artists & participants
St. Louis, MO —The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis is pleased to present Dead Shot Dan, an exhibition of works by the preeminent American artist Bruce Nauman.
Bruce Nauman’s work is often discussed in relationship to the writer Samuel Beckett, a playwright who evoked the painful drama of existence, and yet never left laughter too far behind. His only film screenplay, appropriately titled Film (1965), stars the ageing Buster Keaton and adds a comic edge to the classical Beckettian loop of tragic paralysis. And indeed, Keaton’s own films tell tales of endlessly violent acts tinged by the comedic gesture of Sisyphean traps, bodily contortions, linguistic slip-ups, and misunderstandings. Similarly, Nauman’s own comedy comes with a sour after-taste, and this selection of neons, drawings, prints, photographs, and videos make us laugh and cringe. While Nauman works with a wide range of themes, processes, and ideas, this exhibition underlines his particular use of humor—deadpan, painful, and relentlessly tongue-in-cheek.
Greeting viewers to Dead Shot Dan is Nauman’s 1985 neon Double Poke in the Eye II. The pair takes turns poking at each other as the neon light alternates—becoming enemies in perpetuity, caught in an endless back-and-forth of mindless aggression. Like Keaton, they are permanently stuck in a bind. Each poke becomes a tiny victory, and viewers often find humor in these small successes. In the two-channel video Jump (1994), the artist has a succession of very short victories against gravity itself.
Nauman had taken on gravity before. In an iconic 1966 photograph, Failing to Levitate in the Studio, a doubleexposed black and white image presents his attempt to hover above his studio floor. A large series of color photographs from the same period, Eleven Color Photographs (1966-67/70), points to the artist’s interest in “dumb one-liners” and linguistic puns. The image Eating My Words depicts the artist at a kitchen table spreading jam on a series of letters; for Waxing Hot, he is seen polishing the letters H, O, and T with wax. Also on view is the 1966 drawing Love Me Tender, Move Te Lender, in which the artist shuffles around the letters of an Elvis Presley song.
Failure, self-deprecation, and uselessness—concepts central to Nauman’s practice—can often be hilarious. In Nauman’s rarely-seen video Bar Tricks (1995), a woman auditions in front of the artist, performing card-tricks. The illusionist, nervous in the audition setting, delivers an awkward magic show, never quite impressing her audience. Hearing the artist chuckle with each flashy sleight of hand, we laugh along. Nauman’s work is ruthless in making its audience into victims caught in uncomfortable places. But we still try to laugh our way out of it, particularly when the artist addresses and disparages his viewers explicitly, as with Pay Attention (1973). This exhibition draws its inspiration from Buster Keaton’s physical comedy, funny violence, and sleights of hand, traits that appear throughout Nauman’s oeuvre. The title of the exhibition refers to the 1921 silent short film The Goat, in which the comedian Buster Keaton plays an innocent hero who is mistaken for a criminal named Dead Shot Dan. “The 27-minutes of narrow escapes, disguises, and hide-outs are among Keaton’s most memorable performances and serve as an apt stand-in for Bruce Nauman and the way he makes us laugh,” notes the Contemporary’s Chief Curator Anthony Huberman.
Bruce Nauman: Dead Shot Dan is organized by Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis Chief Curator Anthony Huberman.
General support for the Contemporary’s exhibitions program is generously provided by the Whitaker Foundation; The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; William E. Weiss Foundation; Regional Arts Commission; Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; Arts and Education Council; Nancy Reynolds and Dwyer Brown; and members of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
ABOUT THE ARTIST Bruce Nauman (b. 1941, Fort Wayne, Indiana) studied mathematics, physics, and studio art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and then pursued an MFA at the University of California, Davis. In 1966 Nauman had his first solo show at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles and in 1973, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art co-organized his first museum survey. A large-scale retrospective exhibition in 1994 was organized by the Walker Art Center and the Hirschhorn Museum, and traveled to The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Reina Sofia in Madrid. In the summer of 2009, Nauman will represent the United States in the Venice Biennale.
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DEAD SHOT DAN
curator: Anthony Huberman