words by Pablo Larios

Jordan Wolfson, Animation, Masks, 2011 (video still).jpg
Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London; and David Zwirner, New York. Copyright the artist

Moments before the cut to commercial, the child realizes this cartoon is not actually for him at all. It’s for his parents, or older sister, or perverted uncle. Despite the friendliness of onomatopoetic dings and dongs, and boings and bangs and gongs, somewhere a mushroom cloud of crisis goes off, and the child’s naive little Technicolor bubble is broken by something outside. Obviously, it doesn’t help that this outside is smiling and laughing and waddling comfortably in the vast, ultimately unfunny realm of the joke. The illusory levity of an animation’s horny bunny, or semi-racist lip, or flying anvil, or ADHD sound effect loop, or phallic, Freudian banana slip, only adds insult to injury. The smiles that were once benign turn menacing, the people stop laughing and everyone gets a little older, a little more fucked up. Maybe he shouldn’t have stayed up this late. It’s the primal scene, just after prime time. Whose line is this anyway?

The mental crisis has a structural affinity with the animation. Cartoons like to hyperbolize conflict while they flatten it, rendering brutality ineffectual the moment it cuts closest to the bone. The neurosis, like the cartoon character, will always come back, always repeat itself. Which really makes everything a bit more brutal, as it gives carte blanche to the kinds of sociopathy normalized by the pink patina of hyperbolized, happy illusion that we associate with the comic, the cartoon, the caricature and the sound effect. What links the psychic crisis to the animation is the fact that both are attempts to grapple with, and repiece, the composite illusions produced by sequences of smaller illusions—lies, dissimulations or piecemeal renderings. For the integrative illusion of the animation series, substitute the disintegrative reality of the mental breakdown.

What is the copy of Vogue  paged through with patient neurosis throughout Jordan Wolfson’s Animation, Masks (2011) but a kind of frustrated flip-book? A flip-book, that is, of commercial and sexual fantasy, the contents of a banally dirty mind spliced into cross-sections, then bound in magazine form? If the Gestalt effect of a flip-book is to produce a whole that really consists of fragments, then a mental breakdown is the reverse: a shattering of the psychic mirror, a mirror which was always already an illusion anyway—the mirror “stage,” under chintzy stage lights and with bad actors, more like puppets than actual humans. And like any trauma, the characters keep coming back from the dead, which was less like death than sleep, or repression, or like looking away from the screen for a few moments because of how gross and true everything seemed.

Jordan Wolfson, Raspberry Poser, 2012
Courtesy of the artist; Sadie Coles, London; T293, Naples and Rome; and David Zwirner, New York

The three animations Wolfson has issued during the past half-decade—Con Leche (2009), Animation, Masks (2011) and Raspberry Poser (2012)—are not naive works. The works are distinct in their imagery and formal makeup—collage, found images, voiceover, animation are all used and toyed with, in a mini-progression from 2D to 3D. Themes do repeat, abstract and nebulous as they are when put to paper: human relationships, sex in particular; economic exchange, in particular seriality, commodities, and capital; stock types and stereotypes like the hairy Jew (or Jewish Romantic, or Orthodox shopkeeper from the Diamond District in New York), the insecure boyfriend or girlfriend, the try-hard poser skinhead with a leather jacket and gauges in his ears, the Diet Coke bottle, and the basic/stock apartment or city (Ikea, Detroit, New York). If this sounds like an expansive swath of themes, then the crudity of their abstraction relies on placing the individual units of this series on a plane of equivalence with one another, so that a discussion about a sexual relationship is made also to allegorize aesthetic or economic exchange, and hence art, visual techniques like appropriations, etc.

While neither naive nor properly sentimental, much of their strength as videos comes from how they touch on generic forms that we commonly treat as naive or sentimental: the 2D Coke bottle images in Con Leche  and the self-disembowling teenager in Raspberry Poser seem to be intended for children but aren’t, just as the films seem to be simple, but aren’t—the way adulthood and relationships and love and capital are the simplest and at the same time the most complex things (something that applies, too, to that very cliché). In the case of any animation that’s not really for children (and most cartoons aren’t, or at least they didn’t start out that way), the viewer grapples with crisis and animation simultaneously, as the 2D or 3D forms disintegrate and integrate, construct and destruct themselves and unsettlingly ventriloquize other people’s voices. So, as we’ve all experienced, the illusion that what once was the child’s and only the child’s has, once and for all, been corrupted, broken open, given away, become dirty, been sold off, and brought around again like something hidden away from the mind. Which is why the characters here speak of “adult” issues in the most strangled, vocabulary-less lexicon of clichés and roundabouts that make up the measly dictionary of pat-on-the-back, so-sorry American emotional intelligence, the one that teaches adults to speak and behave like children, turning parents into their children’s babies, and children into little perverse adults. Freud would be beyond pleased to see this new sexual calculus today. Did I hurt your feelings with that? I’m so, so sorry. We’ll buy you some new ones. I hurt my feelings too.

Jordan Wolfson, Raspberry Poser, 2012
Courtesy of the artist; Sadie Coles, London; T293, Naples and Rome; and David Zwirner, New York

Animation, as we all know (and the illusion of commonality is important here) is a mode that uses not only with children’s forms but also typecast, paper-thin commercial media (the cereal box, the illustration in a commercial, a dinosaur balloon outside a used-car dealership, etc). The 2D cartoon Diet Coke bottles marching militarily albeit ineffectually through empty, recessed Detroit streets in Con Leche initially appear not only retro, but almost cute, like something from a cereal box or a ’70s ad or some commercial appropriation of a Looney Tunes figure. The bottles suggest Warhol as well as a militant capitalism: a coke is a coke is a coke. They spill milk onto one another, the way children might during breakfast, but as the robotic voice-over plows forward—pontificating in a somewhat irritating Wiki-style on recycling, exchange and Marx—the milk stops seeming like milk and more like semen, a predictable schoolboy wet dream that turns every totem into a dick, and every dick into a milk bottle. “Can you increase volume?”, says Wolfson’s own voice, a reference to the female voice actress’s speaking voice (more irritatingly, she does gets louder), but also to the fluttery banners posted up everywhere online to increase ejaculatory potency. Such slip-ups, slippages and double entendres appear throughout the works, half-animatedly, as though the rotisserie, rote rottenness of the jokes were already known to be clichés. But what other words do we have?

Con Leche video track, a 2D hand-drawn animation overlaying photographs of inner-city Detroit is 14:57 minutes, while the voice, an automatonic voice actress, is 22:41 minutes. These are “looped out of sync,” so that the soundtrack will correspond to a different chunk of the video with each subsequent viewing. This is no matter: the theme of exchangeability (a key feature of any serialized cartoon, like the serial commodity, as well as an explicit topic of the voiceover) formally determines the disconnection between the visual and the aural that lends all three works their alternating intimacy and alienation. In the artist’s own voice interrupts the actress’s with directorial mandates, whereas the same “character” contains a dozen aural characters repeating the same Richard Brautigan poem in Animation, Masks (2012). We can always distrust images, but the disembodied voice has an intimate intensity that still demands credulity and compliance, like the Hebraic God. The voice-over is always the voice of the phallus, or God or whatever, but in the cheapest, chintziest authority, and it’s this cheapness that the masterclass-giving film guru McKee in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (1999)—a film with a voice-over—deplores:

MCKEE … and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. …God fucking help you! It’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.

Jordan Wolfson, Con Leche, 2009 (video still).jpg
Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London; and David Zwirner, New York. Copyright the artist

The voice-over is linked to the stock type as an emblem of transparent cheapness, a cheapness that Wolfson contrasts in Animation, Masks with the expensively drab interiors that form the backdrops to two works, the way a post-2008 condo feels expensive and drab, and is probably empty, and most likely caused a bankruptcy or divorce somewhere along the way. And so, the turning of this figure of reflective omnipotence—the voice—into a plurality of voice-placeholders, out of sync with what we see is both psychologically unsettling as well as conceptually correct (that omnipotence was already only an illusion, an animation). The stock types that repeat through the films—the most recent two are in 3D—are intimate-seeming due to their patina (and subsequent subversion) of ostensible familiarity: the viewer always already knows the Jewish shopkeeper in Animation, Masks, knowing it to be an offensive (and hence culturally repressed) character type. The viewer is immediately familiar with the parched, intimate, yet ultimately self-serving vocal tone of post-coital pillow talk that the typified “Jew” is made to ventriloquize, but that is really the voice of Wolfson and a girlfriend, or someone posing as such. But like classical ostranenie—or the making strange of the familiar—the subversion of these types, as they are brought into conflict, makes us, like the child above, feel even stranger. It alienates what seemed dear to us, transforming it into a kind of beast, turning the tenderest partner next to you in bed into a kind of creature or monster. The purpose of a stock, as an index of regularity, is to lend consistency to forms that are mobile, images that metamorphose: the purpose of the stock apartment photos that float through Animation, Masks, is to stage this particular nodal point between familiar and uncanny. The apartments, like something we see on Airbnb, are both inhabited-feeling and empty. They appear as they might look to a subletter, or someone who wakes up after a one-night stand to find the apartment emptied and the partner already gone for work, or maybe even how such spaces might look to the police after a murder or a disappearance. The potentiality of murder or brutal bodily acts (rape, AIDS, etc.) as the limit of disaffection afflicts all three films, dealing as they do with ostensible intimacy, and how it comes under fire, and—one step further—how knowledge can also destroy, not enable, intimacy: will you tell them what it’s like to be with me? It’s intimacy at gunpoint.

The dancing, prancing animated HIV virus in Raspberry Poser (2012), making its way through children’s rooms and condo beds and spilling swarmlike and spermlike out of a condom, stands for alienation amidst intimacy. Richard Brautigan’s “Love Poem” (1968) is repeated via multiple recoded human voices throughout the second half of Animation, Masks “It’s so nice / to wake up in the morning / all alone / and not have to tell somebody / you love them / when you don’t love them / any more.” In micro-version, the poem enacts the sly misanthropy that is exacted by the 3D animation, as we see the character become more aggressive, his ears bigger (just as his nose has just elongated and swirled around the screen).

And the moment the cartoon veers too closely to actual taboo, it is instantly pathologized (what could be grosser than Bart and Marge having cartoon sex?). In the cultural memory, works of high calibre—the animation Heavy Traffic (1973) or Felix the Cat, for example—are repressed, or seem icky or strange or perverted, simply because they do not keep up the consumerist fantasy that the children’s cartoon is also naive. It is because of their serial quality that the cartoon never really gets killed off: Bugs Bunny cannot die, but has died hundreds of deaths. Yet it is not only seriality, the Ur-quality of the commodity, that links up the cartoon character with the form of a commodity. As (once-literal) “types,” the cartoon character is allowed into the realm of repetition, appropriation and cameo. And as stocks, they are indexes of commodification, the ultimate animation, the final, unliftable mask.