Hip detachment is usually a cover for insecurity. This isn’t necessarily bad, as insecurity is the defining emotion of our uncertain culture. With unusual honesty, Brent Steen’s show at Inman Gallery poses with a passive/aggressive shyness, torn between “fuck off” and “love me,” letting us see both sides of this ubiquitous neurotic equation.
The show starts with a dead dog that’s been hanged by its leash over a backyard fence. Curiously, it’s not the misfortune, but the mechanism that fascinates. I spent a minute puzzling out the geometry of the leash and the fence to reconstruct the crime. Isolated in the center of a large blank page, the vignette is a darkly humorous anecdote; we feel bad for the dog, but not too bad to appreciate the funny way he’s been strung up.
In the main space, larger drawings on canvas are hung unnaturally low on the wall, as if the artist himself doesn’t think they measure up. In each ersatz painting, a hesitant, carefully worked picture is penciled, each hoping to make up in psychological implications what it lacks in physical force. In And the Leaves Formed a Heart, it’s a bare tree. The scanty leaves don’t make much of a heart, but we’re seeing it through Steen’s eyes. It’s an evocation of longing, implying lost love with a touchy-feely sentimentality only surpassed by the next drawing, in which the artist is shown hugging an empty window frame. Sad in . . . (it doesn’t make sense) zigzags back from “love me” to “fuck off,” presenting a string of teasing nonsense letters for us to feel stupid in front of.
Two smaller drawings in the main space are more lighthearted: one shows raggedy black birds flying away with french fries in their beaks, contrasting a stereotypical image of nature and the greasiest junk food fare. In the other a typeset text records a stilted dialog: several sets of initials are left blank, effectively simulating an awkward pause in the conversation. It’s about crying versus fake crying, and reiterates the theme of the entire show: how falsified emotions can be nevertheless real.
In Fuck, a bent sheet of metal simulates slightly oversized notebook paper; the trompe-l’oeil is unconvincing. Steen isn’t trying to fool anyone, just make them look. One bends down, curious, to read the single penciled word: fuck. Gotcha. Too manufactured to be casual, the piece simulates the act of a hardcore slacker through diligent labor. The piece’s overworked bad-boyism makes it more than a puerile joke, it wants to be hip and detached, yet sincere and engaged at the same time. Fuck.
Images are courtesy the artist and Inman Gallery.
Bill Davenport is an artist and writer and was one of the first contributors to Glasstire.