Jon Wagner on Dwayne Moser


"Untitled Backdrop (Location where Anne Heche was found wandering and incoherent," 8/19/00) acrylic on muslin



Dwayne Moser's recent exhibition, titled “Below the Line” and displayed at Lemon Sky Projects in Los Angeles, consisted of “backdrop” paintings, screenplay drawings, and photographs. The show highlighted not only Moser's diverse output, but also his continued interest in what the artist refers to as “Hollywood and Its Discontents.” The work produces an atmosphere of melancholy irony as palpable and yet diffuse as his city's celebrated smog. Celebration-or Moser's calibration of celebrity-escapes, for once, its lineage in camp and contempt, only to achieve the lonely dasein, elsewhere and everywhere, of sincere paradox.
Paradox, or perhaps better, parafiction, characterizes much of Moser's work. He charts real incident and locale, scandal and squalid side-street, within a palm-lined glamour that argues mythical LA is LA. Worldview as event-publicity, promotion, misstep or stunt-means reality never survives us here, and yet here is where we're going. This facticity, the precise temporal and spatial realism of a 21”x 35” C print of Winona Ryder's Saks Fifth Avenue transfigured in its projection aspect ratio of 1:1.85 by backdrop painters at Warner Brothers into a 6'x 11'1” piece of scenic design, this thereness overcomes itself even as it overwhelms our impulse to snicker. Or simply to discount it as a slick piece of scenery. There is such a sad and surprising liminality to it all, off-screen returned to big screen, private rut to cause celebré. Such a spectacular ordinariness to it all, those crazy stars, condemned to a contaminant existence somewhere between life and role.

In Moser's hands, the stars themselves-Ryder, Hugh Grant, Anne Heche, Margot Kidder, Eddie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr, Matthew McConaughey-suffer exile from the sites of their disgrace, in the transference of site from one medium and author to another, and they suffer their own decline from star into personality, into mere signifiers of consumed celebrity. The 30”x 22” panels of one minute screen time Moser gives them as script fodder parafictionalizes unfortunate incident back into cinematic fate. And we feel infected by our own narrative expectations, saddened if not sickened by our spectatorial lust.

The complexity of this melancholy irony is again highlighted by the apparent sincerity with which Moser reproduces the domestic mishaps of public icons. Meticulous research, respect for time, light, and location, speculation based only on the evidence left behind: These are traces under relentless erasure, but revived with a nearly neo-realist perplexity about what could have happened. Yes, it feels like nostalgia, but importantly, nostalgia for nostalgia. Susan Sontag has written in “A Century of Cinema” that movies are dying with the death of cinephilia, of that pure love of cinema no amount of grief can re-ritualize in our hyperindustrial context. Used up husks of cinematic poetry reappear for Moser as a series of photographs of mailboxes. The Star Map addresses tell us that behind this banality are Rob Lowe's house, or Shirley MacLaine's or Kenny Rogers'. But we find it hard to care except in the embarrassing effort to read persona into the over-determined ruggedness of Rogers' mailbox, or the suspicious prettiness of Lowe's. Hey, there's Michael Caine's half-life!

Questions of authorship cannot help but arise within Moser's practice of anonymous transfer and borrowed appeal. If cinephliac exultation used to inspire other kinds of artists to make films, is Moser's flickering fascination with filmdom an auteurism in decay? In an article for the LA Times Book Review (3/23/03) called “Missing the story,” Robert W. Cort bemoans a literary decadence that fails to portray the particularity, “the complexity of the men and women who choose and make our movies,” and so fails to tell good stories. Not since Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon has “the whole equation of filmmaking” escaped the venality and stupidity of mere exposé, even as the industry strolls the abyss of “an army of film students with digital cameras and maxed out credit cards.” Moser is clearly engaged in a pursuit of movie magic, but is his stalk parasitical? Is the authorship that seems to deconstruct itself in the video piece Exposure-a 21 minute long take of Moser's talking head reciting celebrity interview quotes with autobiographical resignation: “I've always wanted to be my own person so bad”-the Barthesian death of authorship?

Maybe so, except for Moser this death typically enlivens the corpse with elegiac poignancy. If, as Foucault reminds us in “What Is an Author?” authorship has always functioned to define perspective and authorize choice, then to announce the author's disappearance must serve a rather desperate task. What is being normalized? What crisis banalized, what permanent criticality made chronic? For Foucault, it is the scandal of freeplay, of an endlessly slipping signification no longer struggling for Difference and Meaning as much as for sheer similarity and exchange. The sheer circulation and consumption of meaning as celebrity is the death of authorship authorizing its own demise.

The symptomatic evidence of this self-standing signification in defiance of any true self is, of course, Hollywood, presided over and authorized by the Sign itself. Moser's “Reverse Shot” photos of the Hollywood Sign, architecturally broken into particular letters, photographed from behind, and ready to slide into a legendary basin calmly deliberating its own apocalypse, brilliantly recall Spectacle to its densely signified ruse. The mimicry of truth, of personality, of an adequate response to our own dreams and desires looms as pathetically scarred as graffiti scratched into the Sign's monumental indifference.

One last untitled installation from a show Dwayne Moser did at CalArts in the millennial year 2000: A microphone stand isolated on a parqueted wooden stage, 48”x 48”x 59”. Conventional, spot-lit in cliché, the installation nevertheless stuns us with its blatant evacuation of subtext and sneer. [Un]like sympathy cards for Mel Blanc or Frank Sinatra, or the death of a stand-up comedian, the loss I'm looking at warns me of sentimentality. But it's funny; if perpetration equals performance and signs signal sighing, if tomorrow never, or always, comes, does the future last forever?

Jon Wagner
Los Angeles, California


"Untitled Backdrop (Site of Winona Ryder shoplifting arrest, 12/14/01)", acrylic on muslin