Backstory

On my recent trip to New York I visited Miguel Abreu’s gallery, one of the most important in that city. In fact, it was the only one I had time to visit. The current show crystallized something for me, something that’s been growing in the back of my mind for a long time. In a lot of contemporary work, including that of some of the artists who show with Abreu, there is a more or less complicated “backstory,” by which I mean some narrative of events, accidents, texts, experiences, precursors or theories out of which the work has come. All art has some backstory but it’s not usual to lay it out; generally one lets the viewer infer what it is. What I see now is the possibility that the remembered origin could itself become the work, and that is very interesting. In place of the metaphysics of presence, the work offers a lost moment, and so the gallery object, in principle, could lack any quality that sets it apart from ordinary stuff. And since the gallery itself does precisely that, it’s no longer necessary, in fact might be a hindrance. In Gareth James’s show at Abreu the origin is a drawing on a blackboard in the background of a photo of Althusser, a drawing of which no one can recall the meaning. I’m totally in favor of the origin as a blank, an unknown, a spot of ignorance, but need to ponder further the utter arbitrariness and disposability of the gallery object under the regime of the backstory. Although James’s work does not move in that direction, it is very suggestive of what might be possible.

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