Oof: Performance Art

Karen Kedmey
Mar 14, 2014 10:12PM

Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art closed recently at the Studio Museum in Harlem. While the exhibition was well organized, and a selection of the artists involved presented live performances throughout the course of its run, it was, inevitably, largely composed of after-the-fact documentation, which has anything but radical presence.

But then there was the online video by mixed-media artist Jayson Musson, in the form of his alter ego, Hennessy Youngman aka "The Pedagogic Pimp," which, indeed, he is. I don't know who loves him more: his personified Internet audience or the art world, which he makes fun of mordantly and brilliantly in ART THOUGHTZ, his faux how-to videos, in which he instructs would-be artists on how to make various kinds of art. This is Institutional Critique in the Internet Age, and the video on view at the Studio Museum (and always online) was, of course, about performance art.

For its title screen, he uses a low-fi image of Ed Ruscha's OOF (1962) as an absurdist set-up to this particular lesson: "OOF: Performance Art." Before we even get to his eminently quotable commentary, then, he presents us with an expression that summarizes his satirical take on the entire performance art enterprise. And here's how he encapsulates the project of that enterprise, considered with such seriousness at the Studio Museum: "transform a rather forgettable life into a self-conscious reframing of that life in order to call attention to the profound forgettable-ness of all of our lives."

This isn't to suggest that performance art at its best--like William Pope.L's crawl pieces or Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1964)--isn't radical, profound, at once deadly serious and intentionally irrational. Many of the artists included in the Studio Museum's exhibition exemplify this. But there is a kind of cringing, visceral embarrassment underlying so many of these works. They just make you want to go, "oof."

Karen Kedmey