Bruce Nauman’s works require you to Pay Attention Motherfuckers. ©2014 Estate of Bruce Nauman / SODRAC
BRUCE NAUMAN at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West) to May 4. $19.50, srs $16, stu $11, free Wed 6-8:30 pm. 416-979-6648. Rating: NNNN
Bruce Nauman is one of contemporary art's elder statesman, which is funny when you think how his videos and performances electrified the art world in the 60s and 70s. A laconic conceptual cowboy (he hails from Indiana and lives on a ranch), he's known for video, sculptural and neon works that use puns, slapstick and dark humour to generate fields of semantic unease.
Words On Paper digs into the AGO's permanent collection, focusing on Nauman's use of language. The anarchic engine of his work, wordplay may shift a single letter to overturn intended meanings in unexpectedly skewed ways.
His etching Violins/Violence plays the image of European high culture against its ominous homonym. WAR/RAW, a study for one of his neon sign pieces, underscores the strange resonance between both meanings.
Among the video works included is Nauman's Good Boy Bad Boy, in which two announcers on separate monitors, a black male and a white female, conjugate a list of contrasting word pairs in stentorian newscaster style. "I have fun, you have fun, we have fun, this is fun," followed by "I am bored, you are bored, we are bored, this is boring." The repeated antonyms speaks to an unease located somewhere between the frankness of the underlying language and the sheer blandness of its presentation.
Nauman enjoys using the subtle, often absurd contradictions found in language to break the surface tension of contemporary culture. But as with all things worth paying attention to, nothing is ever as it seems at first, second or even fourth glance. Nauman shows how bald statements often go awry, how pure statements of feeling or truth often signify their opposite, and that meaning in general is no easy business.
His etching Pay Attention Motherfuckers says it best, in bold etched letters that are, of course, reversed.