John Russell’s “SQRRL”

Alan Gilbert

January 5, 2016
Bridget Donahue, New York
November 14, 2015–January 10, 2016

If after finishing this review you visit Bridget Donahue’s website to learn more about John Russell’s current exhibition, “SQRRL,” you’ll find a brightly hued digital collage of image and text in the place of a static gallery homepage with its neatly tabbed categories linking to exhibitions, artists, about, and contact information. Hybrid imagery featuring animals, humans, and robots is illustrated by short, cryptic texts, such as “CarlEee sits sipping coffee. / 195 years old. / Forty-five body allocations / Since the Starvation Wars of 87.” These, in turn, are explicated by 33 footnotes and a bibliography in the right-hand margin that unfolds a sci-fi-esque allegory of the present in which a predatory digital realm becomes the new organic as the human—and its various modes of social and epistemological organization—collapses in its wake. Along with slyly serving as an online artwork in the exhibition, it also functions as the show’s press release.

If you visit Bridget Donahue proper, you’ll find a 45-minute digitally animated projected video version of the web page entitled Relaxation Video: SQRRL/BRUCE WILLIS (2015) with ambient soundtrack and Russell whispering parts of the script. Beginning relatively bucolically, and with short poetic descriptions, the work vividly depicts the cyborgization of all living things (from butterflies to humans) with their “tech implants,” and its first snippet from the critical theory canon—Luce Irigaray’s 1980 work Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche—scrolls vertically in blue. Russell creates an immersive world that’s part aquarium, part outer space, while operating as atmospheric backdrop for his primary concern: collapsing sharp distinctions and binaries between natural and artificial, human and animal, female and male, virtual and real.

There’s a story of sorts in Relaxation Video: SQRRL/BRUCE WILLIS, but like everything else in the work, it’s a hybrid blending narrative, poetry, theory, and image—specifically, gifs. The main character, CarlEee, is a mutant squirrel who watches a parent die, falls in love, and works for ARCWEB, a kind of Terminator-ish Skynet in which the machines slowly take over and whose slogan is “NATURE LOST, NATURE WON”—again, the digital world as increasingly our “natural” one. Interspersed within all of this are hovering gifs, soothing sonic effects, musings on Willis’s evolving symbolic masculine role in action films, and references to the cyborg and posthumanism. This description makes the video sound headier than it actually is, as it’s haunted by a dystopian beauty, however glitchily rendered.

In the 1990s, Russell was a member of the artist group BANK, which critiqued—sometimes scathingly—the art world and commercial culture alike. Even after going solo, his work remains strongly collaborative and interdisciplinary. Projects slide from one medium to another; Christian iconography promiscuously intermixes with urinating flowers; CarlEee might be both male and female. In keeping with the art world’s current infatuation with poetry, Russell seems to be indicating that the latter has a role to play in this. Yet the point is less about indeterminacy for its own sake; rather, the aim is to multiply relations, networks, and subject positions to the point that reality itself shifts. At some level, resistance is built into a submission to this evolutionary, or at least inevitable, process.

In keeping with a sense of proliferation, the show at Bridget Donahue includes a painting, a print, sculptural objects, and one of Russell’s massive, backlit, diaphanous mural billboards that stretches along the length of the gallery space for 60 feet. Digitally printed on vinyl in apocalyptic—or maybe it’s Martian—red, with a row of pink fluorescent lights behind it, Mirror Mapping the Stars (2015) might also serve as a scrim for the casting of real or imagined fantasies. A male body with a fox head, a female body with a cat head, a skeleton, and more amorphous creatures scamper across a landscape of clouds floating against a night sky. With a scale hinting at nineteenth-century panoramic paintings intended to teach the history of famous places and events, Mirror Mapping the Stars illustrates a future in which everything solid has melted into air.

At the same time, Russell hasn’t entirely abandoned more traditional material (art) objects, although they’re mostly clustered in the gallery’s back room: a painting in which organic form and content are rendered synonymous at the dawn of a new era (Untitled [Abstraction of Labour Time/External Recurrence/Monad] II, 2015); three similarly sized boxes, one for cat food, on which he has painted fluid abstractions (all Untitled [Box], 2015); and a mobile (made in collaboration with artist Dan Mitchell) that floats a small swarm of plastic flies and miniature easyJet planes (easyJet/Flies, 2015). At one point, the phrase “A fictional space of desire” appears in Relaxation Video: SQRRL/BRUCE WILLIS. At Bridget Donahue, Russell arrays canvases both virtual and real for the projection of desire, though one not always our own, and one not entirely human.

Science Fiction, Video Art, Poetry, Computer-Generated Art

Alan Gilbert is a poet and art writer whose most recent book of poems is The Everyday Life of Design.

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Bridget Donahue
January 5, 2016

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