Since the work of artist Ryan Trecartin is set in a parallel reality, maybe our original plan for covering him exists there too. Maybe, in some hidden corner of the universe where Paths Not Taken go to live out their destinies, Tropical Storm Irene took a hard right somewhere around Philadelphia and petered out over the Atlantic. In that reality, Trecartin made the simple, two-hour drive from upstate New York, where he had attended a wedding, and met us at MoMA PS1 in Queens at 10:00 on a Monday morning. The photographer took some great shots of him posing with the works featured in his groundbreaking show, Any Ever, a collection of movies and installations he made with collaborator Lizzie Fitch, and I got to interview him while watching a movie like K-Corea INC. K, a bewildering, energetic journey through a political landscape where all nations are presided over by a hard-charging CEO named Global Korea.
In this frustrating world, however, along came the rain and washed our big plans out. Flooding throughout the upstate area changed that two-hour drive into a ten-hour drive, PS1 was closed, and we had to settle for photographing Trecartin in a musty stairwell and interviewing him in a conference room. Reality bites. Fortunately, Trecartin doesn’t. As is often the case with artists whose work is totally out there, he seems, well, normal. He’s a thin and handsome 30 year old with brown hair, a winning smile, and a calm demeanor. A native of Webster, Texas, he’s gregarious and surprisingly humble given that the New Yorker recently described him as “the most consequential artist to have emerged since the nineteen-eighties.”
Trecartin works in many mediums, but he’s primarily known for his movies (that’s what he calls them: movies, not films), which are featured—along with carefully constructed viewing areas filled with multicolored sofas and the assorted detritus of domestic life—in some of the world’s leading contemporary art museums. Any Ever has now moved on from PS1, in expanded form, to the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, where it will debut on October 18 as the largest show of his work to date. Also this month, he’ll release Ryan Trecartin: Any Ever (Skira Rizzoli/Elizabeth Dee), his first monograph, which includes an extended illustrated section of the Any Ever series, along with essays by a trio of curators and an interview with Trecartin by artist Cindy Sherman.
About those movies: They feature stories of American life in the digital age, with Trecartin and his cast of actors portraying chaotic scenes of desire and destruction. Using elaborately twisted makeup and quotidian sets (kitchens, home offices, and backyard swimming pools are popular), his characters express their dreams and desires in hyperkinetic, stream-of-consciousness bursts of language. They don’t talk to each other as much as they talk at each other, or to the viewer, delivering their lines with unshakeable conviction. They mean what they say, even when they say things like, “She didn’t even say I love you. I respect that,” or, “I love being in places that mean nothing to me,” or, “I’m going to make my own soul, because I’m not going to wait around to find out whether I have one or not.” Trecartin’s movies are filled with lines and scenes worth pausing and rewinding, yet they themselves never stop to reflect on their own cleverness. There is only one direction in his work: forward, and at a lightning pace. Sensory overload is the baseline. It only spirals upward from there.
There’s plenty of shock value in movies such as Sibling Topics (section a), the story of abandoned quadruplet sisters engaging in romantic and self-actualizing experiences sold to them by an identity-tourism agency while playing with knives and guzzling 5-Hour Energy, but viewers tempted to define it as a gratuitous attempt to offend will come up short. To be sure, cross-dressing, sexually ambiguous characters dance, smash, and chatter throughout. (“Being abandoned is like wearing a sexy necklace. You’re free to take it off,” says Trecartin’s Ceader, who proudly flaunts the scars of a recent breast reduction.) Giuliani and his ilk, however, would never find the smoking gun to charge Trecartin with crimes against morality. While the situations seem headed in that direction, there’s no explicit sex, violence, or elephant dung. The power is contained in Trecartin’s amazing ability to provide a trenchant critique of the priorities of contemporary society through the fantastically bizarre. We have met the id, and it is us.
This becomes clear in a movie like Roamie View: History Enhancement (Re’Search Wait’S), the story of JJ (Trecartin), who hires Roamie Hood (Alison Powell) to travel back in time in a bid to alter his “future-present.” While JJ and Roamie flit about in a rapid-fire series of unsettling jumps, cuts, and altered voices, viewers are reminded of what passes for normal today through interspersed stock footage of sexy dancing girls, women in shopping centers, and business-suited men strolling down office corridors. In Trecartin’s world, it’s the perfect hair, saccharine smiles, and glee at toting home shopping bags full of stuff that’s weird. The face-painted, time-traveling JJ, who says things like, “There once was a time when cute people had to do very real things to make their situation work out,” is the one rooted in reality. “I think stock footage represents a step aside,” Trecartin says. “You know it didn’t happen—it’s a façade.”
Trecartin’s vision is singular and specific, and it’s easy to get the impression that he’ll dumb down his art for no one, but he insists that there’s no wrong interpretation. His movies mean whatever viewers get out of them. “I feel like the purpose of art is just as meaningful and open-ended and creative and nuanced as the art itself,” he says. “With the art I’m making, it’s about engaging in ideas and contributing to dialogs in collaborative ways, but there’s no agenda as to how art is supposed to function in the world.” So it’s okay if viewers don’t immediately get what’s going on? “It’s not intentionally supposed to be over people’s heads, but it’s definitely dense, networked, and intensely layered,” he says. “I think that there is an orientation period, and once viewers adjust themselves past concentrating on the surface, they hopefully feel a sense of agency and control in mediating the supplies that accumulate into the whole.”
Once you become acquainted—comfortable, even—with Trecartin’s alternate reality, things fall into place rather quickly. “A lot of the conceptual gaps are scripted to be merged and synthesized in a process of remembering,” he says. “On a second view, people tend to navigate the details, choosing certain nuanced aspects of content over others, rather than surfing the ‘ride’ of it. Even when a movie is fixed, the editorial process of reading and watching it can become game-like.” As bizarre as they seem, Trecartin’s movies have a consistent thread of sincerity, with characters sharing their desires—both deep and superficial—in a far more straightforward way than anything you’ll see at the multiplex. If that’s a game, we’re more than happy to play along.