Gretchen Bender: So Much Deathless @Red Bull Arts

JTF (Just the facts): A total of 33 works exhibited chronologically (1982-2001) on the ground floor and the basement level, and divided into six sections titled: “Change Your Art”; “Total Recall”; “Society of Contamination”; “Memory Management”; “Dreamnation”; and “So Much Deathless.” The individual pieces are as follows:

  • Untitled (“Narcotics of Surrealism”), 1986, live TV broadcast on 14 in. CRT monitor, vinyl lettering, shelf (13 ¾x14x17 in.)
  • Untitled “The Pleasure is Back” series, 1982, enamel ink silkscreened on sign tin (72×72 in.)
  • Untitled “The Pleasure is Back” series (Longo-Lewitt), 1982, enamel ink silkscreened on sign tin (72×100 in.)
  • Untitled “The Pleasure is Back” series (Psychic Blood), 1982, enamel ink silkscreened on sign tin (24×72 in.)
  • Untitled “The Pleasure is Back” series, 1982, enamel silkscreened on sign tin (70×70 in.)
  • Untitled “The Pleasure is Back” series, 1982, enamel silkscreened on sign tin (24×100 in.)
  • “Reality Fever,” 1983, single-channel video 6:20 min.
  • “Spiritual America,” from the “Total Recall” series, 1986, steel, film strips, fluorescent light fixture (60x84x4 in.)
  • “Ghostbusters,” 1984, photographs on Masonite (63 5/8×56 ¼ in.)
  • “Terminator,” 1984, photograph on Masonite and enamel ink silkscreened on sign tin (49×36 in.)
  • “Mid-Effect Hold,” 1983, photograph on Masonite silkscreened on sign tin (58 ¾x52 7/8 in.)
  • “Gremlins,” 1984, photographs on Masonite (52×66 in.)
  • “Wild Dead I, II, III” (Danceteria version), 1984, two-channel video on CRT monitors with soundtracks by Stuart Argabright and Michael Diekmann
  • “Total Recall,” 1987, eleven-channel video installation on 24 monitors and 3 projection screens, 18 min.
  • “Aggressive Witness-Active Participant,” 1990, live TV broadcast on 8 monitors, vinyl lettering, black-and-white computer generated film on 4 monitors, with soundtrack by Stuart Argabright, 19:41 min. Installation dimensions vary.
  • “TV Text and Image” (Metro Pictures Version), 1986, live TV broadcast on 9 monitors, vinyl lettering. Installation dimensions vary.
  • “Flash Art,” 1987, chromogenic print on Masonite, vinyl, single-channel video, 1:02:47 min.
  • “TV Text and Image” (Donnell Library Version), 1990, live TV broadcast on 12 monitors, vinyl lettering, and shelves. Installation dimensions vary.
  • “People in Pain,” 1988/2004, 90 titles, silkscreen on paint and heat set vinyl, neon, transformers (84x560x11 in.)
  • “Volatile Memory,” 1988, film directed by Gretchen Bender and Sandy Tait, 13:05 min.
  • Edited Documentation of “Still/Here,” 1994, choreographed and directed by Bill T. Jones. Visual concept and media environment by Gretchen Bender. Score for “Still”: Kenneth Frazelle (vocals by Odetta); score for “Here”: Vernon Reid.
  • Untitled (“Daydream Nation”), 1989, photographs on Masonite mounted on wooden armature (40x120x60 ½ in.)
  • Untitled (“Landscape, Computer Graphics, Death Squad”), laminated photographs (120×60 in.)
  • “Hell Raiser,” 1988-1991, photographs on Masonite (90 ¼x71 in.)
  • “Spears,” 1989-1991/2019, steel rods, laminated photographs, transformers, neon (93x20x40 in.)
  • Untitled (“Nostalgia”), c. 1989, live TV broadcast on 14 in. CRT monitor, vinyl lettering, shelf (13 ¾x14x17 in.)
  • Untitled (“Dream Nation”), c. 1989, live TV broadcast on 14 in. CRT monitor, vinyl lettering, shelf (13 ¾x14x17 in.)
  • “American Flag,” 1989, enamel on aluminum (78×110 in.)
  • “Revolution,” 1985, steel, film strip, fluorescent light fixture (72x72x4 in.)
  • Fragment of Installation, “Untitled,” 2001, folded paper, wood (12x10x14 in.)
  • Facsimile of Screenplay for Unrealized Film, “Jumper,” c. 2001
  • Facsimile of Proposal for Unrealized Work: “So Much Deathless,” c. 1997-1999

(Installation shots and video stills below.)

Comments/Context: Gretchen Bender (1951-2004) spent her sadly abbreviated career trying to make art that would thwart, defuse, undercut, or at least talk back to, the pervasive voices of the media. A baby boomer from the East Coast, she belonged to the first generation to grow up when television was an appliance as common as the kitchen stove or refrigerator. Bender made it her mission to combat the presence of this household invader and to expose its commercial or narcotizing agenda.

In this elegiac retrospective, installed in darkened galleries on two floors by curator Maxwell Wolf, one can survey the range of her sabotaging techniques. The Pop artists had noted the unignorable presence of corporate advertising in post-war life and had reveled in its codes of messaging, usually with a wink and a smirk. Bender and her fellow younger New York artists adopted Pop appropriation but by the ‘80s were far less inclined to be amused by the American news-and-entertainment industrial complex. They certainly didn’t take the assault on their brains and wallets lying down. Bender’s art was infused with Marxist-Feminist theory (Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Vilém Flusser) and she didn’t care if her barbed politics in her works kept the viewer at arm’s length. Indeed, she seemed to want the takeaway to be a heightened awareness of the conflicts and mediations they embodied.

The first room offer four examples from her early series The Pleasure is Back (1982). The phrase is taken from an advertisement for Barclay’s cigarettes. Five black-and-white images, lifted from various sources, are printed on metal and arranged like a crucified figure (or a bathing beauty): the “head” is a blank black square; the “arms” are close-ups of faces from a Dial soap ad; the “torso” quotes an A.R. Penck neo-primitive painting; the twisting “legs” are a Lichten-stein brushstroke. Together these dissonant elements satirize the convergence of painting and advertising in the upper echelons of the ‘80s art world. When she mounted photographs on metal or Masonite (Mid-Effect Hold, Gremlins, and Terminator, all from the mid-‘80s), the effect was similar: she liked to juxtapose images without a discernible common source—a pile of dead bodies from the El Salvador war, computer abstractions, and the close-up of an eye—that together made an unexpected sinister logic.

Collage took precedence over linear narrative in her video, too. Bender’s rapid-fire editing favored pulsing images synched to a pulsing soundtrack that simulated the nonstop attack by broadcast media on the cognitive and aesthetic regions of the mind. The frenetic Reality Fever (1983) spews out images so rapidly that, as one critic wrote, “there is no time to accrue a history, to assimilate content, or to reflect upon meaning.”

TV Text and Image (1986) was widely exhibited and had several iterations. This one was created for an all-female artist group show at Metro Pictures and consists of 9 video monitors broadcasting images from TV in the ‘80s. Imprinted on the screen in vinyl are phrases (“Narcotics of Surrealism”) or words (“Homeless”) or categories (“People with AIDS”) that interrupt the relentless flow and often contradict the cheery or ostensibly benign content. It’s a simple (and simplistic) device for gainsaying the voices and master programmers that send these messages on to our screens, without our consent.

Her masterwork in this vein is probably Total Recall, an immersive video installation about consumerism and war. The title comes from the 1990 Hollywood blockbuster, directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a character who cannot tell if his memories are real or implanted by a corporation. (The plot is loosely based on a Philip K. Dick science fiction story.) On an array of 3 projection screens at apexes of a triangle, with 24 video monitors canted inside, Bender has edited a barrage of appropriated images: GE and CBS corporate logos, couples embracing in a commercial, computer abstractions, clips from the Oliver Stone movie Salvador, crowds ascending escalators or walking on the street. They move at different speeds, sometimes flashing wildly, sometimes in slow motion. The soundtrack by Stuart Argabright adds another layer of sensory overload and seems to be made from ambient crowd noise at a shopping mall as well as splices of exotic instrumentation; it’s like a new wave gamelan. Although Total Recall anticipated by several years, the common experience of facing a wall of screens at a Nike store, the effect is more theatrical than sociological.

Wolf’s text in the brochure for the show neatly explains why Bender’s critiques, especially in video, can seem self-defeating or even hypocritical. “Much of Bender’s work mimes the violence of systems she often found herself frightened by, mimicking the machinations of a culture she in some ways could not bear.”

Bender’s work was highly visible in the ‘80s, when she exhibited at Nature Morte and Metro Pictures. She was included in prestigious group shows, including A Forest of Signs (1989) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and Image World: Art and Media Culture (1989) at the Whitney Museum of Art. The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse organized a touring mid-career retrospective in 1991.

But by the time of her death, she did not have gallery representation and, although closely associated with the Pictures Generation, the curator Douglas Ecklund excluded her from his history of the movement at the Met in 2009. (To be fair: its parameters were 1974-1984, and her art had not fully matured until later in the decade.)

Unlike many of her friends, Bender never achieved popularity, perhaps because her style was never instantly recognizable—the key to market success. She collaborated with musicians on the downtown scene and with the dancers/choreographers Arnie Zane and Bill T. Jones. Despite their shared background training in graphic arts, she lacked Barbara Kruger’s talent for counter-punching against the media. (In their attempt to blunt the force of the media, the favorite strategy of the Pictures Generation was to turn down the volume and temperature, either through cool irony or cross-programming. Only Kruger managed to fight fire with fire and gain widespread acclaim.)

Bender’s work was discursive and open-ended rather than pithy. She often quoted from the art made by her circle of fellow artists. One of her pieces in The Pleasure is Back series incorporates an image from Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities series. A fractured photograph of Cindy Sherman appears in the futuristic Ghostbusters (1984) and Sherman stars as a cyborg in the short film Volatile Memory (1988), co-directed by Sandy Tait. A contrarian in her attitude toward the art world, Bender was nonetheless unable to enrage traditionalists or censors, as Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince did so effectively—and commercially.

Neglect of Bender’s work has been such that Philip Vanderhyden was forced to remake her work People in Pain for a posthumous show at the Whitney in 2014. It had been discarded after her death. An unusually somber and meditative piece within her oeuvre, it was inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Embedded in a wall of black crumpled vinyl are dozens of illuminated names in tiny type, the titles of numerous ‘80s Hollywood movies: Teen Wolf, Dirty DancingFull Metal Jacket, Rampage, Predator. It’s a wicked embodiment of the Pictures Generation aesthetic, delivering a chilly verdict on the fate of Pop artifacts: what was once hot and topical will eventually turn into crappy product and be forgotten. Bender has bled the nostalgia out of these films, interring them as if in a columbarium, the titles reading like inscriptions on the headstones of a video crypt.

Even more out of character was a 2001 installation that consisted of white origami butterflies mounted on wooden stakes. (A portion is exhibited in a case here in the show’s last section.) Their paper delicacy is a ruse as they are based on an article Bender had read about the Soviets in the Afghan War making camouflaged ordinance out of these floating Japanese insects so that children would be entranced, pick them up and be blown to pieces.

Bender’s ambivalent attitude toward the art world may be partly responsible for her relative obscurity within it. Her friend Sarah Charlesworth also had fallen out of critical favor at the time of her death in 2013 and has since had numerous museum shows and attracted many new young admirers. Bender’s work isn’t as collector-friendly and pleasing to the eye. But this reverent show is likely to change her status. What this fervent left-wing feminist would have thought about exhibiting her life’s work in a space owned by an energy drink corporation catering to truckers and teenage boys we will never know.

Collector’s POV: Gretchen Bender is represented by Elizabeth Dee in New York (here). Bender’s work (particularly in photography) has very little secondary market history in the past decade. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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