The pursuit of happiness
The Poursuit of Happinesss
Galerie Maïa Muller
In the late 1980s, a group of loosely affiliated young musicians, all Texan natives, decided that the glaring optimism of Americana, which flourished mid-century, had been fully cancelled out by a sense of bitter cynicism. Presumably fuelled by the tiresome, circular irony bestowed upon culture by post-modern theorists, and an expanding market that left little space for softness, sincerity or overcredulity, this cynicism had become the trademark of American intellectualism, and at that, the cold heart of cultural production therein. In response to this, these groups began to emerge in the underground scene of Austin, together forming a loosely defined genre of alternative rock—later coined by critics as ‘new sincerity’—which opposed itself to the post-modern imperatives of indifference and collective suspicion. Notably, this approach meant that the genre was doomed from the start: by opposing themselves to the prevailing irony and bitterness of culture through the reintroduction of vulnerability and authenticity in their sound, they rather unknowingly positioned themselves against the very traits that had come to define the market. This is to say, as negation had become the culturally accepted methodology for coaxing out ‘the new’, and ‘the new’ had become co-opted as the market’s number one survival strategy, the sincerity movement appeared to the public as anti-rebellious, unfashionably nostalgic and, at that, simply banal.
Yet as David Foster Wallace noted in a 1993 essay on American fiction, real rebels are those who knowingly risk disapproval—they are those who “risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, … the parody of gifted ironists.”It is perhaps here that the most clear tangent to Jason Glasser’s exhibition emerges. The glaringly optimistic title, The Pursuit of Happiness, is a true American banality, long since disassociated from its original appearance on the Declaration of Independence. Glasser, nevertheless, risks the rolling eyes of founding fathers in adopting the phrase to contextualize his recent paintings, and in doing so, resuscitates the discussion that was left for dead in the 90s. Notably, not unlike the music produced under the ethos of New Sincerity, the content of the work has little to do with the kind of unassuming insurgency that results. Singularly, the paintings appear as shyly awkward renderings of discontinuous subjects, such as fried eggs and galloping horses, black panthers lost in pitch-black jungle backdrops, or scenes from Blockbuster films remastered in watery acrylic paints—an almost adolescent indecisiveness, more expected from a clumsy roster of an underground band, than from a painting exhibition in a gallery. Yet it is precisely this precarity, this nervous self-awareness that manifests through the paintings and becomes the intellectual shorthand that gives the project its depth.
On one hand, this is informed by a symbolic—and cultural—distance to the materiality. By rendering each of the works in canvas, Glasser positions himself as a Gershwinian American In Paris, embracing the influences and traits imperative to a traditionalist ‘Beaux-Arts’ atmosphere, yet succumbing all the same to bouts of homesickness. As critic Deems Taylor noted about the the original 1951 musical, “nostalgia is not a fatal disease”; Glasser instrumentalizes this sentiment, allowing a personal history latched to cultural icons such as Tom Petty, subway sandwiches and John Divola to inform his position as a painter—even if this position may seem somewhat laissez-faire, as they say. On the other hand, Glasser’s eagerness to pursue painting in a (materially) traditional sense displays a desire to put ‘Sunday painters’ back on the map, not as vanguards, but as emissaries for the importance of intention.
Now, the ‘90s may have embraced banal realism, yet the cultural irony and reflexivity (particularly in painting) was never wholly eschewed. In fact, our generation is perhaps more ironic than it has ever been, with painting becoming evermore referential and ‘meta’ as distribution networks and cultural capitalism complexifies. The art market, rather than following suit on low-brow sincerists and purists for the sake of ridding society of its deep rooted cynicism, made authenticity its new pawn, and unoriginality the new original. Note, for example, the proliferation of abstract painting today that does little more than reproduce endless copies of monochromatic Twombly, Basquiat and Baselitz hybrids. Perhaps the ‘happiness’ Glasser is pursuing is not a personal one, but rather a directive that risks sentimentality in order to explore the possibility of painting as an authentic gesture, rather than a wholly self-reflexive media. The question posed within these works is why paint at all, if painting is ultimately little more than a private joke or something to be understood only by a top two percentile? Or, is it even possible, at that, to grant painting the same unalienable rights of expression, narrativity and context implied by its material structure, consdering that irony is now not only a theoretical construct, but an integrated part of value production.
Arguably, the goal is not to abolish irony—after all, it is a daily function of our lives, and more than surely has a hand in Glasser’s cofrontation between grundgy Americana and his expartriot status in the French artworld. Instead, the function seems to lie in the revival of a certain form of radicalism that is, in fact, not very radical at all. The paintings echoe a just-past where live home-recordings, teen spirit and reality TV were normative; where New York painters from the ‘70s were still not ‘over’ and considered somewhat canonical; and cult movements like slackerism, dogme 95 and New Sincerity had the underground convinced that an empathetic approach to ones material was a culturally vital asset. Glasser’s soft touch, humorous topicality and insistence on comforting images simultaneously displays what actual risk is in the contemporary, and inspires in the viewer—or critic—to similarly show some emotion, and perhaps not take everything so seriously afterall.
- S. Tarasoff