Morrissey, representations of in contemporary art

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I snuck over at lunch on Thursday to check out Ryan McGinley’s photographs of Morrissey fans, Irregular Regulars. What hits you first is the way the audience in the photos is bathed in the maxed-out colors that pour over from the stage. In a sort of LSD-synaesthesia effect, the colors seem to show us how the music overwhelms them, how these fans are experiencing a transcendent-ecstatic moment. In some of the photos, you almost sense they’re experiencing the moment of transcendence before destruction. Check out this girl, she looks like the Nazi in Indiana Jones right before the ark melts his face off:

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But honestly, it’s not really the fans you care about here, it’s Morrissey. You scan past all the photos until you finally hit one of the Morrissey stage shots, but he’s always looking away, or you only catch his silhouette.

There are probably simple developmental behavior explanations for it, but Morrissey is starting to pop up more as subject matter in contemporary art. Turner Prize finalist Phil Collins’s El mundo no escuchará/the world won’t listen is a deft example of the artworld’s rapt patronizing of the postcolonial south and east. It brought together citizens of Bogota Colombia to karaoke out to the Smiths albums. (In the left-handed universe, and there must be an easy mathematical proof for this, an artist named Morrissey [no relation] is documenting the legacy of Genesis in South America.)

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On the same day I saw McGinley’s show, I stumbled—purely by accident—on what just may be the earliest occurrence of Morrissey in contemporary art. A 1989 puzzle piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Oscar Wilde’s Tombstone), shows a close-up photograph of the Pere Lachaise grave, cropping everything but the word Oscar. Scrawled above it in pen, almost illegible, are the words “Manchester, so much to[….” Underneath, some graffiti that would have been totally lost to comprehension begins to reconstruct itself. An M, what looks like the underside of a boat, two R’s and a trailing off: this is clearly the word Morrissey. It’s followed by “RE[—” – could this be saying Morrissey remembers?

G-T may not have been aware of what these scribbles meant, but this confluence of Wilde’s tomb and the Smiths’ “Suffer Little Children” in the Gonzalez-Torres puzzle creates an unintentional triangle of elegy. Morrissey and Gonzalez-Torres each had radically different concerns, but they complement each other well. On a superficial level, they shared Oscar Wilde, but they also performed each in their gonzo way as national spokespersons, Morrissey with his Union Jacks and dead queens, writing large the Manchester immigrant working class’s condition, Gonzalez-Torres with his bomb-shaped candy spills, subversive clocks, and vocal concerns about the future of privacy in America’s bedrooms, speaking for America’s disenfranchised: the gay, the sick, the immigrant, and the artist. Both dealt mournfully with sexuality, taking what could be umbrella’ed together as ‘non-normative’ sexual practices and transforming them into something familiar, even comforting. Granted, their sexual audiences were different: Morrissey spoke to the adolescents not yet ready, confused, or just plain rebellious at the moment of sexual initiation; Gonzalez-Torres gave reassurance to a population being scattered and decimated by AIDS and their government.

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The affinities between Morrissey and Gonzalez-Torres put into high relief the differences between the artist and the newly arrived McGinley. Gonzalez-Torres appeared in a scene still dominated by oversized 80s artistic bluster. His quiet, poetic gestures cut right through it, in a way loosely parallel to how Nirvana, around the same time, blasted through a music scene filled with hair metal. Art today, at least the high profile kind, once again bears much resemblance to what it looked like back then, a sea of savvy white male kids selling the artistic equivalent of empty calories. I like McGinley’s work, but then again I’m also a sucker for that braggadocious 80s stuff. Seeing as art history is about to repeat itself as farce, what are the odds that McGinley will survive when the art bubble bursts?

Ryan’s opening

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