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After 25 years as an art critic and educator in Los Angeles, Bruce Hainley is moving to a new position at Rice University. As a send-off, gallerist Kristina Kite and writer-curator Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer organized a massive show of 49 artists “and 18 writers” (more on that later) who have been students, colleagues, and collaborators, or more generally have vibed with Hainley. Some have been active for decades, while others graduated as recently as last year from ArtCenter College of Design’s MFA program, where Hainley was a professor and program chair. Genres abounded across the exhibition: canvas paintings, collages, sculptures, videos, takeaways, a limited-edition perfume, performances. Cerebral love, sparkling and pornographic—tinted by the garishly retinal—emerged in at-times disruptive moments amongst the sweeter notes in a slew of textures, colors, and treatments (some precious, some violent, some both), all of which counterbalanced the heaviness of heart that accompanied the adieu.
Though it encapsulated manifold sensibilities, the show had the loose feel of a retrospective, but one of thought: in particular, the influence and resonance that Hainley’s writing and teaching have had on the minds and work of a diverse array of artists. Much of the show had a “for Bruce” intentionality, often evidenced in the titles—Bruce; B. Hainley Football Sweater; Untitled (for Bruce)—that cast the work as love notes, some from his own students. Juliana Halpert’s photograph Bruce note (2020) takes on this role almost reflexively by memorializing a note from Hainley to the artist back when she was his student. In the photo, Hainley’s note peeks out from her cluttered workspace, linking her making with his mentorship. The love expressed by these pieces finds striking (if sometimes jarring) dialogue with more salacious manifestations of intimacy, like the erections found in William E. Jones’ Gutter Collage 3 (Cemetery – erections – Orazio Gentileschi – John F. Kennedy) (2018), or the two women sharing an intimate encounter and a strap-on in Monica Majoli’s warmly luscious oil painting Untitled (Pentagon) (1992).
Throughout the show, adoration was also inflected by a smirking penchant for disruption, which by Hainley’s own account needn’t be explosive or confrontational. In fact, it could be the opposite. In a 2006 essay in frieze on Lee Lozano—who willfully began boycotting women in 1971 to the chagrin of many second-wave feminists—Hainley rebuts those who dismissed her work from this time as disturbing, asking: “But why shouldn’t art disturb, especially if its project is a nuclear experiment with art and life?”1
Some of the disturbances delivered in The Going Away Present acted as unexpected couriers. What appears to be a brief glimpse of a color-inverted image of a rectum in Shahryar Nashat’s Rob It in Flesh (Steven) (2020), a silent HD video looping within a retrofitted monitor, is almost indiscernible, requiring multiple views to piece together its form. Nearby, John Tremblay’s small canvas titled State Line (2020) had a deceptively quiet composition—a jagged aluminum line dividing two desaturated pastel color fields—belying the violent twisting, beating, and grinding of metal that went into its making. The “state” indicated by its title might be geographic or psychophysical, its jagged horizontal line both cartographic and cardiographic. The disturbance of both of these works lies in not knowing what to think; both share moments of visceral impact lying in wait.
Other works perform disruptive feats through recontextualization and appropriation—the same type of “nuclear experiment” on art that Hainley inferred in the work of Lozano. Larry Johnson’s photograph, Untitled (Moved to Tears) (2010), takes as its source material a 1981 gallery invitation from Sherrie Levine and Louise Lawler to their collaborative project A Picture Is No Substitute for Anything (1981–82) in which the invite was the entirety of the exhibition. The text on the invitation, “His gesture moved us to tears,” was meant to take the piss out of the brute, gestural neo-expressionist painting style celebrated at that time. Johnson cut out and then arranged the words individually on graph paper in their original location before re-photographing them—his appropriative gesture laid bare. This work found resonance in Darren Bader’s Looking Back, an undated photograph of what appears to be an unframed Léger painting, taken at an oblique angle. Léger’s figure—assuming it is a true Léger—gazes back, askew, with little surrounding context, excised from authorship. The subject is the looking itself, like critics who have made a life looking at art from their own oblique angles.
The exhibition also included a book by Hainley designed by Laura Owens, which in addition to archival materials, images, stickers, and other ephemera, features his archived correspondence with Elaine Sturtevant, accumulated while researching his essential tour de force, Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant’s Volte-Face (2013). The book disturbs expectations of what a book-about-an-artist looks like, employing parallel texts and fictive, Brechtian excursions. Sturtevant’s annotations provide a fascinating testament to the ways in which Hainley inspires enthusiasm in established artists as much as in his students, creating an unseen ripple effect of influence.
Although this ripple effect was embodied by many of the artworks in the exhibition, a zine by the 18 writers included in the show’s roster became something more like a phantom over it. Though it has been printed, a concern for Hainley’s privacy has stymied its release. It is tempting to call the cancellation a bluff, or perhaps even an homage. In Under the Sign of [sic], Hainley pens a thrilling analysis of Sturtevant’s 1967 reproduction of Relâche, the 1924 Picabia/Satie ballet whose premiere was, ironically, canceled due to illness (relâche is French for “canceled”).2 Though it was advertised, the doors to Sturtevant’s theater remained locked on opening night. Duchamp arrived via taxi, which he kept waiting just so he could confirm what he and others already suspected: that the piece was the cancellation itself. In sparkling, hypersensitive prose, Hainley unpacked Sturtevant’s gesture: an artwork so vaporous that it could barely be said to have happened, except that it did. So, it would be fitting to disrupt anticipation for a zine about Bruce Hainley by a pantheon of writers by simply canceling it. The void left by any cancellation or departure is never empty—certainly not in this case.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 26.