Stuart Morgan


Lee Jaffe sculpture 1Lee Jaffe sculpture 3

Of all the uneasy spaces created by American post-minimalists— Bruce Nauman’s ideas for shaped rooms the viewer would be locked inside, after signing a contract that on no condition would he or she be I released; Chris Burden’s lying on a freeway at night covered in a tarpaulin; the parallel walls Walter de Maria never built in the desert; the very tip of Smithson’s spiral jetty, where all that remained was for the dismayed participant to walk back, giddy, having seen nothing; the central vertical platform in Alice Aycock’s TheMachine that Makes the World, with only the noise and motion of the cranking universe around you — one of the most sensational must also be one of the simplest. Gazing through floor-to-ceiling bars at an elegant, bare room, its walls covered in flock wallpaper, the visitor sees a mirror with a gilded frame and a single, horrid addition: a tangle of stuffed snakes attached to the top. From directly in front of it the reflection makes the features of the face fit the frame exactly, to create a version of Caravaggio’s famous gorgon.The Last of the Medusas, the installation is called. But it also has a subtitle: Self-Portrait of Anyone.

More than just a Mannerist gesture, the work serves as a key to unlock one of the strangest of recent enterprises — a series of spectacles with no apparent relation of subject or media, all by a single artist. Medusa had cause to avoid mirrors. Lee Jaffe, the creator of these pieces, seems equally nervous of exposure; rarely does a body of work reveal so little about its author. Perhaps portraiture has always been too deliberate a pursuit; even Oliver Cromwell’s celebrated request to show him “warts and all” can be faulted on the grounds of honesty because it was still so blatantly, self-conscious. The reasons could be suggested in the Medusa room: that Jaffe is too much of a monster to exist uncaged, that he is nothing special, just “anyone.” But a more satisfactory reading would take account of the activity of the viewer — different viewers —— in the space. Too vain to miss the opportunity of checking one’s appearance in a mirror, you or l or anybody will stand in front of it unaware that its radius of curvature was calculated by a physicist. to reduce a head to the exact size of the frame. The visitor simply has to stand eight feet away — the distance from the bars to the wall. Surprise, surprise…a snake toupée. Seeking flattery, we are confronted by truth. Gods, monsters and death…Add that little term “anyone” and Jaffe’s world is complete, a world of survival and power, in which the terms hardly vary but their manifestations do.

While the single visitor, wandering, becomes both subject and object, the work presents that viewer with an obviously calculatedly biased portrayal of him- or herself, as identity falls away and that single person, any person, melts into a social milieu, a nation, anientire race, defined by means of shared beliefs, a set of sustaining myths in which money, death and sexuality interlock in different formations. The aim, perhaps, is documentation. Jaffe is a late arrival who gives his precursors their due. His Inverted Oak, 1984, in Luddingtons ville. New York, felled by lightning and sunk i11to concrete, looks like a monumental homage to Smithson’s inverted trees; Inversnade, 1986. An eighteen—1ninute long sound piece based on a reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem of the same name, recalls jack Goldstein; Blue Money, 1986, seven hundred and seventy—seven dollar bills gridded and covered with a wash of blue paint, makes Warhol one degree more realistic, while collaborations with Nancy Spero and ltalo Scanga, his former teacher, testify to more veiled allegiances. Of these perhaps only Spero or Warhol possess a comparable sense of history. Comparable, but far from similar. As a technique, Jaffe opts for historical palimpsest; Srraiiqe Fruit, a depiction of a lynch mob, bears the title

That publicity and, in the case of Virginia Mayo, only succeed in perpetuating it. If femininity is seen, as a snare in there works, masculinity hares no better. Could Scarecd, made with Italo Scanga, stand as an average male, a brainless clownish straw man, pitiable in his need frighten?

In all there works Jaffe takes the tradition to which he belatedly subscribes and diverts it in the direction of social and political issues, commenting on the way there are perceived as much as on those issues themselves. Yet his best work may move beyond that deliberate forwarding to a bulky shorthand that clothes those issues more fully. In Homage to Ronnie pector, 1985, a china sink and tyre rims support a tree with the bark removed and two gilded branches, impaled on one of the bare branches is a stuffed bobcat. (At points in their marriage Phil kept Ronnie prisoner in their apartment.) Oddest of all, The Birds, 1987, an old refrigerator pierced with chopsticks and on top of it a wooden Buddha, taking his case, pierced by a vertical steel pole on which, at different angles, seven waks are suspended like reflectors, each containing a television, each one of which is showing at the same image an edited, slow-motion version of all the attack scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, with one scene dissolving into the next. On top of the pole is a stuffed erow, looking interested. The themes are the same: survival and value, stereotypes and communieation and sexuality with certain cruel streak. Yet they do not yield easily to paraphrase Flying and levitating, hanging and