There is a meta-game available for use in the United
States. The rules of the game, or even that there is a
game at all, are hidden to some. The uninitiated are
called naive or provincial, lairs or suckers. To those
unabused by an awareness of back door maneuvering, a
whole world of deceit remains opaque. Those in the dark
are still ripe for exploitation.
—Cady Noland, from “Towards a Metalanguage of Evil”
The current show at Gagosian, Portraits of America: Diane Arbus/Cady Noland is in a small gallery reachable only by walking into and through the Gagosian’s Upper East Side gift shop. In order to see the exhibition, to enter the gallery, one must first pass through this physical barrier.
Entering the gallery, the first thing one sees is Noland’s chain-link fence. To the left of the fence are a cluster of four photographs by Diane Arbus, and next to them one lone photograph. The fence is both a buffer between the outside world and Noland’s work, as well as a separation between the work of Arbus and the work of Noland. You see, though the two artists are included in this show, their work is similar only in a rudimentary way.
Inside the fence are two additional works: “Lee Harvey Oswald Ice Floe” (1990) and “Bloody Mess” (1988). “Bloody Mess” is just what it says it is: a mess. Or, rather, what appears to be the remains of an act of police brutality: 11 beer cans and a 40 ouncer, a headlamp, handcuffs, chains, shock absorber, rubber mats, carpet, headlight bulbs, and “police equipment.” What we have here is the relic of what’s left behind, the skid marks of violence. Like much of her work, the piece is a mere afterimage, the white shock of camera flash after the accident. This is the main difference between Noland’s work and the work of Diane Arbus.
Arbus’s work is the documentation of freak shows. The viewer, when looking at Arbus’s work, is given glimpses of the other half, the strange, the unseemly. These are the familiar caricatures of America, what Harmony Korine and David Lynch would later capitalize on. This assumes the viewer is of a certain class: educated, refined, inside the “system.” We are in on the joke. The gaze is ours — we are the ones in power. We are the “normal.” What we are peering into when we peer into an Arbus frame is the degenerate. The aspirational, the almost-not-quite-upwardly mobile, the nouveau riche.
The viewer, when looking at Arbus’s work, is given glimpses of the other half, the strange, the unseemly.
Noland’s work, in contrast, gives us no frame. There is no frame to Noland’s strange tombs of John Wayne, or Lee Harvey Oswald. In all of these pieces, as well as the similar works,
“CLIP-ON MAN” (1989), “Make a Picnic Out of You” (1993), and “SLA group shot no. 4″ (1990), Noland has quite literally turned the billboard on its head. In these works the images are either upside down or leaning against walls. These may not seem strange until you realize they are art, they could be hung. They are the closest Noland will get to paintings, but these are not paintings.
There is no frame to a pile of beer bottles and other strewn objects—the objects are in our frame. We are inside the frame, we are the freaks. Where Arbus’ photographs have always seemed to me to be cruel, the popular girl laughing at the less fortunate, Noland has us in her sights. Even so, there is no cruelty in her work. We are the ones guilty of cruelty. We are the ones inside the frame, moving about. The joke is on us. What we want is to “make a picnic” out of other people’s misfortunes.
The overblown “billboard” tombs are in actuality blown up images of newspaper articles. The people caught in the photographs have been hijacked, in a sense, inside the frame of the photograph. Now they are at our disposal. In these works, we are able to see how we treat other people when they are caught inside the stream of our judgment. Like celebrities in US or People Magazine, the text surrounding such figures tends to be assaultive, violent. We like to tear people apart. In Noland’s piece, “Make a Picnic out of You,” we see just this: photographs of girls from the Manson gang, blown up. Now we can aim our vitrilence at them. When in actuality, there is a real human reason behind these events. Real human beings found themselves in these situations. Much of Noland’s work can be “read” with her essay, “Towards a Metalanguage of Evil” in mind. In this essay, written in 1987, Noland writes:
Tabloids already use many of the game’s tactics by foreshortening and
cropping celebrities, blowing them up, and, in the case of NATIONAL
ENQUIRER television commercials, reducing them to photo-objects
and then animating these objects. These papers regularly publish little
bits of the rules gleaned from popular psychology books about how to
While viewing the show, I had the eerie sense that I was at a show of two dead artists. Of course, I know Arbus is dead. She died in 1971. And, of course, I know Noland is not. And yet — the entire time I was inside the gallery there was 1960’s soundtrack playing in the background. While I was there, Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” played, as well as a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.” When I asked the girl at the register, inside the gift shop, what soundtrack we were listening to, she said The Kinks on Pandora. Of course. The show is anchored inside a frame of time — the late ’60s, Hippiedom. What this does is defuse the power of the work. Set in the ’60s, the work “makes sense.” Of course, I thought, these images are from that time period. But the problem with folding these works nicely into history is that we get to walk out of the gallery telling ourselves, these kinds of things don’t happen anymore. That’s the problem with history—we get to leave with our hands clean as if the issues Noland is pointing to are no longer an issue.
And like poems, Noland’s works infer, they suggest, while Arbus’s say.
Similarly, the Arbus photographs give the Noland pieces a narrative, which also neutralizes the work. For example, Noland’s piece, “Untitled” (1986), a set of eight disparate objects (bullets, hand grenades, coke and beer cans, and chain link fence) encased in Plexiglas cubes is positioned directly beneath Arbus’s photograph, “ Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park.” Both pieces, powerful, alone, lose their force when placed together. Together, they form a narrative, a story, and what a story does here is remove the charge. When I first came across the Arbus photograph in her retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005, I was blown away. The look on the boy’s face, his body language, his stance, along with the hand grenade (I thought it was real), was as powerful as the weapon itself. Noland’s pile of weaponry is troubling in a similar way, too: the bullets and grenades are combined with coke and beer and a fence, everyday objects. And yet: placed together, the works make “sense.” They make a “story,” which is to say, they become mere tools for our entertainment.
In her essay “Towards a Metalanguage of Evil,” Noland describes the inner workings of the psychopath who, she explains, “shares the societally sanctioned characteristics of the entrepreneurial male.” Who is the psychopath, here? Given the context of Noland’s text, we are. Peering into the rooms of strangers, surveying the lives of others. And, of course, the art world: with its machinations, its secret back doors, its laddering of power.
Where Noland’s pieces, like those of Isa Genzken or Felix Gonzalez-Torres, are objects that work as poems, Arbus’s photographs are essays. And like poems, Noland’s works infer, they suggest, while Arbus’s say. To say is to have the final word, is to make an assertion about a topic. Noland’s works don’t do that. They refuse to. Her pieces are exploratory—they open out. She means to unravel for us what we might not get to on our own. Her project, her sculptures as well as her essay, point us in a direction, as if she is whispering, Go down that path. There is no final statement, no conclusion. She has left that space open for us; left it open so we can do the thinking.
Portraits of America: Diane Arbus/Cady Noland continues at the Gagosian Gallery (976 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 19.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!