Over the years, I have seen many shows of “outsider” or self-taught art from galleries in which autistic artists are usually denied a sense of agency in their own narratives — a characterization that is dehumanizing and, as a neurodivergent critic and curator, personally hurtful. So when Brooklyn micro-gallery Haul Gallery described artist Mike Hack as “a man with autism” in the opening lines of the exhibition announcement, I prepared for the worst. Instead, what I encountered was the rare show that prioritized Hack’s agency as both an artist and an autistic person.
Mike Hack and Haul Gallery’s proprietor, Max Lee, met in the early 2000s, when Hack reconnected with Lee’s mother, Jenny, who was Hack’s music therapist as a child. Hack sent Jenny VHS copies of videos and other ephemera he had made over the years, which caught the eye of the young Max. Now, Max Lee represents Hack at the gallery and maintains a digital archive of his work, some of which is currently on display at Haul.
Hack’s video work can be divided into two subsections: recordings of his performances and short videos that appropriate television clips from the early aughts. The wide range of material on view spans more than two decades of the artist’s practice, including Hack recording himself walking through a car wash (“Human Wash,” 2003) and his mash-ups of classic sitcoms (“Brady Bunch Voiceover,” 2005).
He is not an “internet artist,” due to his use of mostly outdated technologies, but his visual grammar and mischievous sense of humor emerge from the same DIY sensibilities that internet artists have embraced in the age of YouTube and social media platforms. Like Martine Syms, Petra Cortright, and others, Hack uses the accessibility of his chosen medium and America’s fixation on pop culture to analyze cultural norms and negotiate his own identity in a world that is so often hostile to neurodivergent people.
Although other videos demonstrate a more complex interweaving of influences and interpolations, the show’s highlight is “VH1 ROCK AUTISM PSA” (n.d.), which depicts Hack wearing a suit jacket and lip-syncing to a 2007 PSA released by VH1. While VH1’s PSA was intended to raise autism awareness, its language portrays autism as a debilitating disease in need of a cure — a description that many advocates reject as dismissing the potential for a full, happy life with autism. Hack is straight-faced and sober until the final sentence of his monologue, when he turns around only to reveal a hilariously hideous “rattail” hairstyle á la the aging rock stars recruited for the original video, undermining the ableist sentiments in the original clip through biting humor. The power in this moment lies not just in Hack’s slyly irreverent intervention but in the fact that this intervention comes from within the autistic community. The video and exhibition as a whole exemplify why neurodivergent artists and others in the art world don’t need galleries to offer paternalistic narratives under the guise of advocacy — we can speak for ourselves.
Mike Hack continues at Haul Gallery (24 9th Street, Trailer R, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn) through October 16. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
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