Artists Space // September 9-December 16, 2012
Modern Painters, March 2013
Since the mid 1990s, shape-shifting artist collective Bernadette Corporation (BC) has deftly inhabited various vessels on the cultural fringe, gradually moving in concentric circles toward the center of the art world. Founded in 1993 by Bernadette Van-Huy, who remains a principal member, along
with John Kelsey and Antek Walczak, BC utilized the slippery façade of the corporation to launch a trendy fashion line, produce a film with a group of European anarchists, and
open the successful New York gallery Reena Spaulings. Despite their critical success, the Situationist-inflected BC has continuously played slightly aloof behind a slick exterior. No surprise, then, that the group’s first retrospective retains
a slight disdain toward institutional convention and a preference for boutique-like display.
Between chic but imposing black Plexiglas vitrines and floor-to-ceiling panels narrating the collective’s history, BC’s 1990s fashion works appear fresh again: mannequins wearing Frankensteined ensembles of goth and Puerto Rican–style staples, and models stomping down a runway under huge blond drag-queen wigs. Indeed, the collective admitted in a recent interview that “fashion was a sort of Internet before the Internet”—a fast-moving, image-based system. The BC Corporate Story, a video from 1997 appropriating the form of company training videos, deadpans to eviscerating effect. “Making clothes, man, there’s quite a lot to it,” a guy intones with a Southern drawl over runway footage, street shots of New York, and a model posing as a young African-American being arrested by a white cop. “Reproducing uniqueness … and the grafting of parasitical signifiers onto anything, anything at all.” This prescient statement seems to refer to today’s aggressive digital niche marketing as much as the ’90s era of co-opted identity politics.
Aside from two films that the exhibition glosses over—the omitted Hell Frozen Over, 2000, and Get Rid of Yourself, 2003, which appears only as a trailer—BC’s strength in the era of ubiquitous online presence now lies, ironically, in literary endeavors that slow our pace of digesting images. The show offers only a teaser of this output, however. It includes a blown-up review of Reena Spaulings, 2004, their collectively authored autobiography of a fictional underwear model. With references to Duchamp’s avatarcum-artistic cipher Rrose Sélavy, as well as Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe’s appropriated manga character Annlee, it underscores the capitalistic construction of the young female as the ultimate consumer and object of desire. “A Billion and Change,” 2009, a poem more than 100 pages long, ignited conversation about the labor of viewing artwork when it was shown in 2009 at Greene Naftali Gallery without an accompanying publication or digital download. Here it is reduced to stanzas on coffee mugs, smugly acquiescing to the gift-shop aesthetic the earlier gallery display held at arm’s length. Works that directly comment on the Internet’s aesthetics, such as two encased screens of appropriated Happy Slap prank videos, 2011, and gleaming sink fixtures emblazoned with tweets, appear facile in comparison to the rigorous subcultural productions of BC’s earlier recyclage. Now that mainstream digital tools have made BC’s image-cannibalizing tactics widely accessible and certain politicians have informed us that “corporations are people too,” might classic techniques of resistance replace such convoluted subversion of the subversive?