Vanity, Thy Name Is Man

Deb Sokolow, “Mr. John F Kennedy and Mr. Kenneth Noland” (2016), graphite, crayon, colored pencil, and collage on paper, 11 x 14 x 1 inches (all images courtesy Western Exhibitions, photo by James Prinz) (click to enlarge)

CHICAGO — I was hooked by the time I finished reading “Mr. John F. Kennedy and Mr. Kenneth Noland” (2016), a text-filled drawing written in pencil in large and distinct capital letters that reminded me of penmanship practice in elementary school. In this work, presented in a shallow, simply made box resembling a maquette for a minimalist sculpture made from afar, Deb Sokolow connects Kennedy and Noland through Mary Meyer, who was the lover of both men, and who was murdered in October 1964, a crime that remains unsolved. However, instead of focusing on the woman (whom Sokolow never names), she creates a fiction based on Noland’s nine-year involvement with Reichian therapy, which promised to release inhibitions and improve the adherent’s relationship to sex and sexuality.

In Sokolow’s version, Noland gives Kennedy an orgone accumulator, a box-like object that Wilhelm Reich developed to help patients rid themselves of inhibiting factors, or what he called “armoring,” that prevented them from enjoying sex. The patient was to sit inside.

We are most likely meant to infer that Noland sends the orgone accumulator to help Kennedy with his sexual vigor as well as his many physical ailments, including his well-known back problems. However, as Sokolow writes in her last sentence:

Upon receiving the special delivery in the oval office, Mr. Kennedy chuckles with the secret knowledge that his sex drive needs no additional assistance since his daily amphetamine cocktail for back pain also works so well for his private moments with many beautiful women.

Deb Sokolow, “CIA failed assassination attempt on Mr. Fidel Castro. Mr. Donald Judd (detail)” (2016), graphite, crayon, colored pencil, and collage on two panels, 50 x 76 x 3 inches (photo by Aron Gent) (click to enlarge)

Sokolow divides her text into four separate sections, each a sentence long, with the capital letters neatly fitting inside the lined format she has drawn on cream-colored paper. The work’s appearance and content reminded me of the first few sentences in Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art:

1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.

2. Rational judgements repeat rational judgements.

3. Irrational judgements lead to new experience.

4. Formal art is essentially rational.

5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.

Sokolow’s first sentence is factual and forms the springboard for the artist’s carefully choreographed flight of fancy. Each subsequent sentence builds on the premises of the preceding one. Like a trapeze artist, she knows exactly when to let go of the bars in order to move on to others. They say that timing is everything, and Sokolow seems to be a master of it. She never goes too far, and never writes more than we need. What makes her pieces successful is their pitch-perfect blend of handwritten letters, drawing, collage, weirdness, and plausibility, all in service of depicting men in the process of achieving more authority and control. This and other works on the theme of power can be found in Deb Sokolow: Men at Western Exhibitions (September 17 – November 5, 2016).

In another work, “The Embarrassing Incident at the Kremlin” (2016), Sokolow recounts, in straightforward descriptive prose, an actual event that took place in March 2015, when President Putin hosted a group of women at the presidential palace in Moscow to celebrate International Woman’s Day. It seems none of the President’s aides informed the women to wear flats rather than high heels, because in official photographs, no one can appear taller than Putin, whose height is believed to be between 5’ 2” and 5’ 5”. As a result, they were instructed to bend their knees when they were photographed with the President. The kicker is Sokolow’s claim that the Kremlin later solved height differentials by installing an adjustable floor, which, if you think about the extent of Putin’s vanity, seems altogether believable, and which inevitably raises the question of how far a man with immense power might go to uphold his self-image. Sokolow adds a further note of absurdity by claiming that the former French Present Nicolas Sarkozy, who is officially 5’ 5”, “is brought in to advise Kremlin staff on possible solutions to avoid height compromising situations.”

Deb Sokolow, “Mr. David Copperfield and the Great Wall of China (detail)” (2016), graphite, crayon, colored pencil, and collage on paper, 30 x 22 x 1 inches (photo by Aron Gent)

What further endeared me to Sokolow’s work were the afterthoughts she adds to the text, usually in the margins, and the places where she whites-out and redoes the letters. In “The Embarrassing Incident at the Kremlin,” we read in the margin beside Sarkozy’s official height that we don’t know what his unofficial height is. Is he shorter than his official height? By some unlikely chance is he actually taller? How will we ever know? And is it really that important?

Sokolow’s interest in the well-known illusionist David Copperfield, who once made the Statue of Liberty briefly disappear, an act which purportedly interested Putin, reminds us that everything we see, especially in politics, may in fact be an illusion, a form of deception, a cover-up – all of which appeals to anyone who has ever entertained a conspiracy theory. For all the deadpan humor running through Sokolow’s work, along with a sharply attuned fascination with human foibles, one also senses her utter amazement: can people really be serious about these things? Are they really that important? If you find the answers disturbing, you are not alone.

Deb Sokolow: Men continues at Western Exhibitions (845 W Washington Blvd., Chicago, Illinois) through November 5.

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