Shame and Composure

Patricia L. Boyd at Reena Spaulings

April 2 – May 7, 2023

In spite of its references to psychoanalysis, ”Where You Lie” didn’t deal so much in subtlety, nuance, or complicated feelings. It was a straightforward exhibition of feelings of betrayal, hurt, anger, and retribution. Referring to the dualistic meaning of lie, the title of the show landed like an accusation and an accepted fact, compounded by the press release asserting that there is “a kind of surgical revenge” upon a marriage bed. The sincerity of this conviction and action was its force majeure — a declaration of the shifting nature of dignity in a confession-core world. However, expressions of betrayal share a similarity with irony because they rely on the inversion of an expected experience. They communicate the multiplicity of an experience with inherent safety and possession; stating “I was betrayed” also implies “I was married.”

Strewn across the stage of Reena Spaulings was a graveyard of bed parts, each cast as a tombstone to a relationship. The Gordon Matta Clark–like cuts exuded a sense of forensic inquiry. The precision suggested that ”Where You Lie” was not a destruction or deletion or disavowal of marriage (it could have been put through a parked wood chipper, for instance) but an attempt to retain one, albeit by an investigation, inquiry, core sample, evidence file, photo album, sociocultural documentation. The reference to cut-up poetry in the press release was a ripe analogy for how memories are rearranged with the retrospect of uncovering some once-hidden truth. For an amenable viewer, walking through this diagram of control in the wake of a disorganizing betrayal is an eerie and touching experience.

Post-pathos conceptualism has a specific challenge. Contextual emotions and material realities are often at odds. This friction — the “surgical revenge” — is the most charged moment of “Where You Lie.” However, the paradox of conceptualism, that it often looks a certain way, also means that the voice here is compromised. The narrative is obscured by the material resemblance to other Reena Spaulings artists. The photography recalls Josephine Pryde, and the ad hoc material arrangements are like homages to the grubby conceptualism of Henrik Olesen.

Material and conceptual fatigue is an understandable symptom of mining one’s personal life for content; the stories run out or become too specific or unbearable or repetitive. And while the Rachel Cusks and Maggie Nelsons have cleaved open a space for this kind of content to flourish, they also deal with the more complex contradictions of desire and rejection being synonymous, of an axis where pleasure and subordination socialize. Dealing in these contradictions allows them to write stories that foreground their own apathetic participation in the values of a life that begins with the purchase of minimalist furniture as opposed to creating the space for the lack of a partner’s meandering voice.

The misinterpretation of confessional literature has rendered it our responsibility as an audience to become an organ in the metabolic process of coping, which makes sense if we believe that we are all indebted as victims or abusers. The algorithmic seduction of unfairness creates the social pressure to move toward the margins of luck in life and love. The thrill of sharing the personal. The vertigo of open secrets. The dizzying nature of betrayal. The narcissism of interpretation. It fits a bit too snugly into the space of “art.” A clinic where conceptual art hobbles; it does not get to rest on its bed any sooner than it is cut apart. And that’s where the ennui sets in, from earnestness, laziness, emotional shortcuts. It’s hard to criticize someone bearing it all; there is charm to a heartbroken gesture. Narratives like this feel as predetermined as mattresses predestined for landfills.

Speaking of which, spare a thought for the fast-growing pine plantations that feed Muji and Ikea wood to keep the beds from new and ruined relationships moving through the revolving doors. I remember my ex’s father looking toward the border fence of his farm and cursing the neighbors for leasing their land to such a company. The fast-growing pine plantation raised the water table by drawing it up through shallow roots. This disrupted the native ecology by increasing the salinity. They are also a fire risk. My ex’s father was an expert at naming different types of grass. He would drive along with his head out of the window, observing them, naming them, even when he was alone. One day, he hit a pine tree doing this. He drove himself to the hospital, and when they asked him if he was okay, he said yes, and at that very moment, a line of blood ran down his face. We weren’t close, but I miss the possibility that we might have been.