Playing With the Truth

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe
Catalog Essay
Laurie Rubin Gallery: Two Person Exhibit with John Boskovich, December 1988



John Boskovich talks of an ongoing relationship, in his works to a Canon of High Modernist literature, and also to the debates surrounding Anglo-American criticism and philosophy during our epoch – which is to say, to the question of what French thought does or doesn’t do to Anglo-American literature and its beliefs. George Porcari talks about an enduring interest in bad movies from the 1960’s. In these two exhibitions, originally conceived as one, the works are united by their concern for physical presentation – the rhetoric of the object which begins with the frame, or with there being no frame; by their shared interest in narrativism of some kind; in, I should say, the curious mixture of disregard and concern, within the work, for that which lies outside it but to which it refers; and by a shared definition of what constitutes boredom in the art of the present.

To begin at the end of this list, with the question of boredom, perhaps one may say that if boredom consists in being tired or repetition, dullness, tedium (which is what the American Heritage Dictionary is it is, therein suggesting, rather provocatively, that there may be times when one is not, i.e., when, presumably, repetition etc. are stimulating in some way) then to pass beyond it must involve taking into account whatever it was that seemed to constitute that boredom from which one seeks escape or redress. John Baldessari, an artist of some relevance to both of these artists, and the coiner of the slogan “No More Boring Art” an epoch or so ago, is himself the first to suggest that nowadays the definition of the boring has shifted, that what is to be feared (does this mean hated?) nowadays is “correctness”.

I asked John Boskovich whom he regarded as the artist whose attitude to art was furthes from his own and he said Louise Lawler. George Porcari’s answer to the same question was Joel Peter Witkin. For these artists then it would seem that boredom may be defined as a matter of simple repetition, etc. – where “tedium” might itself be another name for simplicity. This may be either “correctness” as simplicity – and one can imagine nothing simpler or more correct, in every sense save the final one, than Lawler’s pictures of the store rooms of our major museums, with such talismans to protect us, to clarify history for us, to read it correctly, we shall never wander into the path of a seduction which does not lead to goodness, but shall instead continue to repress pleasure in the name of the Truth – or simple transgression, as in Witkin’s photographic abuse of the other (human as opposed to institutional) kind of corpse – no more, one might say, than excess as tedium. Lawler and Witkin may indeed be seen as perfect antinomies insofar as they are united by their touching faith in the photograph as document, where what it does with the idea of documentary function is the final test of the work’s value. It is that, or so I conclude from the coolness expressed by Porcari and Boskovich towards such an enterprise in either of its extreme forms – of positivist historicism or expressionistic psychologism – which defines the boring in photography at this moment, or would if any essential characteristic could ever be said to capture, or otherwise come into sole possession of, that exhaustion of which the dictionary speaks.

With regard to their curious disregard/regard (in the case of Porcari) or regard/disregard (ditto Boskovich) consider two works, Boskovich’s Self-Portrait – “Thou Still Unravish’d Bride of Quietness”, 1987, and Porcari’s The Passerby, 1988. The relationship of Boskovich’s work to Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, from which the line quoted in the title is derived, is not in the least arbitrary insofar as one may articulate the work further through reference to the lines in the poem which surround the one quoted.  But Boskovich will at the same time talk about his desire to make the work accessible in the most general sense, wanting it to offer above all some kind of free play to the viewer. Eager to distance himself from the esotericism of boredom in its current manifestation as a direct reflection of the Truth, he argues for the deployment of sentimentality in the interest of arousing empathy, proposing that “the myth of inaccessibility is the one myth that Post-Modernism preserves. “The relationship of this work to Keats is both faithful and indifferent. Faithful in the sense that a knowledge of Keats will allow this work to work. And indifferent in the sense that one doesn’t need Keats at all to make it work.

Porcari’s Passerby is in principle quite a indifferent to any prior knowledge one may have of anything represented within it. Episodic, proposing three durations of unequal length each of which unfolds from a moment within a fluid movement, that of a woman’s face, thrice interrupted by the camera, there is in aa sense no need to know anything about anyone or anything depicted in the work. On the other hand the color photograph at the extreme right is a picture of Beirut, and the woman also comes from Lebanon.  And/or the riots in the central panel are taking place in, respectively, Peru and Mexico, and the color photograph in that panel is also from Lima, Peru’s capital and Porcari’s home town. Such information would have to matter and not matter, a de-documenting of nothing. In the works of both Boskovich and Porcari one is at once detached from direct reference to the world, i.e., from reflecting or representing it directly, and subjected to the uncontrollability of the sign – the sense in which, to quote Boskovich quoting the (Anglican) Dean of High Modernism, T.S. Eliot, “words move”.

Which brings one to the use that each of these artists makes of narrative. All Modernism is presumably post-Modern, in the sense that – pace Lyotard – any Modernism must always contain the idea of a future which it contains but is not. This is the sense in which the post-Modern always precedes the Modern, or at the very least arrives along with it.  As to “High” Modernism, Boskovich’s work, like that of Eliot in this regard, seems to preserve this idea in order to flirt with some fascination having to do with lowness, with sentimentality, say, or accessibility itself.  Eliot needed the preoccupation with Myrna Loy, a popular singer, so lovingly documented by the art historian T.J. Clark. Porcari derives his approach to narrative from, as much as anyone, the pre-post-Modernist Post-Modernism – may one say, in keeping with the fifties atmosphere created by the current American regime, premature post-Modernism, like premature anti-facism? – of the Russian literary theorist Mikhael Bakhtin, specifically from the latter’s use of digression as narrative transgression. In The Passerby, as in Bakhtin’s central notion of the carnival, digression is used to obviate or suspend the idea of transgression, to perform an amoralizing of narrative, playing not only with its claims to truth but with its very capacity for it.

And finally the rhetoric of presentation. One key to the differences which unite these disparate careers is to be found in each artist’s attitude to the frame. In Boskovich, the frame as that which can contain different kinds of things, text, photograph, print, and which itself is emphatic about its objectness and, therefore, its tacit articulation of the idea of an inside and an outside, or transparency and the idea of its opposite, or presentation and therefore the possibility of that which is not present: a narrative of both accessibility and arcane reference. In Porcari, the frame as no frame. As that which facilitates a narrative, made up of explosions and emptinesses, whose components may re arranged so as to appear to go together, suspended behind transparency, as fluidly as one expression blends into another within one movement or, as in some of the passages in the narrative, as one photographic space may enter another. All of this fluidity held one inch away from the wall by stainless steel bolts, emptiness and an explosion.  In both Boskovich and Porcari, the truth is ground down and at once preserved by the irresponsibility of the sign, directed and in that undirected, persistently giving way to some larger truth, de-documenting by way of the image. “Imagining” is what we used to call it.