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LOS ANGELES — Mathieu Malouf’s current solo show at Jenny’s in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles features several brightly-colored images of a tombstone. Silkscreened onto silver-chromed resin and sprinkled with diamond dust, the vibrant, glittering works recall Warhol’s elegiac series of shadows, electric chairs, and skulls. But unlike Warhol’s works, these images are distorted and degraded in emulation of the “deep fried” aesthetic of some online memes. Malouf’s tombstone marks the grave of Jesse Helms, the conservative senator who, thirty years ago, led the charge to prohibit the National Endowment for the Arts from funding work that he found morally objectionable, singling out Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano specifically. Malouf appropriates Mapplethorpe’s photograph, “Cock and Gun” (1982) in another work, and in one sense, this could be read as a response to the reactionary censorship embodied by Helms.
Then, however, there is the show’s title: #luketurnerisretarded, which lobs an ableist slur at Luke Turner, a British artist who has been a consistent target of harassment over the past few years, from the political alt-right and from within the art world itself. There is also a sculpture of a black-clad figure with a bushy beard and bulbous, pink nose that is based on a muppet-like statue by KAWS. The work is titled “Tankie Meme (Blacked)” — “tankie” being a pejorative term for hard-line communists. Its eyes are filled with hammer and sickle insignias, and it sports a fedora similar to Turner’s. Given the work’s cartoonish appearance and its title, Turner criticized it on Twitter as “grotesque antisemitic caricatures that draw on Judeo-Bolsheivk [sic] stereotypes,” calling it “CLEAR-CUT institutionalized antisemitism.” (Turner is Jewish.)
On a now-deleted Instagram post on Jenny’s account announcing the show, which opened February 16, the comments were mostly full of outrage, with a few voices of support. “Wtf? What is this? Luke Turner is a victim of antisemitic violence, what on earth is this show?” read one. “Aggressive antisemitism and ableism, especially aimed at one individual is gross. You should be shut down,” read another.
“Where’s the antisemitism?” asked a dissenting voice. “Seems like someone poking fun at an egomaniac.” “[Y]ou have little Jesse Helms comments right here lol,” commented the artist Heji Shin, who also happens to be Malouf’s wife. Shin, whose work will be included in the upcoming Whitney Biennial, is known to court controversy herself, making “a stand against politically correct culture,” as Artnet recently noted, with her recent show of massive photographs of Kanye West at the Kunsthalle Zurich.
An important reference for the exhibition, which is not mentioned in the gallery press materials, comes from the Red Scare Podcast, hosted by self-described “bohemian layabouts” Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova. Turner had criticized their casual use of the word “retarded” in their podcast, describing it as “demeaning & harmful behaviour” on Twitter. Khachiyan was subsequently banned from Twitter last November, presumably for using the word in tweets directed at Turner. Turner was blamed by the hosts and their supporters for shutting down her account but there has been no definitive proof of that.
Turner turned down a request to speak on the record (as did Jenny’s and Malouf, through an email from Jenny’s), but did furnish Hyperallergic with a record of “sustained multi-dimensional harassment” which he considers Malouf’s show to be the latest example of.
It began two years ago, when the trio of Turner, actor and filmmaker Shia LaBeouf, and Finnish artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö installed their durational work “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” on the wall outside the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, with the support of celebrities like Jaden Smith. The work was a response to the election of Donald Trump, inviting the public to utter the titular phrase into a camera, which would be live-streamed 24/7. The Museum pulled the plug on the project after only a few weeks due to public safety concerns brought on by confrontations with alt-right agitators who sought to derail the project.
The trio, which operates under the name LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, relocated the work to a secret site in Tennessee. After only one day, a flag from the project was stolen by members of the Neo-Nazi Traditionalist Workers Party. Turner has documented a string of incidents following this event, from “two arson attacks by neo-Nazis and white supremacists” to “a foiled murder plot by armed white nationalists,” alongside a wave of online harassment, much of which was virulently anti-Semitic.
Then there is the convoluted matter of the 2018 Athens Biennale. Last fall, Turner released a statement announcing his withdrawal from the Biennale “due to the organisers’ collective failure to take any decisive stand against the abusive behaviour of another of the invited artists, and their campaign of berating and harassing individuals fighting fascism and antisemitism, particularly within the art world.”
This began when artist Deanna Havas “liked” a tweet featuring a drawing of a group of Pepe the Frogs (a once-benign cartoon character co-opted by the alt-right) stealing the “He Will Not Divide Us” flag. (Havas, who is of Jewish descent, is known for her controversial online presence, often tweeting statements expressing sympathy with the alt-right and voicing support for Donald Trump.) After an online argument between the two, another artist featured in the biennial, Daniel Keller (who is also Jewish), entered the fray, accusing Turner of “punching down” for criticizing a less-successful artist (Havas), and calling him a “bitch” and a “dickhead.” On March 3, Keller tweeted at Turner: “How is it not clear that people on the left, like me, hate what you’re doing far more than the alt-right, who only want to troll you (and easily succeed). Your incessant ego-fueled whining trivializes antisemitism at a time when it is resurgent. You are a menace to Jewish people.”
Turner told the organizers he could not participate in the Biennale with Keller, and after an investigation, they issued a statement reading: “No substantial evidence was offered or discovered proving that Daniel Keller supports anti-semitic or fascist ideas, on Twitter or elsewhere. Daniel Keller’s work, and specifically the work he will be exhibiting at the Athens Biennale, offers a critical, thorough analysis of today’s reactionary politics and the alt-right.” Turner withdrew from the show.
Last December, Turner was once again the subject of an art world quarrel, this time with Benjamin H. Bratton, a visual arts professor and director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego. In a post on the Walker Art Center’s online magazine, Bratton recounted the story of a British artist named “Mark Booker” — a stand-in for Turner — who was engaged in a performance piece “to be the most twee, unlikable, self-congratulatory, politically-adolescent Art Brat imaginable.” The piece ends with Booker being suspended from Twitter for re-posting alt-right memes.
On January 24th of this year, Turner published a post titled “The Walker Art Center is Platforming Antisemitism” in which he outlines the ways that Bratton’s text is “unambiguously antisemitic,” including insinuating that the theft of the “He Will Not Divide Us” Flag was faked. Paul Schmelzer, the Managing Editor of the Walker Reader, responded to Turner’s accusations via email, writing: “[Bratton] states that his intention was to satirize and critique particular tendencies in some kinds of politically engaged social practice art. While his text was cutting in its critique, we find no evidence to support your assertions that this text is ‘part of a wider campaign rooted in antisemitism.’” The post is part of a series that has recurred annually and asks art world figures to comment on the past year.
The press release for Malouf’s show at Jenny’s misspells the artist’s name as Maloeuf, an apparent riff on the name of Turner’s art partner, Shia LaBoeuf.
In Malouf’s show, the online world is made manifest, bringing memes and internet aesthetics into the space of the gallery. That is not the only part of the digital space it recreates, however, dragging in the ugliness of the 4chan chat room and giving physical form to debates about what kind of internet we want, pitting irony against sincerity, openness vs. regulation, and weaponizing adolescent taunts to affect a much larger audience than they were intended for.
“Stunning maturity level of supposed adults here – ” began one of the last comments posted before Jenny’s Instagram post about the exhibition was deleted, “laughing in the faces of those expressing concern at the straight up antisemitism and attack on an artist with ableist and homophobic language while hiding behind an outrageously false equivalency between silencing minority voices and speaking out against racism, ableism, fascism, and antisemitism.”
Editor’s Note (3/20/19): This article has been updated to include added context about the exhibition title.
Editor’s Note (3/20/19): The word “attack” was changed to “quarrel” as Bratton reached out to Hyperallergic to indicate he considers the interaction a criticism.