You Know What I Mean: Joey Versoza and JR at the Contemporary Arts Center

September 22nd, 2013  |  Published in *, September 2013  |  1 Comment

You Know What I Mean: Joey Versoza and JR at the Contemporary Arts Center

By Keith Banner

Joey Versoza’s “Is This It,” at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) through February 2, 2014, offers continual clues to a mystery that’s disintegrating while you stand inside its contexts and riddles. Versoza uses video, found objects, photography, lighting, and sound with poetic urgency and insouciant solemnity, hurling the ideas accumulated through these media into a vacuum-tube that eventually illuminates the inside of your head like headlights scattering across a bedroom wall. Every object and notion in the show (which takes its title from the Michael Jackson tour that never happened because the King of Pop finally found a way to enter into the Land of Milk of Amnesia without ever waking up) is cryptically encoded and yet free of any literal meaning or even historical and/or autobiographical value. An android ghostliness haunts the space he has nested in at the CAC, as if the world around you is about to fall apart into bits and pieces, and you are in the middle of taking earthquake lessons online.

At the very end of Versoza’s eerie little journey is “The Fans of Kurt Cobain,” a visual pun that turns into a phenomenological spider-web while you try to remember where you were the day Kurt died. Flannel shirts have been flung onto a chandelier, with electric fans of all sorts situated on the shiny gallery floor, blowing the shirts around like delicate little lynchings. It’s the shadows of all that, though, that creeps through your memories, not the actual vignette, and both the sincerity and the joke blend into a nostalgia that goes beyond adoration and into the kind of love you don’t really understand until you glimpse what it can do to you.

I kept thinking about the Gus Van Sant movie Last Days, which was preternaturally about Kurt Cobain, even though it was fogged up by Van Sant’s intention to be artful. Last Days wasn’t that good, but Versoza’s piece is. In fact it might be a fine example of what Van Sant would like in all of his more esoteric cinematic experiments: a crisp, absurd sense of narration sculpted into a disquieting, unobtrusive haiku. Cobain’s shut-gun suicide is wistfully set aside. You have access to a yearning to grieve about someone you really don’t know personally, and yet has probably had more meaning in your life than most real people you do. In worshipping this bipolar icon in this way, you find a moment to escape into a realm that transcends fandom and veers off into elegy.

Eerie, optimal moments like that are what Versoza is always after. He needs these moments to be so clear that they fold in on themselves like origami time-machines. The moment depicted and evoked in “I Left My Wallet in Cupertino” is a concatenation of missed opportunities and spookiness, with an I-Phone perched atop a rectangular cloud of Kleenex, footage from The Blair Witch Project glittering on its screen. Versoza’s choice of Blair Witch might tempt you into thinking of the source material as vitally important to the piece’s impact, but I think it’s the arbitrary and enigmatic selection of moment and music in the whole show that pushes meaning-making beyond literal and even figurative into a format of stupefied bliss, a cancellation of “smartness” that is more in favor of concussion or even coma. Like Jackson, Versoza is on a constant search for the kind of perfect tranquility that yields a way out of what is in the world and into what the world can’t touch.

That disconnection of consciousness Versoza concocts in “I Left My Wallet in Cupertino” is scary in a way The Blair Witch Project can never be, even though that 1999 movie pretends to be real, a documentary of lost (and very mouthy) souls in a tangled, voracious forest. “Wallet” investigates horror by negating its intentions and intensities. Versoza’s choices of object and placement are precise and emotional, witty and witless all at the same time. You want to thank him for not trying to be smart, for not nailing anything down, even while he rigorously maintains a sort of artistic asceticism.

Versoza cooks down all of his choices and ideas to a lyrical sheen in “This Is It,” the centerpiece of “Is This It,” a video- and sound-charged simmer of momentary epiphanies and insights that don’t signify anything other than a beautiful wish that will never come true. And that’s the whole point. “This Is It” is a cathedral of candy-colored balloons constructed around a flat-screen displaying movie moments spliced with music moments, all of this obsessiveness jittering into itself. It’s as if Versoza has created his own 21st Century Phillip K. Dick carnival ride. He uses those serendipitous video clips and tunes as card-keys into memory vaults, and as you watch you kind of laugh and lose yourself in being moved by something so silly and so random. It’s all on the edge of your tongue somehow, crossed thoughts and stuttered resemblances, a glittering dementia that collapses into the senselessness necessary to understanding how the world and all its signifiers and erasures work. “This Is It” is the Jesus Juice of the show: a can of soda-pop with a mind-altering substance inside.

“Is That a Real Poem, or Did You Write It Yourself” is three small Norway spruce trees crammed into corners and crevices inside the gallery, the penultimate lunacy of the whole gig. Those small Christmas trees remind you of how odd and off-kilter life can be outside of pop-culture memes and melodies. Nature hides in little corners and alcoves, its needles drying and falling to the floor while we pretend we know what’s up. Those trees are the most animated and creepy things Versoza comes up with. Like caged, uncategorizable animals in a Kafka nightmare zoo, they seem to vibrate and smolder quietly; the glamor of pop kingdoms and skipped heart-beats is drained out through them. They absorb light and glitter like black-holes.

Versoza’s strict, highly edited sense of the absurd reminds me of the late great writer Donald Barthelme, and as I looked at those trees I was reminded of a very short story he wrote called “The School,” which starts out with this intentionally stumbled refrain: “Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that … that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems … and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean. And the trees all died…. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.”

Enough said.

While Versoza pushes and pulls collage, sculpture and poetic allusion out of what they are and into experiments inside his own secret scary little playhouse, French artist JR uses collage and a sense of art‘s responsibility to the world to both inform and inspire his practice. (“JR,” a retrospective of his work, is also up through February 2, 2014, at the CAC.)


JR’s laboratory is the real world, that stark unfair urban landscape of housing tenements, cluttered avenues, and class struggle. JR started out as a street artist and has grown into a sort of good will ambassador, using his accumulating fame and openhearted sensibility to embolden people to become a part of his crusade. This crusade is mostly about taking pictures of people and then finding epic, yet everyday ways to display their visages all over cities and towns across the world. His activism is documented throughout the CAC (as well as on it, outside, with a large wheat-pasted picture of an arm reaching across the building’s front entrance), and it’s breathtakingly pervasive. In fact, in the wall text that accompanies the show, that’s the way JR describes himself, as a “Pervasive Artist.”

All of his portraiture and other artistic activities are posited as ongoing critiques of mass media, but his work also contributes to an ongoing dialog about globalism and fame and fairness. He has a Warholian sensibility, in that he’s using his art to create momentary flashes of fame, but he counteracts the voyeurism by collaborating with his subjects and using the results as a way to talk about what’s actually happening to people and how he is trying to help. One of the best examples of his practice in the CAC show is “Wrinkles of the City.” JR got to know and photograph elderly people in the city of Caratgena, Spain, juxtaposing both their stories and their images with the architecture and textures of the city; their bones and wrinkles merge with the cracks and structures of buildings in photos that are gorgeously evocative. This body of work , uses imagery and memory to both poeticize and eulogize, finding meaning not just if what has happened, but what that happening does to people day after day.

Many of the other portraits become pretty routine, however, especially when you see them inside a museum. When they are splashed across walls and projected onto buildings the thrill is the scale and the reversal of fortune. This glamorous grass-roots idea has a vibrancy in the moment, but when it is documented and static it seems almost like plain old mass media and not a critique of it. JR’s process is impressive, and the show is expertly curated, but there’s always something missing when an artist that prides himself on being “of the people” gets ensconced in an institution built around credentialization and exclusivity, which is what the art-world kind of thrives on, no matter how many big parties are given. The paradox is pretty simple but also very real: street art loses the street when it gets domesticated. And that domestication makes the work seems less than it is, even while heightening its “seriousness.”

Versoza’s work is heightened in the confines of that institution, his throw-away genius given a mystique it can’t have outside. JR’s work loses its vibrancy and accessibility when it gets curated – the wildness, the sense of abandon and joy become the commodities that they shouldn’t be. Either way, though, being able to see both Versoza’s and JR’s work simultaneously is an invigorating experience. This is great contemporary art the way it is being practiced today: ruminations and riddles about the way we process all the mass communications thrown at us juxtaposed with the creation of a series of mass communications concerning the welfare of the world.



  1. Jim Pendery says:

    January 26th, 2014at 10:29 am(#)

    Versoza gave his Art Academy BFA show (“Permanent Vacation”) at the Warsaw Project Space (Price Hill, Cincinnati) in November 2000. The show was pathetic and childish . There was a lump of PlayDoh on the floor. He smeared toothpaste on the wall. There was a card table with a bent leg. It was a joke. It was a disgrace. It was pathetic(did I say that already?). I was angry that I had driven all the way across the city in snow to see it. He didn’t even write his own statement. I felt so sorry for his parents who had spent god knows how much money at the Academy, only to get toothpaste on the wall. I had the December exhibit, and Versoza was such a schmuck, that I had to take down his show (and repair the wall his toothpaste had damaged.) If he was a fool then, he’s a fool now. And still you folks promote this nonsense as if it was worthy of adult consideration. The joke is on you.