We lose good artists to the past all the time, because their work was ephemeral, or difficult, or fashion wasn’t on their side. The performance artist Stuart Sherman, who died of AIDS in 2001, was a candidate for disappearance on all three counts. But thanks to two exceptional exhibitions, one at the New York University 80WSE gallery, the other at Participant Inc., an alternative space on the Lower East Side, he’s back in a big way, big at least for him.
Sherman’s signature pieces, which he called “spectacles,” were evanescent and minute. They featured just one performer, himself, and were initially presented in his downtown Manhattan apartment for friends and in city parks for passers-by.
His stage was a small folding table; his props everyday items: a pen, a light bulb, eyeglasses, a roll of tape, toys. The performance consisted of him rapidly, usually soundlessly, always precisely arranging and rearranging the objects, putting one on top of another, taping some down, tossing some away, creating the equivalent of still lifes seen in a flipbook.
The Participant show, organized by the artist Jonathan Berger and billed as “inspired by the work of Stuart Sherman,” begins with photographs of Sherman’s stage pieces, then turns into an ambitious visual essay on magic acts, invented personas and other illusion-making strategies used in art and popular culture alike to create alternative realities.
An ensemble of Spiritualist artifacts takes the theme back to the 19th century, implicitly casting Sherman’s tabletop manipulations in the tradition of séances. Documentary material on the escape artist Harry Houdini, from photos of him encased in a locked chest to one of his vintage mouth-operated lock-picks, illustrates the notion of performance as extended exercise in deception that can still, minute by minute, evoke genuine emotion.
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