John Kelsey: The Pea Stakers
On ViewGalerie Buchholz
October 7 – November, 13, 2021
Coming face-to-face with most contemporary art, there is an expectation that the viewer will possess a catalogue of cultural or theoretical approaches necessary to “unlock” what may otherwise appear as an impenetrable blankness. Seasoned, as I am, with a poorly-armed arrival, I was surprised to enter John Kelsey’s newest exhibition at Galerie Bucholz, The Pea Stakers, feeling unprepared on the grounds of lack of familiarity with a Netflix show largely panned for its cultural insensitivity and American solipsism.
Fresh off a revisitation of Kelsey’s dense collected writings, Rich Texts, my initial walkthrough of The Pea Stakers felt akin to arriving black-tie at a barbecue. Twenty pastel portraits of Emily, the protagonist of the 2020 Netflix series Emily in Paris, are distributed in identical size and formation across Galerie Bucholz. Both in their impressionist rendering and in their seriality, there is an accessible—if not excessive—nod to Degas, who, 150 years ago, administered a similar treatment to the ballerinas of Paris. These 20 resurrected pastel screenshots of Emily jogging along the Seine are placed in proximity to several similarly delivered depictions of dog poop, and other stool-like objects. Each work, measuring no more than two feet in height or width, is flanked by two others of similar size, sprawling across the entirety of the long, railroad-style interior of New York’s Galerie Bucholz.
For those versed in Kelsey’s oeuvre, an undeclared simultaneity of condemnation and celebration may seem familiar. As a founding member of Bernadette Corporation, and later, Reena Spaulings, Kelsey has routinely posed both himself and his pseudonymous marionettes in a delicate balance between complicity in, and dissent from, the systems of distribution of artworks and identities, his own necessarily attached as a bonus to all transactions.
This is not the first time Kelsey has borrowed imagery from the critically discarded. In his 2014 solo exhibition at Galerie Meyer Kainer entitled The Canyons, Kelsey recreated in watercolor a series of production stills from the 2013 film of the same name. Despite the film’s supergroup ensemble of Paul Schrader, Bret Easton Ellis and Lindsey Lohan, it was dismissed on the basis of its indistinguishability from soft-core pornography.
Here, Kelsey takes his rehabilitation of the forlorn past content and into form, marching head-on into the non-grata of virtual reality. Posed at the furthermost end of the space is an attendant gallerist who offers to steward one’s journey into the Oculus Rift. Once mounted into the goggles, the outside world is visually muted as the viewer is transplanted into a 1:1 virtual cadaver of the exhibition space. The moment of submergence into virtual reality is accompanied by an immediate confrontation with what’s likely to be the least-assumed format to be placed in VR: the written word. My first impulse upon entering this face-to-face showdown with a floating, polygonal sheet of paper is to take a photo of it for later reflection. The reflex to defer digestion is so ingrained that I even reach for my purse, whose material qualities now seem distant, inaccessible by virtue of their lack of visual representation in VR. You can’t take this with you.
The disorienting immediacy of the face-off between the text and a reader who so desperately requires a revisitation coats the experience with an anxiety of loss that moves frictionless to the subject of the text itself: of dreaming, of writing, of writing while dreaming. Each of these states constitute a desire to mediate experience— to retell the world back to itself. It is through this retelling that a gorge is formed, between undiluted experience, and that which has been siphoned through the prism of fantasy. Like the dream, a text and the process of writing are mirages, ultimately irretrievable. Guarded by a box-office that does not permit re-entry.
Looking for a translation stone for the work, I ask the now invisible gallerist about Emily in Paris. Her voice, which answers from what I approximate is my rear-left, seems oddly akin to what I imagine a guided psychedelic trip would feel like in its disembodied character and its obvious lack of mutual surroundings. She explains that for many, Emily in Paris served as an escape, the belligerent idealism for which it was criticized by some offered others a reprieve into a parallax world void of infection and death rates. Viewers could take a temporary ride into the experience of a young advertising executive, whose only woes while living un-bordered and abroad is that of the dog shit she encounters on her morning run.
Corroborating this claim from inside the Oculus is impossible; the VR subject is unable to see Emily’s adornment on the surrounding walls. The digital facsimile of Bucholz is more sparsely hung than its real counterpart. And in this absence of Emily, one is re-confronted with the anxiety of recall, whereby the exhibition re-asserts its logic of impermanence: the impossible co-habitation of reality and fantasy. It is in this chasm between the real and simulation, dreams and waking life, writing and experience, that Kelsey forges a discursive no-man’s land hovering between these phenomenological spheres. Those familiar with Kelsey will know that his incisive re-orientations are often preceded by what may seem like an insincere gesture, and here it is no different. To arrive at this reflection on memory, language and escape by way of Emily in Paris is a feat well suited to the oeuvre of a man whose contributions to the mechanisms of art production and exhibition have largely been exercised via the squat-like inhabitation of a fictional 23-year-old girl.
Still submerged in VR, I’m sherpaed to the street-facing window of Bucholz, through which I’m afforded a view of a digitally modeled red sky. A quote suspends across the skyline, as if strung by some unpresent blimp, the lines of which unwillingly fade into some amorphous impression the moment I dismount from the VR simulation, left with only a dissolving souvenir.