Nobody’s Chump: Carlo Ferraris at LYNCH THAM
Carlo Ferraris: I’m no longer obsessed with winning at LYNCH THAM
April 15 to June 7, 2015
175 Rivington Street, between Attorney and Clinton streets,
New York City, 212-387-8190
Carlo Ferraris’s small, darkly disturbing exhibition at LYNCH THAM succeeds in covering a lot of ground quickly, ranging from the inwardness of his own essence to the vast grid of Manhattan. Ferraris has been calling himself a “conceptual photographer” but here shows epigrammatic sculptures on plinths, subtle sound installations, and three completely different short videos –– not to mention a couple of photographic works that are far more visceral than conceptual. One of these, Me and Millions of Me (2014), is a self-portrait with a twist of self-love, and a second twist of self-humiliation. In this digital print the lean, brooding artist, who convinces as an aloof rock star in one of the videos, poses casually in a tee shirt. A closer look reveals a dollop on his face, which, in light of the work’s title, is likely to elicit a strong reaction –– revulsion, lust, anger, or pity, perhaps –– from the suddenly self-conscious viewer.
There are two other auto-phallocentric works in the show: an electric cooking coil unwound into an adolescent graffito, and a window installation involving 35-mm transparencies of the artist at the forge, fabricating a suspiciously lifelike, red-hot steel dildo. Undeniably solipsistic, these works gain objectivity by association with the exhibition’s broad, cool approach to reversals of meaning. One work, in which a steel-belted radial spins in place on motorized rollers, quite literally turns language upside-down, as despite its title, Going North East (2015) is in fact going nowhere. On the tire’s rim is a circulating whitewall logo, the word “chump” written in tricky script that somehow reads the same in every orientation. By itself, this appropriation of a century-old rotational ambigram (one-upping Ed Ruscha’s household palindromes) is a clever enough piece of work, and the pathos of the economy-brand tire used here induces some nostalgia for all those heraldic Goodyears and brawny Firestones assisting at the birth of Pop Art.
But more than this, because the sculpture is part of an oeuvre which elsewhere is unafraid to get down and dirty, its endlessly circulating accusation leaves emotional tread marks: who, after all, is the “chump?”
“I am no longer obsessed with winning,” another unreliable text, is the title both of the show as a whole and of the most astonishing of its three videos, from 2013. The phrase lifts itself by its own bootstraps out of touristic footage of the Times Square area. The four-minute video, presented on an off-kilter flatscreen, seems to be a studio-produced Hip Hop music video, a free-verse stream of consciousness laid over a cool groove, and then accompanied by random images of crowds, traffic, neon marquees, and so on. But wait –– didn’t the rapper just declaim word-for-word the text of that ad on the side of that bus? That flashed on that Times Square super-screen? That walked past on that girl’s shirt? Yes, yes, and yes: it’s the music that accompanies the video, with perfectly credible cadences such as “Never trust a criminal until you have to,” and “How can you explain the unexplainable?” scripted from fragments of the videographic flow. The title phrase, with its supposed relinquishment of ambition, is also embedded: indistinguishable from the rest of the sloganeering, it scrolls across a news ticker at the very crossroads of the consumer world.
The idea of lyric text arising from purely visual logic is not new, going back at least to Futurist and Dada precedents. And I once saw John Linnell of the band, They Might Be Giants, compose a song on the fly with precisionist lyrics matched to projected slides shot from his apartment window. Yet Ferraris’s reverse-engineered music video is not a recap of F.T. Marinetti or Kurt Schwitters; it works too smoothly for that. The anonymous MC (no credit is given for music production or performance, so we may take it as strictly commercial outsourcing) makes the words sound profound, even grave –– including numerical countdowns that come close to parodying minimalist opera. Did Ferraris, an Italian living in New York, edit the text-bearing video like a ransom note collagist, in the service of syntax? Or is it more or less haphazard? If the latter, why do we respond to such refrigerator-magnet poetics, compiled largely from ad copy, as if it were Hip Hop sagacity? Who’s the chump?
The mood of the show when not passive aggressive is just plain aggressive, as with a playfully violent video of bowling balls being rolled and bounced down a winding tenement stairwell, or a sound sculpture in which a drywall screw administers a seizure to an electronic keyboard (though surprisingly, the resulting tone cluster wafts mildly, almost pleasantly, though time and space). And you might even miss the implicit threat of a creepily “unattended” suitcase, unless you attend to an audio installation consisting of a second anonymous rap, this one a cappella, which plays between video cycles. “If you see something, say something” –– so recites Ferraris’s proxy concerning the suitcase. And following that logic he proceeds to index the contents of the storefront gallery and its relationship to the street (a stretch of barrio still holding its own against encroaching oyster bars and, presumably, the posher galleries to come). There are clues in the lyrics concerning a knife stuck under a table and about a message “rolled up and sealed on Rivington,” which I haven’t deciphered. There is sufficient evidence, however, to believe that every word is meant concretely, albeit in a way you’d never expect.