By Shana Beth Mason
Is it possible for a junkie to make or understand the gravitas of a promise? If so, would that promise be conditional? Once made, can a junkie’s promise be broken?
The life of William S. Burroughs was a barrage of broken and unmade promises: a life riddled by drug abuse, running from the law and watching friends and family members fall through his hands (in the case of Joan Vollmer, his common-law wife, her death was caused quite directly by his hands drunkenly placed on a trigger during a game of ‘William Tell’). But out of such a precarious life came one of the most revered, creative souls of not just the Beat Generation, but the corps of 20th Century literary geniuses. Curator and artist Ivan Návarro extracts the possibilities of joy, melancholy, contemplation, rejection and (perhaps) absolution in Junkies’ Promises, staged at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea.
Burroughs was a high-functioning heroin addict for most of his life, capable of making potent observations about his surroundings, his daily strategies for obtaining more drugs, the people who supported and hunted him, and more importantly, the landscape of his altered psyche. As an artist approaching this heightened, tense state laid bare by Burroughs’ writing, Navarro shows immediate interest in different filters and vessels of light: can it be welcoming? Is it fractured, colored, deadened, piercing, lofty or menacing? Josiah McElheny’s deco, brass chandelier seems to cascade downward like tentacles with illuminated fingertips. Jorge Pardo’s flora-inspired lamps bob through the air almost weightlessly, braced by delicate shards of red and orange powder-coated steel. In an adjacent room, Deborah Kass reminisces through neon: a spiral sentence borrowed from Louis Bourgeois reading ‘A woman has no place in the art world unless she proves over and over again she won’t be eliminated,’ while sci-fi orbs of light are placed on the floor in front of it, courtesy of R.M. Fischer.
Each creative situation has different levels of calm, aggression and bewilderment throughout the space. Much like the rolling waves of psychological and physical fluctuations experienced by a drug addict, Navarro displays clear empathy to the torment resident in the addictive host (which, despite its obvious moral and ethical gaps, retains an undeniable heroism). Navarro’s own work appears in the show (apparently, at his reluctance), as a kinetic sculpture (a kind of hand-pedaled jagged bicycle built vertically) crowned with a red emergency vehicle light. His choices of work are reflected, and refracted, through both routine and extraordinary beams of light which might be received at greater wavelengths through the eyes of a junkie. The manner in which the drug addict requires an economy of materials to operate in the shadows rests in elegant contrast to the plethora of light throughout the two gallery spaces. Just around the corner on 27th Street, the exhibiton continues. Works by He An and Jill Magid possess a particular appeal, with Magid transforming light into a weapon (attacking a single leaf from a book) and He An actively dismantling the bold, come-hither tactics of neon lights as advertisement into a set of dilapidated, wounded Chinese characters. Both works imply that light has a life force, the ability to maim and hurt. Magid’s ‘Bayonet Range’ (2013) contends that even the mighty printed page is under attack from the superhuman realm, that words appear blurred and blinded in front of the sheer speed of time. He An’s broken signage might well appear in a moldy corner of Chinatown or a seedy alley in Hong Kong, revealing the obscene, often sleazy nature of public advertising no matter how innocent its content.
For the junkie (conjecture, of course), the world can be a slanted, psychotropic battleground; where each day forces even more acts of sabotage to societal norms and rules, each score is a victory where the rewards run, literally, through the veins, and each hit is an act of defiant, sky-high self-destruction. The promise, in this case, is made only between the junkie and him or herself: live to cheat death over and over again.
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