Greene Naftali // January 16-February 17
Modern Painters, May 2013
With the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a bombastically violent revenge narrative of a freed slave, the history of exploitation films has captured the public’s imagination. This is the generative cultural backdrop for WiP, an installation based on the women in prison (or WiP) genre. But unlike Tarantino’s film, a gleeful Hollywood bloodbath riddled with bullet holes, racial slurs, threats of sexual brutality, and absurdist humor, Conrad’s installation does not strive for cinematic verisimilitude or slick aesthetics. Rather, it fuses Conrad’s interest in perceptual disorientation with a clunky deconstruction of the film genre.
WiP uses as its point of departure a series of amateur women-in-prison films Conrad created in the early 1980s. These featured male and female artists friends like Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler restaging loosely improvised scenes based on the genre’s hollow pornographic clichés, such as lesbian affairs between prisoners and sadistic abuse by prison guards. The giggling actors switch roles and genders, interrupting the action for a slapdash punk rock jam. Conrad projects an edited version of the film in a backroom installation based on his prison sets, incorporating buttery yellow cells furnished with bunk beds and bedpans, salmon-colored walls, and a flickering grid of fluorescent lights. Two panes of glass suspended from the ceiling, reminiscent of the booths that separate prison inmates from visitors, occupy most of the frony gallery.
As an exhibition, “WiP” makes reference to Conrad’s history in expanded cinema, his interests in subcultures, and his Foucauldian notions of institutional authority. The whole, however, never exceeds the sum of its parts. Instead of immersing the viewers, the elements jaggle by competing for their attention, resulting in a fractured skimming of the genre’s surface conventions. The proplike cellblock architecture threatens to overwhelm rather than elevate the moments of wry humor and cross-dressing transgression by Kelley and company in the film. If Django is problematic for Tarantino’s unchecked indulgence of blaxpoitation’s conventions, WiP falters for its detached approach to the genre’s problematics of representation.