Jordan Wolfson, The McLellan Galleries, Glasgow International Festival
Nationality in art is a curious thing. There are some artists whose work really could be from anywhere on the planet, inhabiting a blank space devoid of national signifiers that means you can’t tie them – stylistically, historically or otherwise – to any one country of origin. Others, though, ooze their national identity from every piece. The good ones obviously do it idiosyncratically and unexpectedly, the bad ones very directly and heavy-handedly (witness a fair proportion of any show entitled ‘Art from…….’).
Judging by this show, Jordan Wolfson is about as unabashedly American as it’s possible for a contemporary artist to be, and luckily for anyone braving the magnificent Victorian deep freeze that is the temporarily occupied Mclellan galleries at this year’s Glasgow International, he definitely knows how to make genuinely head-tremoring art. This stuff could only have come out of an LA based art brain, mangled with relentless consumerism, spoilt with access to top class animators and production facilities, and delirious with image saturation.
The galleries – slap bang in the centre of Glasgow – are ornate and archetypally Victorian, with a sweeping stone staircase, dark wood panelling, and weighty doors that lead from the wide corridor into several, extensive side rooms. Quite obviously, though, this purpose-built museum space has had had several incarnations. According to the rather lovely (if blue with cold) invigilators I interrogated on the subject, the rows of plug sockets, scummy sinks and massive pipes clad in silver insulation were installed when the space was used for studios by Glasgow art school a few years ago. Wolfson’s slick, mind-wrenching and often terrifying video and 16mm film works so beautifully set off the eerie loadedness of these rooms and corridors, I found myself scribbling almost as earnestly about the surroundings as I did about the work itself.
The 33-year-old makes work in a wide range of media, from sculpture to performance, but curator – and Glasgow International director – Sarah Mcrory has put together a pure moving image show, described in the blurb as a ‘mini-survey’ (at least someone born in the same decade as me isn’t having a full survey or, perish the thought, retrospective yet. That’s when I’m cracking out the pipe and slippers.)
The artist has rejected the idea that we should read any meaning into what he does, emphasising form and composition instead, with meaning as a kind of by-product. Nowhere is this approach more apparent than in the dually seductive and repellent Raspberry Poser (2012) – the work that visitors here are most likely to be most familiar with. It’s been shown in an impressive roll call of international venues, with its most recent UK outing knocking a few eyes to the back of sockets at the Chisenhale in November. The 14-minute loop is a relentless series of continuosly shifting images and locations – a city park; high end interiors; a child’s messy bedroom; building sites; street scenes; bronzed spring breakers – with a Hanna/Barbara-esque, red-headed young protagonist springing manically from frame to frame, alternately laughing maniacally and ripping his guts out. A punk, played by Wolfson himself, engages a man in converstion in a city park before getting his naked bottom out and rolling convulsively around. CGI mock ups of HIV retroviruses jubilantly bounce their way through many of these images too, a pointed reference to a loaded and difficult topic made, it must be said, by a straight artist from a priviledged background who was a child during the most devastating years of the AIDS crisis. But he pulls it off. Oh, and all this is set to Beyonce’s Sweet Dreams at tummy-booming volume. I couldn’t stop watching it, despite my bare feet on the specially installed, plush carpeted floor feeling like icicles.
His 16mm film works are inevitably quieter, but no less intruiging on their own, relatively low-fi terms. In Perfect Lover (2007), an animated crow announces a whole day’s hours in anonchalant, blankly American male voice – “one o’clock; two o’clock; three o’ clock” – as he jumps onto features of various landscapes. It rides the line perfectly between existential reflection and dry humour. Plus they’ve installed it in the old ladies’ toilet – splendid. Untitled False Document features a California-fresh girl tossing pictures of vegetables from a moving yacht while a mechanical computer voice philosophises, “…Even this voice, which is my voice, in the nature of creation it is the voice standing in for us…”. This feels like another of Wolfson’s mediations on the nature of the contemporary image as the camera pulls out and the whole thing is revealed to be taking place on an LCD screen in a domestic space, a cat licking its paws while the piece plays.
At the end of all this, you actually find yourself hopelessly fascinated with Wolfson himself. There’s something so incredibly beguiling about the way the figure of this author/artist, in one guise or another, asserts himself in various ways throughout all the work here that I found myself google image searching for a picture of his real face as soon as I got back to our hotel. A supporting actor playing a punk here, a full starring role as a backpacker/student art unpicker or distorted voiceover there….If Wolfson keeps us guessing and rethinking in future works anywhere near as effectively as he does here, I for one will be back for more.