ArtForum review by Jeffrey Kastner – Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

A cheerfully ferocious “wrecker of civilization”—kin to Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare, to William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, to Fluxus and Viennese Actionism—Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (1950–2020) occupied a crucial position at the nexus of interrelated postwar artistic streams for nearly a half century. “TIME=EMIT,” a recent show of the shape-shifting provocateur’s work at No Gallery, was billed with fitting impertinence as “a three-person solo exhibition,” revealing a sliver of the object-based strand of the polymath’s sprawling career via he/r tripartite personal and artistic identity. (P-Orridge adopted the pronouns he/r and s/he as they were third gender.) The twenty-odd works on view sketched a portrait of a figure constitutionally driven to translate he/r experience in the world via a program of making and remaking, one that extended to he/r very subjectivity.

Born Neil Megson in Manchester, UK, P-Orridge was already in he/r late teens seeking out like-minded collaborators for he/r genre-bending artistic efforts: publishing; organizing Happenings; and forming a string of performance-based collectives such as the Dada-influenced COUM Transmissions and later, as Genesis P-Orridge, the merciless progenitor of industrial music Throbbing Gristle. If the last was arguably the most widely known and acclaimed of P-Orridge’s long list of transgressive experiments—I still remember with queasy clarity the first time I heard “Hamburger Lady,” the band’s harrowing 1978 interpretation of a text by artist and writer Blaster Al Ackerman—the show here was a welcome reminder of the bravura work in 2D and 3D that P-Orridge also made across he/r career.

The earliest piece on view, St. Margaret, 1966–68, radiates a surprisingly orderly, almost classical disposition—the ghostly female silhouette on the canvas echoed by a freestanding sculptural rendering of the body suggested by the painted form, its torso and breasts decorated with winding tendrils of fire. Like the other work here from P-Orridge’s time as Megson—Untitled, 1966, a small pencil drawing whose network of delicately curving lines evokes the topographical skeins of Martín Ramírez’s linear tableaux—St. Margaret has a certain tenderness about it, one perhaps superficially unexpected given the confrontational posture usually associated with P-Orridge’s later work, but nevertheless a mood that always ran beneath even he/r most incendiary production.

While Untitled (Tree of Life 41), 1975–2018, and Untitled (Tree of Life 2), 1975, a pair of similarly temperate ink drawings on envelopes, further exemplified the gentler strands of P-Orridge’s oeuvre, the show also highlighted the more familiarly mordant flavors of he/r practice. To the Sun!, 1987, for example, is one of a number of the artist’s cut-up works—a front page from the titular English tabloid detourned as part of the artist’s insistent assaults on the hypocrisies of British propriety. Another, Untitled (White Art), 1975, features a grainy snippet of black-and-white erotica, the back of which is apparently stamped, invisibly to the viewer, with one of COUM’s sardonic slogans: THE GREATEST HUMAN CATASTROPHE SINCE ADAM GOT A HARD ON.

A series of boxed mixed-media constructions from three different decades gathered resonant totems into arrays like louche Joseph Cornell works, demonstrating the artist’s more baroque figurings of he/r magickal inner life, while Shoe Horn #11 (Red Shoe for Susana), 2019, is even more explicitly autobiographical. The work, a fetish object in which a dominatrix’s shoe is augmented with a section of sharp animal horn, a rough hunk of copper, and a crystal diadem, was made as a memento of P-Orridge’s first encounter, in a BDSM dungeon, with he/r longtime partner, Jacqueline Breyer, aka Lady Jaye. It was with Lady Jaye that P-Orridge embarked in 1993 on he/r “pandrogeny project,” a process through which the two employed various forms of body modification toward a merging of their psychophysiological identities. Meanwhile, a selection from the artist’s vast collection of Polaroids had a more directly intimate feel: the artist smiling with a friend or pursing he/r bee-stung lips; a 2004 shot of he/r cat Lucy curled up in a blanket subtitled, with characteristic cheek, Can You See My Pussy. The images, like the other pieces on view and the wider output with which they are in dialogue, constituted a document of a truly rare sort of fully lived practice, one in which “Do what thou wilt” was in actual fact the whole of the law.

— Jeffrey Kastner

Read on ArtForum