Broadly embracing the Minimal, the Conceptual, and the Relational, Patrick Killoran’s solo exhibition at Studio 10 zeroes in on the unlikeliest of subjects — contract law — with an off-kilter braininess that turns each piece into a game of mental catch-up.
Simultaneously plainspoken and densely theoretical, the three works that make up the show take very different approaches in terms of form and content, but each underscores the binding contract as the foundational institution of human exchange, as well as the silent, tentacular grip it holds on our lives.
The title of the exhibition is Exeunt Angels, which is a stage direction, according to the gallery’s press release, from Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (1604), “and refers to the end of transcendence in contractual law” — a very curious and otherwise unexplained statement.
The instruction “Exeunt Angels” appears four times in Marlowe’s text, indicating the exit from the stage of a pair of angels, one good and one evil, who briefly insert themselves into the action to exhort Faustus to do the right or wrong thing, respectively.
The reference thereby injects the concept of splitting, which is not mentioned in the gallery materials, into the exhibition’s contexts. The angels, as the externalization of Faustus’s warring impulses, never leave the stage (“exeunt”) at a point of resolution, but at a moment of maximum tension.
A contract, we’re reminded, is an invention not of cooperation but of mutual distrust, an attempt through language to unite intent and action, a fraught and fraying enterprise doomed to failure if not for the force of law.
The three pieces in the show take up the theme from acutely divergent angles, but for all of their strangeness as art objects and difference from each other, their formal rigor make for a coherent, even elegant presentation. The work most closely related to the Faust theme is “Shadow Inventory” (2007-ongoing), a series of sculptures based on the artist’s purchase of a participant’s shadow. A price is negotiated (no higher than the mid-two-figures) and a contract is signed. Killoran then traces the seller’s shadow, which he cuts out of a sheet of black rubber. The black rubber shadow also includes at its base a rectangle that folds over to form a portfolio, which holds the contract.
The shadow works were first shown in a solo exhibition at the Bindery Projects in Saint Paul, Minnesota, whose website contains some background information on the series. The idea was sparked when the artist found an early 19th-century etching by George Cruikshank illustrating the novella Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (Peter Schlemihl’s Amazing Story, 1814) by Adelbert von Chamisso, in which the devil is shown lifting Peter’s shadow off the ground:
The illustration was taken from the story of a man who sells his shadow to the devil in order to gain wealth and power. By the end of the story, the protagonist’s great loss and despair leads to a newly found capacity to contribute to society through an acknowledgment of his choice. Killoran’s work conflates this Faustian bargain with the legacy of the conceptual art contract.
The splitting that occurs in this work is between the seller and the shadow, though it is entirely symbolic. The seller retains his or her shadow, even if Killoran technically “owns” it. This is a fairly complex social and economic construct, prompting thoughts of just how much of our lives is “owned” by others, a realm that has extended in recent times from the perennial estrangement we feel from our labor to matters of privacy and control. In Killoran’s artwork, the sale of the shadow — which is symbolic of our solidity in space, our presence on Earth — is an act of volition, a monetization of our individuality that’s a little more self-conscious but no less invasive than logging on to Facebook or doing a Google search.
The downbeat creepiness of the exchange is enhanced by Killoran’s choice of Marlowe’s tragedy as a touchstone for the exhibition, for while von Chamisso’s tale of Peter Schlemihl ends with the hero’s salvation, as does Goethe’s Faust, Marlowe’s Faustus is dragged to hell. Commodification in any form is necessarily a downward spiral.
The anxious interconnectedness between the owner and the owned is refocused in “Rebound” (2004-ongoing). The artist has rebound books from his library with uniform paper covers emblazoned with a contract enumerating the conditions upon which the gallery visitor may take one away. (“When you are finished reading, give me to another person. Do not keep me in storage or put me on the shelf, deliver me to the next reader.”) The statement ends with “I HAVE NO OWNER, ONLY READERS.”
The show’s press release calls the work “an extended reflection on the question of property and on the structures for the transmission of knowledge,” and our first impression is most likely to view it as an act of generosity, an explicit rejoinder to the insidious commodification suggested by “Shadow Inventory.” But then we might pause and ask: So why the restrictions? Why not just give your books away to whomever wants them, and do with them what they please?
In a subterranean way, the split that this piece exploits between conventional monetary exchange and the “free” transaction proposed by the artist becomes a moral burden. The contract is unenforceable except for the strength of the individual’s ethical code.
We are left with the decision of whether or not to pass the book along, as promised, with whatever trouble or enjoyment that entails. But if that choice becomes a crisis of conscience, it is dwarfed by the dark economic matrix into which our actual money is atomized every time we spend a dollar. As with anything else, we magnify what we fix in our gaze, while the monstrous periphery escapes our notice.
In terms of gallery space, “[sic] 1” (2015) is the most commanding work in the show. Composed of only two elements, a white-on-black wall text on the north wall and an enormous mirror facing it on the south, it has a striking presence redolent of classical Minimalism and Conceptualism. The piece, however, is decidedly political — taking as its subject the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision — and the text is backwards, so that it is readable only in the mirror.
The backwards text is an excerpt from the Court’s opinion, stating in part:
The Court has thus rejected the argument that political speech of corporations or other associations should be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not “natural persons.”
By “natural persons,” we may ask, does the Court mean persons with a shadow? The division between the two walls suggests the split between the real world, rendered unrecognizable by power and money, and the looking-glass world, the only place where a decision equating corporate bodies with human bodies makes sense. By deciding that all political donations are protected by the First Amendment, the commodification of our essence — our ideas and beliefs — is complete.
A further complication is that in an ideal world, contracts wouldn’t be necessary — interactions would be governed by honesty and trust, as the giving chain of “Rebound” attempts to do (though freighted in the real world by anxiety, bother and guilt) — and the split that Faustus faces between the good and evil angels wouldn’t exist. Moral enlightenment would imply a unitary being.
But Citizens United raises the status of corporations and associations wholly governed by contracts — individuals legally bound by common interests, for good or ill — to that of the unbound “natural person.” The men without shadows have claimed their due.
Patrick Killoran: Exeunt Angels continues at Studio 10 (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through February 1.