“Cast your empire on a kingdom of doubts” is the title of a 2019 installation that serves as the centerpiece of Jon Pylypchuk’s current solo exhibition at Friedrich Petzel, Waiting for the Next Nirvana. Bounded by a shopworn Persian rug on a low platform, the piece features seven mid-sized figures arranged around a kind of joker king (inspired by Trump, according to the artist), joined by two cronies.
Typical of Pylypchuk’s figurative sculptures, these are cobbled from everyday objects and junkyard scraps: The “king” is primarily composed of a stack of tires, while the flanking figures are assembled from wood planks and tires, and the rest have soccer balls for heads and utility gloves for feet.
“Cast your empire” encompasses the poles of grandeur and dejection, and the tension of reconciling them, that define Pylypchuk’s aesthetic. Though the title sets the stage for failure, it’s the figures that embody the absurdity, and poignancy, of a kingdom of scraps and a court of fools.
Waiting for the Next Nirvana is the LA-based artist’s sixth solo show at Petzel since his 2001 gallery debut, The Crying, No Arms, Mournful Thoughts Society. With the current show the slackers and delinquents that populated earlier works have matured into parents and domestic partners; aside from “Cast your empire,” the show consists of collage-paintings that detail declarations of love (both romantic and familial), desire, and rejection among an intimate cast of characters crafted from fabric encrusted with glue, paint, glitter, and other materials on canvas.
Throughout his career Pylypchuk has confronted the most awkward and gut-wrenching parts of being human, his scrappy characters caught in existential (and sometimes real) battles between feelings of alienation and attempts to forge bonds and find value in a world of injustice, pain, and disappointment.
Born in 1972 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the central Canadian prairies, Pylypchuk was a founding member of the Royal Art Lodge, the mid-’90s collective of University of Manitoba art students known for their esoteric references and dreamlike, darkly surreal aesthetic.
The group gained international attention with the touring exhibition Ask the Dust (2003-4), but Pylypchuk left Winnipeg in 1996 to earn his MFA at UCLA. In Los Angeles, he was among a group of art-school grads — including artists Frances Stark, Pae White, and Laura Owens, and gallerists Steve Hanson and Giovanni Intra, founders of Pylypchuk’s first LA gallery, China Art Objects — who established a new art scene in Chinatown and repudiated both conventional materials and modes of exhibition and circulation.
The scene served as an incubator for Pylypchuk to develop his motifs into emotive collage-paintings and sculptures. In works from around 1999 and 2000, stick figures made of wood and fabric scraps hot-glued onto paper or board interact with melancholy pigment clouds or faux-fur animals, many grasping at something meaningful through a fog of insecurity or despair.
The contrast between the poverty of the materials and the gravity of the expressions is disarming. Yet the characters’ forlorn charm and their poetic turns of phrase are undercut by bursts of anger and callousness. In a 2016 podcast the artist explained, “I like this idea of something that could be considered cute also being malicious or somehow not so cute.”
This contrast culminated in 2006 with “Press a weight through life, and I will watch this crush you,” commissioned for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s inaugural exhibition, Meditations in an Emergency, curated by Klaus Kertess. The installation (which was reprised at Petzel in 2007 and Montreal’s Musee d’art contemporain in 2010-11) is a sprawling shantytown, built from materials scavenged in Detroit. Congregated outside of the rickety structures are human-animal hybrids that drink beer, hold pissing contests, fight, and pass out.
This aesthetic has roots in Southern California’s legacy of conceptualism, particularly in Mike Kelley’s explorations of social relations through the dynamics of suburban high schools and lower- and middle-class workplaces. But where Kelley asserted a critical distance between himself and his subjects, Pylypchuk collapses that distance by mining his own experience and emotions to produce a palpable sense of pathos.
At the same time, the internal and external dystopias that emerged from memories of his past, reified through creatures that are both “us” and “not-us,” are uncanny reflections of America’s dire social and economic climate, both then and now.
In an otherwise favorable 2007 Artforum review of “Press a weight” at Petzel, author Nick Stillman asserts that Pylypchuk’s work “eludes designation as ‘critical,’ largely because of its flippant humor.” Yet even in 2007, the precariousness of Pylypchuk’s shantytown conveyed a visceral sense of entropy, of a microcosmic world desperately trying to stay intact.
The Detroit iteration (the one I saw) felt neither flippant nor humorous, but rather like a portrait of perseverance in the face of adversity. Today, “Press a weight” evokes the homeless encampments that have become fixtures in the Los Angeles cityscape, while his characters in this and other installations call up images of people on the margins of society.
The mis-en-scene of “Press a weight” was followed by several works in which Pylypchuk abandoned the figure and narrative, aside from expressive titles, in favor of elemental disembodied heads. His next exhibition at Petzel, The War (2009-10), was a bestiary of faces illuminated with light-bulb eyes or back-lighting.
As a few critics noted at the time, the wall-mounted objects evoked the nonwestern masks that early European Modernists prized, yet the crude construction and mood lighting summoned a kind of return of the repressed filtered through an adolescent heavy-metal aesthetic. (In particular, the gnarled “Blanket” and molten black “Fire Teeth,” both 2009, hovered on the wall like chthonic demons; you could almost hear Napalm Death emanating from them.)
Pylypchuk reworked this format for a series of sculptures made from household objects — including sinks and toilets, in a Duchampian gesture. Bathos takes over from pathos in these works as he deflates the storied legacy of the readymade, without relinquishing his stake in it. The pieces also reflect the human impulse to project human traits onto things — for instance, to see faces in objects (pareidolia). In the aforementioned podcast he noted the appeal of modifying an object by adding two dots and a line to “convey a certain emotion sometimes through the most simple gesture.”
The artist’s characters are often plagued with vices and destructive patterns — codependent relationships, binge drinking, smoking (of actual cigarettes, by giant anthropomorphic cigarettes) — that will inevitably amplify their pain rather than assuage it. Yet more often than not, they hold out hope for something better, for unencumbered emotional exchanges or expressions of love, or simply to love and be loved.
Pylypchuk’s empathy for his creations shows through in flashes of vulnerability. In the 2002 work “Now how will we get around?,” two shopworn, multicolored humanoids slump on wheeled platforms, unable to walk, and ponder their predicament. There are no simple solutions in this world, but Pylypchuk conjures a sense of bitter resolve that equals that of the scrappy cat-boxers fighting for the highest stakes in 2005’s “i will stop fighting you when death stops fucking with me.”
Waiting for the Next Nirvana marks another stage in the artist’s development. The title is a play on the double meaning of “nirvana” as the Buddhism concept and the name of the epochal grunge band; both signal a nostalgia for an idealized past (underscored in Pylypchuk’s return to his early-2000s alter-ego, Rudy Bust) as well as hope for a better future that may never arrive.
Pylypchuk explained by email:
I was never a big fan of Nirvana but it still made my guts tingle when I first heard [Nevermind]. When I make stuff and I’m not thinking about it, to me that is my other nirvana, a place I can’t describe where nice things come from — a place of nothingness. Always waiting to be back there.
In “I used to be your internet kids” (2019), a tall figure stands between two shorter ones; all three are composed of pants collaged onto canvas, imbuing the works with another level of corporeality. The rumpled fabric lend the trio a disheveled look, the inverted pants recalling dirty rabbit ears, but a sheen of glitter on the lacquered surface adds luster to the mundane. It’s not a leap to see the central figure as a stand-in for Pylypchuk and other parents who feel the sting of irrelevance in their children’s independence.
The title piece, “Waiting for the Next Nirvana” (2019), depicts another rabbit-eared adult next to a diminutive figure. Indecision and anxiety spread across the grown-up’s sagging face and body. The abstract background — an atmospheric storm of indigo and brown erupting into fiery reds near the bottom — nearly blends in with the figures, threatening to subsume them, but for the orange polyurethane ooze spewing from the child’s mouth.
The intimacy of Waiting for the Next Nirvana is striking to encounter. The dramas in these pieces are impelled by the instincts to seek companionship and to feel needed. These are desires that afflict animals and humans alike. They are both utterly banal and vital. Central to Pylypchuk’s practice is the notion that the discards constituting his artworks are not elevated by their proximity to us. Rather, what elevates us is our recognition of ourselves in their frailties and foibles. They urge us to strive beyond our basest instincts and to rethink what it means to be human.
Jon Pylypchuk: Waiting for the Next Nirvana continues at Friedrich Petzel (456 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 29.