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Michael Joseph
by Lisa Jaye Young

Occasionally I am pleasantly surprised in New York--pleasantly surprised when a chance encounter with a fellow-city-dweller, say a taxicab driver or an East Village cashier at a corner bodega, in what is often a rushed exchange of crosstown conversation or daily greeting, inadvertently reveals some hidden intricacy of intimate history, some aspect of personal philosophy. I am pleasantly surprised, but also--at the risk of sounding moralizing--I am reminded not to take anyone or anything at face value.

The work of New York artist Michael Joseph, subtly reveals in a similar way, the mechanics of an ever-curious mind, addressing among other ideas, the ambiguity of encounter itself. He establishes the parameters of an encounter, a situation, and then exits, leaving the viewer alone with her/his own curiosity.

Michael Joseph recently presented his first solo exhibition in New York entitled "Proxy," at 407, an alternative space which opened in September 1995, at 407 West 14th Street. With "Proxy," Joseph presents his most recent body of work. The works engage in a dialogue with one another, discussing the idea of proxy from varying angles and media. "Proxy"--meaning 1) the agency of a person deputed to act for another, and also, 2)the person so deputed; an agent; a substitute--can be recognized within each work in the exhibition, but with emphasis on the main work, a body sculpture entitled render.

In render, one enters the gallery to be silently confronted by the artist-as-marionette, dangling from the ceiling by a harness. A series of white cords are tautly strung across the room and attached to a control panel. The control panel, without any form of written instruction, simply labels for each cord--leg, knee, hand, etc.--allows the viewer to operate the artist/marionette by adjusting the cords (i.e., raise both knees into the air, lower right arm to pick up a tin cup, etc.). The essentially helpless body of the artist is seemingly at the mercy of his audience. He is forced to perform random, mechanical body movements or tasks. But here, it is not the idea of a marionette that is important to Joseph. He is not in any ridiculous costume or assuming any particular character identity. The idea is not to address puppeteering or to reference the theater of caricature or satire, a traditional role of the marionette. Joseph is interested in fact, in almost the opposite of theatrical performance. The artist appears here as a non-specific figure, ruled by his lack of affectation and even lack of responsiveness to what is being "done to him."

When I first entered the gallery, I was silently disturbed by the solemnity of the artist--quite the opposite from what I have come to know of his actual person. In fact, despite the opening crowd, there was an air of the funeralesque, as if attending a funeral where the dangling body presented for viewing is simply a stand-in or substitute for the real Michael Joseph. There is something almost sadistic about being given the opportunity, the open invitation to publicly manipulate (within reason, provided by the artist) this relatively inanimate, borderline lifeless body. The viewer, similar to other works by Joseph, is presented with a controlled amount of control. She/He could substitute their actions for the actions of this other person, the artist. The artist surrenders control to the viewer, but the ultimate control really remains with the artist who provides the situation; devised the parameters; set the rules. Upon first encounter, the viewer may attempt to manipulate the work in order to produce a lasting result or provoke change, but as is the case with other works by Joseph, one soon realizes that there is only so much one can do. It is an uncanny sense that "you," as agent, are only effectually in control to the extent that has been defined for you. Your actions have already been determined, your path proscribed--it is you, the viewer, acting as controllee rather than controller.

The title "Proxy" also informs the other works in this exhibition. Each piece does not entice or seduce the viewer, but simply gives an open invitation for the mental or physical substitution of her/his own mind or body into the work. It is not the interaction between viewer and object, or even the process that is important to Joseph, but, I believe, it is the encounter itself and the act of self-substitution or empathy that may accompany encounter.

The work, suicide attempt, 1995, consists of fluorescent yellow chalk drawn on the sidewalk outside the gallery in the life-size shape of a fallen body. The body outline is intended to be viewed by leaning out of the second floor window of the gallery. This work cannot help but evoke the finality of the act of suicide, but the work is entitled suicide attempt, implying an on-going existence or continuum, serving simply as action recorded. This work, however, also serves morbidly as a kind of target or "How-To" guide for the viewer as proxy. It is of course, not the artist's intent here to support suicide as a choice, but rather, as I see it, to re-create or demonstrate an extreme act of empathy; the physicality of inserting oneself into a provided situation.

Also in the exhibition, the work the facts support..., 1994, provides a situation where the viewer's own image and the surrounding interior space are reflected in two juxtaposed monitors. One contains a closed circuit video camera hidden inside the monitor and the other has a layer of silver leaf collaged onto the screen. Both function as mirrors of the viewer and her/his surround. One expects to be able to affect the monitor or create some lasting response. One hopes to engage it through activity or at least "capture" their own frozen image on camera for posterity. The viewer searches for the hidden camera or may attempt to touch the screen or try to locate the appropriate button to activate change, but to no avail. The monitors remain dormant, simply reflections, not the expected players or recorders of reality. It is this encounter and surprising ineffectuality that both frustrates the viewer and demonstrates her/his natural inclination toward agency, or perhaps the psychological need to believe oneself effectual.

The related works, handshake and kiss, 1994, each a printed accordion-booklet displayed like a "Take-One" informative pamphlet found in a bank or doctor's office, act as miniature "How-To" picture books for encounters with other people. They are four-step instructional illustrations based on a readily accessible iconic moment in popular film. handshake (After Casablanca) delineates the famous Rick's cafe handshake, and kiss references the 1939 film, The Women, by George Cokur. These two pamphlets plot the sequence of a greeting between two men (handshake) and between two women (kiss), respectively. Through these instructional guidelines, Joseph seems to instruct the viewer in the ambiguity of encounter and in her/his own interest in the continuity of the narrative, where the viewer is simply given the guidelines and is invited to take it from there.

stand-in, 1995, which is a video-still mounted on the wall of the gallery, depicts a living room viewed from above. There is a blue chroma-key figure seated on the couch. It is a cut-out-like, undefined, non-specific person, suggesting a missing identity or the need to insert one. The psychological impulse is to imagine oneself in the provided, nondescript environment. The abrupt cropping of the image and the nature of the video-still, itself, as just one framed moment in an on-going sequence, suggests a continuum in which the viewer's automatic impulse is to conceive of the narrative, inserting the self for the missing figure.

Michael Joseph's work is not interested in presenting a riddle or in revealing some hidden mystical truth. He is not concerned with the role of the artist as spiritual medium or one-man personality cult. But rather he seems interested in the visual negotiation of a problem: to create the circumstances and navigate the boundaries of a concept.

The more I consider Joseph's work, I begin to see it as Situational. It presents a kind of situational aesthetic, where the beauty lies in setting up the controlled situation and establishing its boundaries. The aesthetic appreciation of the work is similar to the mathematician's appreciation of the "elegant equation." Aesthetic value lies in the mechanics of the encounter itself where plugging in the variables becomes a form of composition.

In the case of Michael Joseph's work, it is the viewers who happen to be the variables.

Lisa Jaye Young

New York, New York

*407 is an alternative space/ project gallery established in September, 1995 by Donald Hearn, Scott Kruger, and PaulParreira. It supports the work of emerging artists with a guerrilla approach to the art world, while successfully leaving the art world Attitude out. The gallery is located at 407 West 14th Street, NYC, 10014.

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