EssaysWeekend

Single Point Perspective: A New Series

John Avelluto, "Winner"
John Avelluto, “Winner” (2009), acrylic on masonite, 6 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches (courtesy the artist)

In the latest spate of sordidness to emerge from the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State pedophile scandal, an unnamed informant “with knowledge of aspects of an independent investigation” has told The New York Times:

E-mail correspondence among senior Penn State officials suggests that [the university’s late head coach, Joe] Paterno influenced the university’s decision not to formally report the accusation against Sandusky to the child welfare authorities …

Given the tawdriness of the tale as it has unraveled since Sandusky’s arrest on November 5, 2011, this allegation, which was published last weekend, didn’t come as much of a surprise. The behavior of the Penn State officials who had the power to do something about Sandusky followed the same playbook of manipulation and willful blindness copyrighted by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church when confronted by the same abuses within its ranks.

As Joe Drape of the Times wrote in his recapitulation of events following Sandusky’s conviction on June 22nd:

Sandusky had been investigated by the campus police for possible sexual crimes against children as far back as 1998; in 2001, a graduate assistant in the football program, who was a former Penn State quarterback, had told Paterno and then other university officials that he had seen Sandusky sexually attacking a 10-year-old boy in the football building showers.

No one — not Paterno, not the graduate assistant, not the other university officials — ever reported the attack to the police. Sandusky, who had retired two years before but retained an office and privileges on campus, was merely told not to take boys onto campus any longer.

Whenever this parade of grotesquery reappeared in the headlines, an image would pop into my mind’s eye: a painting by John Avelluto called “Winner” (2009).

“Winner” consists of two drips of paint running down the faux wood grain face of a masonite panel: the one on the left, in light blue, stops about three-quarters of the way down, while its pink counterpart barely makes it off the top edge.

Under the blue drip, crude block letters, as if scrawled in pencil, spell out the word “WINNER.” The pink one, even more crudely, is labeled “ASSHOLE.”

The stark dichotomy laid out in this work (with a simplicity that belies the artist’s intensively rendered simulationism — an alternate reality created entirely out of acrylic paint), while very funny on the surface, also has a direct bearing on the unseemliness of the officials’ response.

As a metaphor of capitalist-fueled competitiveness, the contest between the blue and pink drips (gender associations noted) is not even close. The epithets of a gentler era — underdog, also-ran, day late and a dollar short — do not apply. In this blinkered worldview, to be a loser — or perhaps more precisely, to not be a winner — is to be beneath contempt.

This is played out in formal, semiotic, sexual and art historical terms (the stately striations of wood grain against the jumbled diagonals of the block-lettered “ASSHOLE,” the barely literate scrawl of the graffiti, the testosterone-stoked blue and feminine pink, the wry evocation of drip-painting machismo): a blunt satire that asserts the unspoken.

Of course Sandusky was given free rein to victimize one child after another: he was a winner, and if you’re a winner, there’s nothing that can’t be swept under the rug. You might notice something, you could stick your neck out, but you don’t want to be an asshole, do you? And the cycle continues.

The debate over art and life — where one leaves off and the other picks up, which one imitates the other, or whether there is even a valid distinction between the two anymore — is endless. But art and life intersect constantly in an infinitely flexible matrix.

Those intersections will be the focus of Single Point Perspective, a new occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend. The series will feature texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.

When Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) devised the system of perspective, it was used as an optical device that helped redefine painting as an illusionistic window on the world, a notion long ago disabused by modern and contemporary thought.

It is useful, though, to think of single point perspective not as an abstracted field of vision narrowing to a dot on the horizon, but as a hub where ideas both converge and expand.

While I know Avelluto personally, I have no idea whether the inferences I’ve read into “Winner” bear any resemblance to his conception of the piece. But no matter. Art, artist and viewer each occupy diverse points on the matrix, separated by an ever-expanding number of points unknown.

“Winner” (2009) is on view at Studio 10 (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) as part of Text, a group exhibition featuring work by John Avelluto, Mary Carlson, Meg Hitchcock and Audra Wolowiec, through July 22.

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