classic story by Hawthorne is hygienically downgraded in Pulitzer’s Restaurant ‘B’ Letter Grade says a lot about not only our fear of devaluation but also our obsession with the signs of social confirmation.
And it is precisely this question of what speaks for whom that Pulitzer interrogates so well. In the piece a livelong June, a splayed humanoid frog surrenders inside a graphically reduced figure’s throat. The work is titled after an undated Emily Dickinson poem: ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too? / Then there’s a pair of us! Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know! / How dreary – to be – Somebody! How public – like a Frog – / To tell one’s name – the livelong June – To an admiring Bog!’ For Dickinson – a genius with a pathological fear of crowds – this amphibian’s croak is like the redun-dancy of public speech and social life in general. And to have that same creature in your mouth, as the English-language idiom (‘to have a frog in your throat’) suggests, is to be incapable of speech altogether. Like a kōan that advertises being nobody by devouring somebody and then losing its authority, or ability, to speak, Pulitzer’s a livelong June encapsulates the artist’s preoccupation with the dubiousness of identity-making mechanisms, and their aesthetics, today.
First published in Issue 23