“Arrange whatever pieces come your way.” — Virginia Woolf
You enter the room through a ruche curtain, a membrane partitioning a world from our own. Only two colors exist in the palette of the capacity—varying shades of red and white—and you are immersed in the sweet fragrance of rose petals. These are the first impressions of the latest exhibit from the Contemporary Arts Center, The Perfect Kiss (QQ)* *questioning, queer, a collaboration of sorts between Matt Morris and the late James Lee Byars that gathers correspondence, performance, sculpture, snapshots and couture to evoke a poetic environment where truth and self can be interrogated.
The show’s namesake is taken from a performance by Byars, a conceptualist in the pantheon of performance artists who emerged in the 20th century. The piece, from 1974 and not included in the exhibit, consists of Byars walking up to a podium and blowing an audience a fleeting kiss. Byars described the performance as “a prayer a poem and a play,” and its evanescence inhabits this exhibit. The title also consciously alludes to The Perfect Moment, the controversial 1990 photo exhibit from Robert Mapplethorpe that faced a censorship trial for its sexual imagery, and was held at the CAC twenty-five years ago. Reclaiming these titles not only charges the exhibit with a sexual and romantic energy, but allows Morris to communicate with the dead through art. This of course is a kind of staged necromancy; Byars is not able to attend his own collaboration, and so Morris takes on the role of curator as well as artist. It is no coincidence to learn that “curation,” whose origins lie in the French curacion, translates literally to “treatment of illness.” Curation becomes such an integral part of The Perfect Kiss that it can be argued Morris uses it as a medium all itself.
The exhibit’s surfaces are sensual and gauzy, and oscillate between the boudoir and zazen, owed in part to Byars’ interest in Eastern doctrines. Much of Byars’ displayed artworks are belles lettres, decade-spanning correspondence to curators and fellow artists. There are accordioned letters scrawled on pastel tissue paper, their words encrypted in Byars’ star-constellated handwriting; there is a vintage dress, a wearable devil’s tail; there is Byars’ “The Rose Table of Perfect,” a striking orb of red roses that, during the five months of exhibition, will wilt and eventually stale; Morris offers a series of blank tissue paper canvases titled “The Good Enough Kiss” which are flushed with iridescent watercolor. Through the duration of the exhibit, Morris even instructed participating CAC staff members to wear a special French perfume, “sillage.” Hurricane lamps, floral vases and textured ceramics comprise “Archive VI,” an assemblage of baroque décor that sits on the museum’s floor. Because of Byars’ absence—he died in 1997—the finesse in constructing a personal and social context, in all its tactile and aural tenderness, diverts from a heavier concern about questioning identity.
Morris is aware of his own biases, though. “I want the impurity here,” he says in an audio resource supplied by the museum. The purpose of plaiting the selected tableaus of two different artists presents a quiver of questions, but I find this one most interesting: Is this exhibit a study of James Lee Byars’ impenetrable persona, or a portrait instead of Matt Morris—or is it neither? Morris is, as Virginia Woolf encouraged (the quote serves as the panel text for a quartet of Byars’ letters), performing the task of arranging whatever pieces come his way, a gesture fraught with its own intense intimacy, as Morris’ identity becomes concertinaed with Byars’.
“Queer” is a word whose meaning is forever contracting and expanding based on the context. As being queer becomes less and less queer, its application in the art realm has grown less marginalized, broadening to accommodate artworks unconcerned with the role of gender and sexuality. This isn’t to say that Morris’ exhibit isn’t interested in questions of masculinity and femininity, but that it attempts to redefine queer’s embrace. Morris’ curational choices seem to ask whether the queer aesthetic is a way of perceiving the world or a performance, or both. In the theater of the museum space, the act of curation is just that, an act, a performance—it is up to art’s audience to accept its offer of truth, of how the world might be.
The oeuvre of James Lee Byars gravitates around two central ideas: questioning and perfection. The Perfect Death, The Perfect Kiss, The Perfect Smile, The Perfect Silence. These are all titles of performances or sculptures he made in an attempt to investigate the idea of purity and essence in what he called “the first totally interrogative philosophy.”
Two of the exhibit’s more eye-catching installations are “Cerebra (Lucinda)” and “Cerebra (Yvonne),” a pair of satin poles that lean against the wall or touch the ceiling, limned by the museum’s lights. The panel text quotes a passage from Clarice Lispector’s 1971 novel Água Viva (The Stream of Life), a metaphysically driven interior monologue concerned with the “It.” “I must interrupt here to say that “X” is what exists within me,” the passage reads. “I myself in that this.” When entering the museum, the two poles form an X in the background. The satin sculpture works because, even if it is a failure at articulating the inarticulate, it is a successful symbol for the exhibit’s impossible perfectionism. If Morris’ exhibit is epistolary, it is written in a language we aren’t fluent in, but that doesn’t mean we cannot understand it.
At its best, The Perfect Kiss (QQ)* *questioning, queer provokes a wondrous dialogue between an artist of heroic proportions and one who wants to probe that mythos. It also testifies that the boundaries between artist, curator, audience, historian and critic are vague and growing vaguer. But because of the ephemeral nature of the exhibit and its pastiche, it can also easily be mistaken for what it tries so desperately to not be, another offering of art world esoterica.
If The Perfect Kiss were a question, and maybe it is, it would be a sort of koan, one that leaves no answer, but something even more important—a lasting presence. It is not perfect, but it is good enough.
The Perfect Kiss (QQ) *questioning, queer is on display through October 11.