Wednesday, March 12, 2008

His Therapist Would Be Proud

What do you get when you combine two and a half years under the spell of a Freudian psychologist and ten years building finances and relative success in the incestuous circles of the New York art world? Head to Mary Boone’s Chelsea location and you’ll find the answer: Luis Gispert’s new blinged-out and unsettling video, Smother, which will be on view until March 1. The Cuban-American artist, who spent his formative years in the cocaine-laden Miami of the 1980’s, explores the psyche of his inner little Luis through a semi-autobiographical attempt at magical realism.

Part social commentary and part self-interrogation, the 26-minute film outlines the disturbing relationship between an eleven-year-old, dark-skinned Latino boy and his blonde, Caucasian, overbearing mother whose pet name for her son is “Brownie.” The reoccurring imagery of hot-rod cars, boom-boxes, pink flamingos, and all things garish are jointly a study of the aesthetic and culture of the artist’s upbringing and a flashy effort at making high art in that tradition. The loud colors and shiny noveau-riche atmosphere may seem to be solely machismo posturing, but the theme of “auspicious wealth and cultural naïveté” is all too relevant outside the gallery walls.

Socio-political implications aside, the film is mainly a result of the artist’s recent psychological analysis by a text-book Freudian. Gispert creates a whole new meaning for the term “art therapy” through a twisted portrayal of his psyche, which apparently contains an abundant collection of the fear of castration, urination, and pseudo-incestuous love with his mother. The boy not only wets his bed, but loses control of his bladder on the kitchen floor, morphing into the family’s dog at that moment. Smother is one giant Freudian cliché that packs far too many idiosyncrasies of the subconscious to begin to list.

Even the artist’s traumatizing loss of his childhood German shepherd makes its way into the plot when a seedy butcher, who was previously seen romancing the mother’s deformed feet, gently places the whimpering animal into an oversized deep-fryer. This moment is the climax of the film, as the dog/boy is transformed into a boom box which is then given away to a Rasta man passing by on a truck full of audio equipment, thus releasing the boy from the bondage of his controlling mother.

The dream-like magical realism of Gispert’s dysfunctional film is in stark contrast with the short films of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, which are on display at Barbara Gladstone a few doors down. While both artists utilize the genre of magical realism to portray harsh realities with underlying social critique, Neshat succeeds in providing substance beyond mere provocation. In Faezeh, a young, devout Muslim woman who suffers through a brutal rape chases a figment of herself through a darkened, mystical forest where she reencounters the crime as a bystander. The simplicity in the portrayal of a socially and emotionally complex situation is accessible to the viewer, whether they have been initiated into contemporary art-speak or not.

In order to get to the meat of Gispert’s film, on the other hand, the viewer must hack through a blindingly thick cluster of trite symbolism and random associations. Even then, the core of the artist’s fantastical adventure seems to be far less complex than the tools that are being used to convey it. Hopefully, the artist is still working with his therapist and the two of them can continue to derive complicated and perverse conclusions about Gispert’s overbearing mother and socioeconomic identity.

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