Finally got to spend some time with the Brion Gysin show at the New Museum and highly recommend it. In lieu of a review, I offer the following "cut-up" of two mostly negative reviews (Ben Davis on Artnet [bold text] and Liza Eliano on AFC [italic text]). I spliced them together, "sampled" enthusiastic paragraphs at odds with the respective writers' thumbs down conclusions, removed disparaging characterizations of the artwork and/or ad hominem biographical meandering, and added some sentences of my own. This Brion Gysin- or Kathy Acker-like experiment reviews the reviews as well as the show.
What to do with Brion Gysin, the oddball Surrealist-cum-Beat artist who worked with every generation of creative bohemia from Breton's circle to the '80s graffiti artists? The New Museum approaches his oeuvre cautiously, allotting him only one floor after giving the whole museum to the rather-less-influential Urs Fischer. There’s no denying Gysin's considerable, subterranean influence on art, despite this tepid commitment. The excellent New Museum catalogue brings in a variety of contemporary artists to testify to Gysin’s inspiration on their practice.
The show is eclectic and episodic, reflecting the zigzags of Brion Gysin’s own life. We find traces of Gysin’s early, Surrealist-inspired works; his "writing paintings," canvases overrun with scribbly marks and repeating grid patterns; his extensive collaborations with Beat writer William S. Burroughs, scrapbook-like "board books" and spreads from their schizophrenic 1965 collage tome The Third Mind; his Dreamachine, a motorized spinning cylindrical device intended to induce waking dream states behind the viewer's closed eyelids; his experiments in photo collage; a room-filling slideshow recreating the experience of a live Gysin reading of his combinatory poems; recordings of his collaborations with jazz musicians and poets; and much related ephemera.
The exhibition space is divided chronologically into four parts: calligraphic paintings and drawings, the “Cut-Up Method,” The Third Mind, and the Dreamachine. Ultimately Gysin's cut-ups, methodically irrational rearrangements of words and phrases known mostly in the literary sphere because of William Burroughs' use of them in novels such as Naked Lunch, come to dominate every chapter of this chronology. The disassociation of language from meaning in these quasi-geometric word experiments also informs Gysin's paintings, collages, sound works, slide projections and especially two collaborative films on view that combine all these media. The grid as a kind of occult code-maker becomes an obsessive motif that unifies the show.
In Gysin’s sound cut-ups, the artist’s enigmatic voice imbues emotion and urgency into superficially nonsensical babble. A museum recreation of the artist's scratched and painted slide projections features audio of him reciting permutations of several poems while calligraphic scribbles and images of his face and figure fade in and out. (The curators are playing artist but this "piece" isn't bad.) In this work we get a sense of Gysin’s obsession with magic, sparked by the years he spent in Morocco listening to the hypnotic music of the Joujouka brotherhood. His chanting arrangements reverberate throughout the gallery, as though he were placing a spell over the viewer.
To experience the Dreamachine, placed in a darkened room in the middle of the gallery, viewers sit with closed eyes around this rotating cylinder with cutout shapes and light bulb suspended in the center. Some adopted meditative poses, others looked confused—one man stood in the corner as if afraid to even get near. I chose not to listen to the Throbbing Gristle soundtrack on a proffered iPod but tuned in to the abundant sounds already in the room, as I watched the pulsing lights flicker on the inside of my eyelids. Such enlightenment as was achieved will remain undescribed.
In one corner of the galleries, on yet another iPod, you can listen to a recording of Gysin reciting poet John Giorno’s fragmentary ode to New York chaos, "Subway Sound." As the sounds of the New York subway breathe eerily in the background, Gysin performs the hell out of the poem, slowly building, his voice rich and casually expressive, pausing at exactly the right moments, wringing deadpan comedy and then a certain grandeur out of Giorno’s stitched-together mindscape, composed of geographic information and free-floating slogans. "Be a Hair Stylist in 6 ½ months. . .," Gysin rumbles. "Preparation H!" he trumpets. "Does She or Doesn’t She?"
Gysin's liabilities in life--failure to become known in any of the individual media he excelled in--become posthumous credits. Seeing the retrospective reveals a consistency of personality, method, and an odd kind of rhythm, with origins in the grid inscribed on the paint roller that he used in almost every 2-dimensional work, or perhaps just the grid inscribed in his head, which unifies several diverse arts where others have tried and failed to do so.