‘Table of Losses’ addresses the stark reality presented by lockdown and the effective escapism offered by humour—Allan Gardner
In The Weird and The Eerie, Mark Fisher challenges the English translation of Freud’s unheimlich. Understood as the genesis of the uncanny, Fisher instead states that the literal translation (the unhomely) is a more fitting descriptor for situations to which “uncanny” is often applied, gesturing at the discomfort the term describes.
When considering the new works by American visual artist Jesse Draxler, collected for his most recent solo exhibition with no gallery in LA titled Table of Losses, the idea of something being unsettled by its proximity to home, or normality, seems all the more fitting.
Originally slated for a June opening, the exhibition was postponed until October. During the lockdown and ensuing psychosocial confusion, many artists lost themselves in finding solutions – attempting to answer impossible questions or focusing on the preservation of wellness in uncharted circumstances. Conversely, Draxler welcomed that sense of uncertainty and the cracking of normality into his work. He continued to produce new pieces in the months between the postponement and rescheduled date, ending with a body of work addressing a bleak reality and the power humour has in escaping it.
In the lead up to Table of Losses, Draxler experienced what he described as _“_one of the lowest points of my life… the work I had made seemed trite” coupling a universal sense of uncertainty with an artistic one. Looking for a solution, he packed up his studio and moved to Long Beach, CA. The artist painted over the works intended for the show, utilising the freedom of the move to produce works he has described as “having more levity, being more universal in language and relatability. Between the two periods of working towards the show, I went through a crisis of being. I think that is present. The work matured.”
Draxler’s work occupies a space somewhere between American Horror Story and The Lesser Key of Solomon_—_that should be taken as a compliment. It manages to tread a line between horror and humour in a way that’s capable of addressing the uncertainty of now with a blend of sardony and criticality—retaining a quality which made the dark stuff alluring in the first place.
“The news cycle is preposterous, it becomes one thing piled on top of another [without resolution]. Going from social distancing, to conspiracy series, and then throwing in Bill Gates, it’s kind of ridiculous. It just is funny.”
In older works like Black Mail (where Draxler poured black paint over a stack of unpaid student loan bills) we can see the multiplicity in his work. Something that initially seems blunt is not without subtlety. The obvious criticism of the pay-to-play education system is more timely now than ever, but equally, the visual metaphor in the black paint holds brevity. It points to the weight of debt, the fear it instills in us, the power that it has to control us. It reminds me of throwing out bills I couldn’t pay, hoping that by next month something would have changed. It’s an experience that’s common to our generation, and only becoming more so. Taking that into art, being willing to make fun of it—that’s important.
Not solely relegated to making a mockery of a system that often feels beyond our control, the work has aspects that speak to the building of sigils—the ritualistic deconstruction and repetition of images. Art addressing occult practices is difficult to get right, sometimes seeming like spooky aesthetics adopted to make an otherwise banal work into something otherworldly. In the case of Draxler’s works, the relationship to the occult is a happy, naturally occurring accident. The abstraction and repetition of building a sigil is supposed to imbue power within it, the truest form of this being the situation in which one forgets its existence and allows it to join with the universe. In Draxler’s recent work, particularly The Gaping Mouth Of and Vibe Eternally , we can see motifs becoming symbolic, finding their role within different works, and slotting into the spectrum of communication. They are released from a specificity often imbued in artworks, echoing Draxler’s early influence taken from xeroxed punk zines; their value lies in their ability to be redistributed, to communicate psychologically.
Communication is the key—the virus and the cure. Our interpretation becomes messy, choked and spitting in abject confusion as we attempt to make sense of our surroundings. The weight of obligation to interpret, the pressure to understand and react, can be as crushing for the spirit as the problem itself. In works like Dizzy (2020), Draxler allows humour the forefront, stating: “The news cycle is preposterous, it becomes one thing piled on top of another [without resolution]. Going from social distancing, to conspiracy series, and then throwing in Bill Gates, it’s kind of ridiculous. It just is funny.” This willingness to step into the absurdity, to become part of the joke, is omnipresent in Draxler’s most recent work. Writing “Richard Prince 666” on an artwork is funny, not just because it’s dumb and blunt and absurd but because Richard Prince rules, and if you have a problem with his work, then you’re probably going to have the same problem with Draxler’s . It’s an inside joke meant for the people who get it. It only bothers you if you don’t.
The Conglomerate works are possibly the most impressive of Draxler’s career. These recent assemblages push beyond well tread neo-goth aesthetics and cement his work as some of the most succinct postmodernism this side of the Prince himself. It’s reflective of an expanding practice that takes the aesthetic language of popular culture into consideration but does so without foregoing an awareness of contemporary art history. These works speak to the ambivalence of the contemporary human experience, of the amalgamated nature of our lives. “FUCK THISSSS” written alongside “SMASHING YOUR TEETH RIGHT OUTTA PLACE” isn’t about shocking people, nor is it about violence or aggression. It’s about the multiplicitous psychological experience, the emotional spectrum confronting us in a storm. It feels like an acceptance of the lack of control that we have over what worms its way into our heads and of what falls out, of the desire to push that experience in front of us and reassess. It places value on the fleeting thought and lines we can’t stop repeating. In chaos, the work brings a sense of clarity, as well as joy. As we all share in this inescapable foreboding, there’s not much we can do but laugh.