An artist whose work is hinged on pop culture referents often suffers the threat of Warholian comparison, especially if the artist is gay, white, male and based in New York. But for Jonathan Horowitz the dogma of pop art provides an arsenal of touchstones and gimmicks that gives his work a currency which pushes it headfirst into the 21st century. The esoteric nature of his work is at times bewildering, but effectively draws it away from the commodity based, capitalist realist nature of its older pop art brother, while his social and political references—however ambiguous—ridicule contemporary popular culture in a fashion more akin to network TV’s social and political satire.
A survey show of this size for any mid-career artist is a definite test, and for Horowitz this test questions the longevity of his practice and the effectiveness of his wry wit in this extensive, multiplicitious environment. His in-jokes and occasional one-liners stand up to the rapid fire viewing of an exhibition of this scale, but are at times diluted by the activity created by adjacent works. This large grouping spans a relatively short period. With the majority of the works on show from the past decade, he highlights both our apathy in receiving the subject matter of film, TV, music, print and politics, and the apathetic nature of viewing contemporary art, in its many homogenised guises.
This P.S.1 exhibition is no exception, and to an extent some of the works’ depth and complexity is affected by other strong, simpler works as they are viewed with equal, skimming, attention. It’s not often that an artist can demonstrate intricate, though stimulating, ideas in both ambitious and basic works, while at the same time maintaining their perceived relevance in relation to the emphasis we give their media in the everyday.
In this way one of the most effective works, ‘The Soul of Tammi Terrell’, 2001, functions on many levels but is primarily effective as it is the loudest, most familiar work in the space it is shown. The comparison is immediate between the lip-syncing Tammi Terrell/Marvine Gaye duo on one screen, alongside a lip-syncing Susan Sarandon in a clip form the 1998 movie Stepmom. Horowitz toys with the false dichotomy of the relationship between the two channels of video—with additional irony provoked by the fact that (if you were to know) Tammi Terrell died from a brain tumour and Sarandon’s character is diagnosed with a life threatening cancer. The teenage audience singing along in the gallery is smugly ignorant, contented that they know the words to the song, let alone get the comparisons: black/white, life/art and so on.
The eventuality of death, and the reality of images’ potential to outlive their subject and originator, provides a striking presence that can be felt throughout the exhibition, helping to keep the irony fatigue at bay. In this context the 1996 video ‘mon.-sun.’ is particularly notable; a video plays the corresponding day of the week from a library of tapes marked Monday through Sunday and is changed accordingly each day by a member of the gallery staff. The banality of this and similar works act as counterweight to the more comedic in the exhibition, providing a well paced rhythm to the circuit-like exhibition design.
Horowitz courts celebrity in his work, and often mocks our relationships with the familiar imagery he uses. This is most explicit in works like, ‘Portrait of Chrissie Hynde (I Hope the Muslims Win)’, 2003, or ‘Jerry Lewis Story’, 2003, in which he uses combination and comparison to create narratives for recognisable characters, or in ‘Rainbow American Flag on Pink Field of Jasper in the Style of Artist’s Boyfriend’, 2007, in which he outs Jasper Johns to anyone who is interested—or cares.
The combination of works like ‘Neon Cross for Two’, 2002, and ‘Portrait of Elizabeth Taylor (AIDS Activist)’, 2003, take on a dyadic meaning in their proximity and are, along with the Johns, most explicit in indicating that the entire exhibition can be read with a degree of queer theory—if you weren’t already swayed by the exhibitions campy exuberance.
The idea of continuation without presence, supernatural or otherwise, is extended in ‘Silent Movie’, 2003, where Horowitz provides a independent piano soundtrack to a video edited together with excerpts from four films: The Story of Esther Costello, Miracle Worker, Tommy and Johnny Belinda . All these films feature leads that lack the power of speech. In the same space ‘Silent Movie Poster (Jodie Foster)’, 2003, hangs opposite—the quote ‘I’ve always chosen not to talk about my personal life. It just trivialises it when you see it in print.’ highlights Foster’s sexuality, the medium of film and the social implications of its industry.
On such a scale Horowitz’s work can be identified as functioning primarily by comparison, where two familiar subjects are combined in satirical humour. His complex and sometimes impenetrable narratives ridicule the quite complacent ways in which we view contemporary art, its political impotence, and its resignation to the culture it seeks to inform. That isn’t to say that Horowitz’s work isn’t serious. Most simply put, Horowitz is serious about his work.
Steven Cairns is co-editor of MAP