Master of Puppets: Jordan Wolfson at David Zwirner
Jordan Wolfson at David Zwirner
May 5 to June 25, 2016
525 West 19th Street
New York, 212 727 2070
At David Zwirner, Jordan Wolfson’s puppet, totally helpless against the insistent tug of thick chains, inspires a deep sympathy. Yet, its vulnerability springs precisely from its lifelessness. The title, Colored sculpture (2016), fails so utterly to encapsulate the presence and experience of this work. Yet, simultaneously, this overly simple characterization reminds a viewer of the objecthood of this figure, which can, at moments, feel so terribly real. The disappointing artificiality of its intelligence swims into evidence in the bouncing, unnatural animations that dance through the figure’s deep-set eye sockets. Both point to empathy, but also mark him as an object of contempt; Colored sculpture shifts in and out of the semblance of sentience. Even as Wolfson takes advantage of our susceptibility to perceive humanity everywhere, the emotive response is interrupted by the cruelty with which this uncanny figure is tossed about on his scaffold stage. Does the perception of humanity precede or emerge from the violence that is being wreaked upon the body that Wolfson presents?
Heavy steel chains and a limp form clatter and scrape across the gallery’s concrete floor. Mechanized pulleys move back and forth across parallel tracks, distributing and retracting the chain supports in a stilted choreography. The chains withdraw and the metal body ascends to reveal the caricatured form of a boy whose eyes, made of LCD screens, dart around the room to meet onlookers’ stares, tracking them in real time with face-recognition software. Mouth fixed in an expression that is both grimace of pain and hostile affront, this boy — less Huck Finn than Pinocchio, sans-nose — sways, suspended. The strange grace of this figure, as he is gently raised, toes seeming to articulate a regretful caress as they leave the floor, becomes even more fragile and poignant when, a moment later, this precious burden falls unceremoniously, clamorously to the ground.
The thunder of metal is joined precipitously by the Percy Sledge’s swelling vocals as “When A Man Loves a Woman” unexpectedly blasts from speakers overhead. The gallery is filled with a carnival’s promise of seedy spectacle and thrill; here though, you don’t have to pay to watch a chained bear, or boy, dance on chains from behind the security of a metal fence. The uninhibited violence of this display — expressed in the punished surfaces of the floor and the clown’s chipped, ravaged face — breaks brutally upon a viewer. An attendant, earbuds securely inserted, stands watchful, lest visitors stray too close.
Colored sculpture is a study in sadism. However, it remains unclear on which side of the fence the viewer identifies: as aggressor and instigator of this pathetic display, or as with empathy for this vulnerable humanoid creature. In one sense, Colored sculpture is its own master and puppet, wielding the whip to its own torturous destruction. After all, the boyish form is one with the chains mechanism that pulls it about in a self-contained cycle of violence and suffering. In a 2012 interview with Stefan Kalmár, Wolfson said that, “imagining something is a way of understanding to decide if it’s wrong or right,” posing his works as trials of moral fortitude. This sculpture comes to us as a question, a curiosity, about a world in which we can treat people as objects and objects as human beings.