Since the early nineties, the work of Sean Landers has been one of the most fascinating and repeatedly irritating projects in contemporary art. The polar opposites of tormented self-doubt and endless self-aggrandizement run like a thread through the artist’s work along with a number of masks of failure used by the subject as a strategy to preserve himself from impending failure.
With text and video works that appear masked as Conceptual Art in the early 90s, he introduced into this art genre the inadequacy and taboo of the subject and the emotionality of the artist. Radical soul-baring, an emotional quarrel with his own and others’ estimations, private and professional longings and torments all run through his works. He is known as the artist who – with confessional and stream-of-consciousness texts such as «Art, Life and God» (1990) and «[sic]» (1993), with text art and cartoons, e.g., «For the Love of Nothing» (1994), with video works that filmed him or a monkey in his studio, and with ‘unfinished’ sculptures – presents himself as an artist who is failing with his art, his life and his relationships. This is Conceptual Art about the art system with its protagonists and institutions, but is distinguished from conceptualism’s rational rules and procedures by human, emotional and intimate disclosures.
Over the course of the past fifteen years Landers' work has repeatedly surprised his audience by the artistic production of new styles and a dabbler’s input. With a formal vocabulary and a history of art motifs, he has managed to come up with a multi-faceted undertaking that revolves around the contradictions and the odyssey of human feelings, around the constructions of the subject between historical reassurance and today's incertitude, around self-aggrandizement and self-debasement, around the general human tragedy of the identity-seeking subject and naturally, and above all, around making art. Sean Landers’ work is provocative in a grandiose way with contradictions and false trails. The mimicry of antiheroic artistic existence is always also the deconstruction of the same; in his confessional writings and diverse exposures the subject is always also the object of the artist and thereby the fictionalisation of his persona.
Landers’ performances of the authentic bring up to date the tradition of the great ‘idiots’ from the history of culture and art. Jean-Yves Jouannais in his publication «L’idiotie – art, vie, politique» pointed out the difference between the old fashioned ‘primal idiot’ who disappears in his work and the modern ‘cunning idiot’ who evades disappearance, who uses authenticity as cleverness, as cunning idiocy. Sean Landers’ idiocy is that of cunning or idiocy as symbolic protection.
The voyeuristic access to the authentic person and to the authentic production of the artist has been shaken up several times in his works. The video «Anyone’s Orgasm» (1992) turns out to be a mad trip into the private life of the artist because of the irritating codes that affect the medium: video art? Performance? Sculpture? Painting? Or what? The videos «Remissionem Peccatorum» (1994) and «Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture» (1993) remind us of the endurance performances of the 70s, yet Landers mimes the postures of famous classical sculptures, he fractures and counteracts iconic realtime and, with iconic artistic virtuosity, the claim of video art’s authenticity.
Landers has us (and himself) step into countless authenticity traps; again and again he stands before us naked in such a way that lets any kind of voyeuristic satisfaction fizzle, transforming it into a shame that arises from the thought, or rather, the judgment of the shame of the ‘idiots’ or the exposed. Rapid categorization or assessment of Sean Landers' work often backfires when trying to analyse his work and concurrently becomes a deja vue experience.
Pablo Picasso (the resourceful craftsman-artist) and Marcel Duchamp (the resourceful conceptual artist) are the great genealogical lines along which Sean Landers develops a work that – behind the mask of the idiot and standup comic – successively penetrates the whole of art history as an arena for his own identity and his own production.
All the prototypes of the subject/artist-subject as idiots and art as idiocy have come up in his work: the ‘idiot savant’ of the 20th century with Landers-specific self-divestments that drive authenticity into absurdity; the ‘singerie’ that is introduced in the 18th century as a topic for the doubtful, aping and manipulative role of the artist and of art in «I’m a Clown in a World of Chimps» (1994) or «Singerie: Le Peintre» (1995), «Space-Ape on Mars/Self-Portrait» (1997) etc. Since the 19th century, the clown with his changing appearances, has played an allegory role of failure and gaucherie and a grandiose masquerade of the self (Picasso, Rouault, Beckmann, Nauman, Borofsky, Rondinone, Cattelan, to name only a few). And then naturally Sean Landers personal ancestral portraits of the great artists and their works: Hogarth, Picasso, Matisse, Picabia, Michelangelo, Bellini, Ernst, Duchamp, De Chirico, Magritte (his ‘periode vache’), Dali, Braque, Beckmann, which enter the artist’s works as pastiches (in the late 90s) or are present as ghosts or masks of themselves: «Ghost 1 (Ernst)» or «Elf (Braque)», both from 2003, among others.
With Sean Landers, a listing of his heroes and forerunners and references to art history can hardly be inflated enough, since he is always just set to pull the next masterpiece out of his hat. In the present that is full of the referentiality and collective conventions of reception, to create one’s own picture with pictures available to the world is his goal and thereby make it as an artist – self-doubt and self-abasement or no, relativizing authenticity and fictionalisation – with an independent, form-in-progress subject.
Sean Landers’ last work group took the ‘genealogy’ of his art cosmos one step further: his newest pictures are landscapes with pastiches of his own confessions. They are a kind of painterly, polished visual poetry that contaminates the genre of sublime landscape painting and, at the same time, refers to his earlier texts and text art (e.g., «36 Hours», 1995) as ghosts and, in so doing, once again parodies authenticity as a criterion for perceiving his art.
Supported by Kultur-Stiftung der Deutschen Bank
Kunsthalle Zürich thanks: Präsidialdepartement der Stadt Zürich