“Obscenity is a cleansing process, whereas pornography only adds to the murk.” —Henry Miller
Today, my office is in my bedroom. I wear sunglasses because of the East-facing window. I “art direct” my Skype window. Curtains pulled, I position my laptop to darken half of the screen symmetrically.
Suddenly… I’m Skyping with performance artist and filmmaker Zefrey Throwell. He’s inside Garis & Hahn, in the Lower East Side, where his 3-part solo exhibition PLOTTING is opening tonight.
Zefrey’s an immediate delight, pleasantly detached from the shocking nature of his work. His see-through shades, greyish amber, complement the hoary highlights in his cartoonish, wispy bouffant. We embark on a head-clearing, cathartic dialogue—a wasabi-esque hilarity if you will.
As with many seemingly extroverted intellects, Zefrey speaks in cogent bursts. He’s unguarded, insightful—but critical. Despite obvious Situationist influence, he displays a radiant awe. We exchange hearty laughs throughout our 45-minute conversation. We begin with a playful chat about Hollywood, directors… we move over to the concept of celebrity.
Have you ever had a good friend of yours get famous? You’re both living poor squalid lives and then like holy shit, “I just saw you in a magazine?”
This is the basic foundation that America is predicated on, at least today. It’s the “Rags-to-Riches” story, that everyone, from Jay-Z, to my neighbor who’s living off food stamp… they all believe.
Debord called celebrity, something like… The life of the seemingly lived. What is celebrity to you?
Sounds like my idea of a living hell. Someone’s either trying to take a picture of you or asking to sign an autograph.
Behind Zefrey, stretches a long, narrow, L-shape gallery. Paintings hang on either side; some have darts lodged in the wall beside. That’s because one part of PLOTTING expects viewers to throw darts at six textual canvases. Why? To plot their own film, of course.
Here’s one of the first paintings. These are all the characters. Protagonist, Antagonist, Male, Female and Trans. [Along with] their professions. Parent Teacher Conference… The Next Dalai Lama…
Zefrey prepares to throw the dart. He hollers back at his device.
This is the first dart thrown! … You ready?
Bang! The dart hammers the canvas. He inspects the results.
I’m a male antagonist for the film. I am the most beautiful person in the world… but dumb as a rock. [shared laughter] My other choice would have been the smartest person in the world… but ugly as dogshit.
Manhattan sirens Doppler into and out of the space, periodically drowning out our audio feed. Zefrey plots out the rest of our film while we converse. “Hot and dumb. Ugly and smart. The screenplay is built on stereotypes. It’s like Spectacle loves binaries, Zefrey.”
You see someone, you think, Is this Spectacle? Or is this normal life? When I think about Spectacle, I try to bring it into my practical life.
How do you do this? As an artist in New York City.
In my personal opinion, New York City is one of the most conservative places in the world. It is a streamlined town, built on money. It was not a religious colony. It was first a Dutch trading post for trading beaver pelts, then moving into a town of commerce. Money inherently tends to stay on a conservative trajectory because that’s what tends to make the most money—not taking the crazy chances that then fall—always taking just the right amount of chance.
This reminds me of Michael Bay. Blockbuster filmmaker, notoriously lucrative, produced like clockwork… Where’s the subversion?
The engine of fame is beautiful… if it focuses on somebody who has something to say. All of a sudden those things are illuminated, for the world… What if Hitchcock had never got to say the things he had to say about human emotion, about horror… That man had profound things to comment on, inside of us… And he only got that because that… searchlight of fame, fell on him… But when it falls on someone who doesn’t have much to say… then you end up with this… Kardashian view of the world… Where everyone from my mother, to famous critics across the world, to everyone in between… [We’re left wondering], Why are you talking? Why are we paying attention?
Kim’s tricking us. She must be highly intelligent—to hang a career on a sex tape—that her own mother distributed!
Kim Kardashian plays the game well but does that mean she is someone special? I’m just an artist—I defer to the psychologists to figure this problem out. Are the people that I look up to, the ones who are succeeding at a broken game or making new rules for us to play by?
After 5 more dart throws—one is a near bullseye—we’ve actively determined the mechanics of our story. Set in an empty Times Square 1,500 years in the future, we’re a male antagonist who’s the most beautiful person in the world, but dumb as a rock. Our underlying emotion is surprise and sadness with a hint of disapproval. We’re on a quest (mixed with a little rebirth), where our fear of feces and our fetishism/transvestistism leads us to saving our boy scout troop while plugging a sinking ship with our arm in shark infested waters. Tres bien, right?
Zefrey describes the second part of the exhibition, a series of esoteric, textual paintings forming detail-less synopses of well-regarded films. Viewers then guess the film.
It’s a strange thing, though. Most people, before people they finish reading the text, they want to know what movie it is. And they’ll ask, because it’s not written anywhere, “What movie is it?” Then you have to say, “Did you read the text?” “Almost, I got halfway through.” And these are short. Very short.
Zefrey lifts his computer and points his camera towards a nearby canvas. In a distant voice he yells, “There’s not much text here, you know?” We laugh. He calls back, “Right… RIGHT?”
Back in his seat. I tell Zefrey, “You’re making us work.”
[PLOTTING] makes people work a little bit. There’s some reading to do…The thing that I love… there’s this feeling when people actually solve one of them. It comes to them—this magnificent light bulb over their head—this immediate feeling of accomplishment—like they’ve broken through. This is the feeling I hope to inspire in people. The feeling that cinema is something that they can directly engage with. It’s a riddle to be solved, and then lived.
Can I play?
There’s nine, but I’ll show you one right now.
Bleak swaths of color, slashes of prose. Zefrey’s paintings are decidedly esoteric. Their obscene granularity—like a dichromatic stitching—induce a subliminal, propagandistic effect. I wonder, Is their a face lurking? Am I seeing things?
Zefrey shows me the third and final part of the exhibition—a 12 minute fetish film that’s viewable through a peephole. Zefrey takes his phone and “inserts me” into the hole (take that how you will). I’m blessed. Zefrey narrates while I watch.
That’s them throwing [the darts].
The film—technically a metafilm, since the actors interact with the same paintings now on display—Is highly stylized erotica. Imagine a Game of Thrones sex scene, setless, set in black emptiness, directed Fassbinder. It stars two dominatrices, one male submissive sex slave—brief close-ups on chests, arms, reminds me of Golden-era Godard—
Suddenly, a man’s bent over. I can see his anus and balls clearly. I later question if this is a hired actor or Zefrey himself. He’s known for his public nudity and for starring in his own films depicting graphic, possibly real, sex.
Here’s her preparing many small candles that they are going to put in his ass and light on fire.
It’s like Ulrich Seidl. Dog Days!
[shared laughter] It’s a little more graphic than Hundstage.
Zefrey’s obscene metaphysical illuminations aren’t fit for mass consumption—either by the masses, or en masse. Part Jean-Luc Godard’s condemning fingerpoint at Hollywood, part John Baldessari’s savage gallery wit, part Maplethorpe’s illuminating penetration, Zefrey is then like conceptual horseradish, i.e. an experience demanding appropriate context to be thoroughly enjoyed, e.g. I wouldn’t recommend PLOTTING for a first date.
According to Zefrey’s reps, PLOTTING seeks to challenge the passivity of the consumer experience found in motion picture entertainment by breaking down the elements of movie making. But, for at least the first one hundred years, wasn’t cinema by definition passive? Waiting for the general populace to produce Terminator seems like a cruel implication of the “Infinite Monkey Theorem”.
Intellectually, PLOTTING revels in absurdity, gleefully pulling the curtains back on narrative foundation. But, where Twitter trolls and epistemological snoozers (sorry, academia) might unite in hurling insults at Hollywood, Zefrey sublates, through a trifecta of simple mechanics, facepalm-worthy comedy and graphic sexuality. He’ll make you laugh (imagine a 103-year-old getting a libido implant in the 23rd century), while spotlighting America’s less savory aspects--our systemic fear of Muslims, for instance. He’ll sneak in hardcore erotica investigating extreme, outré fetishes… but pull it off tantamount to “the nude”.
If you tolerate laughter in the gallery, Zefrey Throwell’s second solo exhibition PLOTTING will be a spicy, riotous accouterment to existence in the Conceptual Age. If you embrace its “surface obscenity”, one may then reset their cultural palette, or at least “taste” the Spectacle with renewed clarity.
PLOTTING runs April 2 – May 2, 2015 at Garis & Hahn; 263 Bowery, New York, NY 10002
Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 7 pm
Artist Zefrey Throwell was born at home in rural Oregon and raised in Alaska. He received his B.A. from San Francisco State University. His work has been exhibited in international institutions including the Museum of Modern Art and covered by outlets like CNN, BBC, ABC News and more.