Whether layering references to different eras within a single work or organizing pseudo-retrospective exhibitions, Ken Okiishi often folds the past into the present. His second show at Reena Spaulings, “Being and/or Time,” combined some of his earliest output with more recent videos and paintings. The exhibition emphasized a fundamental unsteadiness in the images the artist has produced and gathered over the past two decades. New York, where Okiishi has lived and worked for much of that time, emerged as a city that invites shifting modes of viewership.
A sequence of four videos from the late 1990s and early 2000s was projected on a wall near the gallery entrance. Among these works was David Wojnarowicz in New York, 1999 (1999–2000), which begins with a young man walking along the West Side Highway carrying a copy of the catalogue for Wojnarowicz’s 1999 retrospective at the New Museum in New York. Dressed in 1970s period garb and channeling a young Wojnarowicz, the man strolls through the Chelsea Piers sports complex—a pre–High Line symbol of the neighborhood’s revitalization that opened in 1995. The high-end fitness center offers a comic contrast to his somber performance, which is more in tune with the dilapidated West Side piers that Wojnarowicz frequented decades prior. Scenes of the man walking around or reading poems by Wojnarowicz are intercut with sequences shot outside the Cock, an East Village gay bar. There, artist and writer Travis Jeppesen delivers a monologue about recent sexual encounters, frequently interrupting himself to address the camera directly to remind viewers that he is a Lacanian. Over his shoulder, NYC 2000 appears spray-painted on the wall like a time stamp.
Playing on a screen nearby was Being and/or Time (2016), a slideshow of all 25,000 images Okiishi took on his phone between 2013 and 2016. Cycling through twenty-four images a second (the standard frame rate for films), the work makes it all but impossible to grasp more than flashes of distinguishable content. Occasionally, a few images of the same subject appear in succession, seeming to slow the rapid flow of imagery. The work may be diaristic, but it comes across mostly as a series of textures and colors. Flickering behind viewers as they watched Okiishi’s more slowly paced early videos, the slideshow also felt like a taunting presence in the gallery, challenging those attempting to devote attention to the nuances of other works.
The tension between absorption and distraction established by the videos carried over to a large humorous painting, 1 RPM (2017), which both commands and deflects attention. Mounted on a motorized spindle that rotates clockwise, the grungy, enigmatic work features two speech bubbles over a streaky white background. The words PEOPLE and BUT are written in the bubbles but crossed out. Editorial corrections are offered: I appears adjacent to PEOPLE, while AND borders BUT. A rectangular flap cut from the canvas flops around as the painting spins. While most of the exhibition dealt with social spaces beyond the gallery, this winking, opaque canvas seemed like a parody of the insular art that’s been a staple in New York galleries for the past decade.
In the back of the exhibition space, Okiishi screened a recent video that gives a dashboard-eye view of a GPS-guided drive through Manhattan and Queens. With a classical music soundtrack and a navigation app’s verbal instructions, this matter-of-fact tour felt considerably more sober than the affected, performative stroll we see in David Wojnarowicz in New York, 1999. The lurching movement of the vehicle in heavy traffic strips the landscape of the personal, the queer, and the historical. Here is New York seemingly unburdened by cultural memory. Still, like the other works on view, this casual, technologically inflected piece feels both of-the-moment and temporally volatile.
American artist Ken Okiishi’s second solo show at Mathew, “Eggleston und Andere, ‘reality bites,’” made numerous art historical references while at the same time attempting to free itself from them. The main body of work consisted of 12 small color photographs, all titled William Eggleston on Pallasstrasse (2007/2014), which depict various scenes devoid of people along a single street in the former West Berlin, passing through a bustling commercial area that has ossified since unification.
“FYI,” Okiishi remarked in the press release, “these photographs were taken in the summer of 2007; sat on various hard drives since then; and were printed, as a group, for the first time last month.” He spells out this procedure because most of the images might otherwise be impossible to place in time: for example, an advertisement for patterned women’s stockings so retro they could almost be fashionable again, or a hair salon’s sandwich-board plaque bearing a crinkled photograph of an ’80s-style shag.
The photographs’ identical titles point to their connection with the work of William Eggleston, the photographer who, along with Stephen Shore und andere (and others), pioneered American color photography in the 1970s, wryly focusing on mundane aspects of everyday life. But Okiishi’s recognizable (and explicitly identified) Berlin setting also places his images in the company of Eggleston’s German counterparts: the Düsseldorf School of photographers, including Candida Höfer and Jörg Sasse.
Wedged rather tightly among these photographs on the main gallery walls were two new pieces from Okiishi’s ongoing “gesture/data” series, comprising abstract oil paintings smeared directly on the screens of flat, vertically hung video monitors. Earlier works from this group, like those shown in New York at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, offer complex interplays between their colorful brushstrokes and the figures flickering across the screen beneath. But the two pieces displayed at Mathew—involving only sparse, scattered marks and glitchy monochrome video fields, one white and one blue—are the least visually complex of these works to date.
As the series title promises, Okiishi has here reduced the pictorial content and signification potential of both painting and video to only the gesture and the data. This minimalism foregrounds the physical nature of painting as well as the size, brightness and aspect ratio of screens in comparison to traditional canvases or photographs, shifting attention to the various apparatuses by which images are created and exhibited. The artist has said that these overlaid compositions were inspired by the work of the Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, which he once photographed with his cell phone during a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Clearly, the 36-year-old Okiishi is aware that the technical means artists employ and the art historical lineage within which they place themselves greatly influence how viewers experience and interpret the artworks. But the final piece in the exhibition resists any easy categorization.
Alone in the gallery’s basement lay the floor piece robot-bitcoin-discotheque-pet (2014), a pair of disco balls stuck together to form a revolving contraption with an image of a bitcoin taped to one end and a QR code to the other. It’s hard to tell whether the artist is protesting this new digital aesthetic, making fun of it or capitulating to it. In any case, the humor poked a hole in the overall logic of the show and its net of historical references. Yet given the deftness with which Okiishi operates, we can assume that rupture was calculated.