Wyatt Kahn Brilliantly Satirizes the Art World—with the Help of a Cast of Puppets

  • Wyatt Kahn, Work, A Performa Commission, 2015. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa. 

On November 5th, Wyatt Kahn took his Performa commission as an opportunity to confront the art world with the many idiosyncratic habits and obsessions that we’ve come to embrace—and all through the medium of puppetry. “I wanted the performance to be sweet and light, allowing heavy issues both about art and the world in general to be addressed without being overwhelming,” Kahn says of his choice to employ puppetry. He lured his audience to a small wood-paneled puppet theater in Central Park after dark—the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, a historic cabin installed by Frederick Law Olmsted himself, which families today frequent. A warm, carpeted space with rows of child-sized benches, the venue prepared the audience for a jocular experience, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a place that the artist, who grew up nearby, went to as a child, and loitered around as a teenager. Waiting for the show to begin, viewers stared at a metal accordion grate, a shiny, clean version of the ones that cover storefronts after closing time, functioning here as a curtain, and a nod to the artist’s Bushwick studio.

Titled Work (2015), the piece is billed as “a tongue-in-cheek performance in which his paintings come to life and argue violently with him, their maker, rising up against him in a comical climax,” but it might also be understood as the artist raising a mirror to himself and the New York art world. Personifying his works with distinct personalities and opinions—enacted through five puppeteers—Kahn incisively satirizes the behaviors and beliefs of artists, gallerists, and other art professionals, as well as the audience. His critique runs the gamut, from the compulsion to capture and seek out art on Instagram to our obsession with artist studios—the ultimate behind-the-scenes art experience—to other consumerist tendencies and affinities we share and proliferate, be it black Nike sneakers or yoga practice. The way the puppets themselves communicate, in spurts of artspeak and via familiar insecurities, garnered the most laughs. Asked if the script was at all inspired by reviews or press releases from his shows, Kahn says no: “I’m sure some of the language used came from reading articles and writings about art, both historical and contemporary, but the ideas presented came from my own observations and discussions.” 

  • Wyatt Kahn, Work, A Performa Commission, 2015. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa. 

The performance began with Kahn appearing onstage and rolling up the metal grate to reveal the set, a small-scale, pared-down version of his studio, including three works, a grey garbage can, and a radio—a nod to the WNYC programming he frequently listens to in his studio. Two miniature versions of Kahn’s works “hang” on the far wall (held up by puppeteers dressed in white), and at the fore sits a piece made from four thin rhomboid panels, which we come to learn is a work in progress. Kahn enters, revealing his own puppet persona—a tiny doll-like version of himself strung around his neck, wearing a white T-shirt, dark jeans, and baby-sized Nikes—and approaches the work at center stage, expressing his discontent with it. He’s interrupted by a call from an overbearing gallerist checking up on his new work, which sends him pacing and muttering. We learn that he’s expected to have the new piece ready the following week for an art fair. He hangs up and leaves the studio—the cue for his works to come alive.

In the scenes that follow, the artwork-characters participate in a narrative that touches upon (and in some cases attacks) the lifecycle of a work of art, the way we speak about and describe art, and the stages of an artist’s career—a bold move given Kahn’s current fever pitch, fresh off of gallery shows in L.A. and Berlin, and in the midst of his first solo museum show at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, this very Performa commission, and a show in Brussels slated for January. The three works represent three moments in Kahn’s young career: his breakout success, his current well-received work, and his future—recalling the unrelenting question that artists face: “What’s next for you?”

  • Wyatt Kahn, Work, A Performa Commission, 2015. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa. 

The unfinished, “future” works guide the direction of the show, mostly through anxiety and shrill squeals. “There’s something wrong,” says one piece. “My alignment has always been off,” says another. The four small pieces disassemble and begin to discuss their qualms nervously. Amigo, on the left, is a classic, older example of Kahn’s abstract “paintings”—wall-mounted works made from various discrete, canvas-covered MDF boards in irregular shapes. Seascape, on the left, is part of the artist’s most recent series of “object paintings,” which incorporate hand-painted fabrics, muted colors, and representational forms—in this case, a sailboat. Each puppet has a fully formed personality and accent, from Amigo’s lofty British inflections, to one of the unfinished panels whose voice resembles that of Cookie Monster. Amigo is haughty and arrogant, proud of his status as a prime example of the artist’s work, and warns the unnamed, unfinished work that it may never become realized. Seascape, on the contrary, is youthful and friendly, praising the virtues of Instagram (at one point he produces a selfie stick and boasts about his 3,000 followers, naming Klaus Biesenbach, Jerry Saltz, and Richard Prince among them)—he even pulls out a yoga mat and begins stretching, eager to stay in shape.

The performance concludes with Kahn resolving these sparring voices—placing the panels into a final piece and remarking “that’s it, it’s finished.” Earlier in the show, the puppets discussed “the audience.” One of the unfinished panels wonders, “what is the audience?” It’s a fitting question given the scope of the show, and especially given the peals of laughter throughout the piece and the words of praise at the close—clearly, Kahn knows his audience, one very willing to see themselves as fodder for the artist’s light jabs, and played to it perfectly with this latest Work.

—Casey Lesser

Performa 15 takes place November 1–22 at various locations across New York City.

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