The Everson Biennial

The Everson Biennial 2000.   Postmodern Sublime .

By Matthew Friday

Postmodernism is one of the worst descriptive terms used in art criticism. By now its position as a synonym for pluralism has become increasingly complicated by the integration of poststructuralist theory.   The sublime is perhaps one of the most criticized aspects of Modern art. The combination of awe and aesthetic appreciation, favored as a descriptive term by the modernist critic Clemant Greenberg, has been cast out of the vocabulary of art-criticism in favor of discourse sensitive phrases that avoid any overarching formalist narratives. To experience the sublime one must be driven out-side oneself by both terror and beauty, into a moment of pure perception unburdened by the weight of subjective awareness.   Modern art finds it impetus in the logic of the sublime. In his famous essay, "The Sublime is Now" Barnett Newman describes the quest for sublimity as manifesting in, "Man's natural desire in the arts to express his relation to the Absolute." (1) Newman reiterates Greenberg's appropriation of the Kantian perspective.   The sublime must register the absolute in such a way as to cause the imagination to fail to perform the image. Modern art attempts to present the fact that the unpresentable exists. Postmodernism in its simplest form as dialectical opposition to modernism can be viewed as a negative articulation of the sublime.   Modernity strives to free itself from the sentiment of taste and escape the boundaries of allegory; postmodernity attempts to avoid the nostalgia for totality, by grounding itself in the ephemerality of representation (2) . The postmodern sublime is a register of tension; an impossible longing; the transcendence of the mundane; a catchy title and a good place to begin a discussion of the Everson Biennial 2000.

A photograph attempts to, "fix the transitory, the ephemeral, in a stable and stabilizing image."(3) The photographs in the Everson Biennial offer us a fragmentary text through which we read overlapping discourses. The ephemeral and contingent nature of photography revels in the effluvium of the nominal world and it is through these discarded moments of history that we can bear witness to the intersection of desire and failure. Maria Alos' Come and Play No.3 enframes the overproduction of desire created by a society haunted by the spectacular drive of commodification. This simply constructed triptych bears glossy duratrans images that radiate a cold neon light from within their antiseptic plexiglas boxes. Two Monster Mouth Candy Tongues thrust forward and threaten to penetrate the banal central image of a frosted cookie in the shape of a garishly dressed girl. The Monster Mouth Candy Tongues are the postmodern bastardization of the lollipop, now fully present and transparent as an oral fetish.   The plastic heads of these containers bear exposed brains and slick musculature suggesting the shattered visage of a traffic accident victim, from this ruin protrudes the glistening surface of a tumescent candy coated tongue / phallus. Alos' photographs trace the paths of repressive desublimation and in doing so reveals the failure of that desire to procure the object of its original intent in a capitalist system. The commodification of the abject attempts to contain the dissolution of boundaries, be they physical, sexual or psychological, for packaging and sale.  

If the sublime exists as a state of desirelessness, then it can only be represented as an absence. These absences are captured with an elegant gesture in Jane Marsching's Pareidolia, or Making Something out of Nothing . The spinning photographs of meson transmissions provide evidence of the invisible, while they themselves register as only a flickering ephemerality. Desire and failure are immanent in Melissa Friedling's Mercedes P+II film stills. Disturbingly organic telephones and electrical cables share space with Bladerunnerish women wearing excessive hats. Like Alos' tongues, Friedling's hats transgress the boundaries of organic and inorganic, negotiating the hybrid space where the abject flowers. This territory is enscribed in the work of Jodi Benedict and another piece by Maria Alos. Both works threaten to rupture the divisions between external and internal. Benedict's Fortress evokes the moments of fear and safety experienced by children.  Fortress consists of several found wood slats hanging from the ceiling recalling the comfortable territory of the tree house or backyard fort. Around the bottom of each slat grows a thick cluster of wasps' nests. The piece swings gently in the eddies caused by passing viewers, threatening immediate harm if one were to stray to close and brush up against the fragile geometry of the nests.   Jacques Lacan described the uncanny as that which defies or unsettles the confines of descriptive stability.   The sting of wasps are not simply a threat of injury, they represent a moment where the thin membrane which divides self from other is ruptured, allowing an instant where neither can be mapped. The colored saliva contained in Maria Alos' Come and Play No. 2 is the abject contained, but with the possibility of immediate contagion. This beautiful work consists of several sweating jars of colored saliva and lollipop sticks, back-lit by a neon light. Within these fragile containers, bacterial colonies breed soft milky clusters, reminiscent of internal organs. If bodily fluids are found at the apertures of trauma and / or desire then this work certainly reflects an overproduction of both.

Melissa Sarat's hallucinogenic Father God, Momma and the H.G. transfigures the mundane in an attempt to reconstruct the absolute. This sensuous oil painting reels with glittering oversaturated colors, which while portraying the mythic, threatens to divide and pixilate, revealing a more mundane world. With the surrealistic intensity of a fever dream or bad trip Sarat's painting of translucent frogs, sumptuous feasts, and hidden embryos navigates the tension at the heart of this show. From the left hand side of this painting the face of Sarat's dying mother burns forward with a warm intensity; her apotheosis is constructed not from absence and feigned totality, but as an allegorical measure of contingent fragments rushing forward as if predetermined.  

Craig Owen's landmark article The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism maps the structure of need as represented in contemporary art. He describes allegorical imagery as being, "appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them. He / she lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter. And in his / her hands it becomes something other."(4) The artists in Everson Biennial 2000 allegorize the intersections of an appetite for, and loss of sublimity.   We are left with ephemeral traces to construct our own narratives. We must do this knowing that while there are many meanings there is no more Meaning.