UNDERSTUDY: The Work of Peter Cotroneo, Alex Ibsen, Brad Jamula and Mark Martinez by Kristen Mills

UNDERSTUDY: The Work of Peter Cotroneo, Alex Ibsen, Brad Jamula and Mark Martinez

An Essay by Kristen Mills

Let’s talk about play.

Play allows freedom with a sense of power and a sense of intimate control. Play is also paradoxical; it is serious and non-serious, real and not real, seemingly purposeless but crucial for resiliency. It is essential to varying stages of development.

I am not just referring to childhood play. Adults play all the time. Artists, in particular, are notorious for it. They invent modifiable rules that – although possibly invisible to viewers – can be persuasive and powerful.

The four artists exhibiting in UNDERSTUDY at NAPOLEON for a December one-night showing, use play to wrestle with and figure out their place in space and how they exist in the world today. When I was asked to write about their work, I was initially hesitant. Writing from a female non-straight-perspective presented a challenge, but one that was provocative. While the four artists in the show are not all white, nor all straight, they are all male and they make work that inevitably deals with their own maleness in our society in 2014. With the idea of play in mind, I took a cue from playwright Young Jean Lee who said:

The question I was asking myself when I was working on this was: To what extent am I a straight white man, and to what extent am I accepted into the continuation of straight white male ideals? Am I using the straight white man as an excuse to not have to give anything up for social justice, because I can always point at the straight white man and say, ‘Well at least I’m not him’, so I can just do whatever I want and I’m making the world a better place because I’m making it more diverse?

So, my two main questions at the start were: Why do I care? And, why should you care?

Peter Cotroneo, Alex Ibsen, Brad Jamula, and Mark Martinez each rely on and directly point at iconic cultural references in their work. In an evening of performance (both live and with evidence of) at NAPOLEON, we’ve got Puerto Rican Reggaeton, a termite impersonating a non-Furry beaver, WWF wrestling and a touch of Frankenstein.

To unpack it a bit, Cotroneo’s work investigates the notion of being tough through the lens of professional wrestling. The persona he takes on – shirtless with a colorfully painted face – allows him to escape into an identity different from, and free of, his own every day person. While in this character he carries out a very limited act where he repeatedly strikes his face with a folding chair. This simple gesture can speak on a number of levels. This act derails the notion of the artist as the intellectual, but it also and more specifically stirs up the idea of a work ethic that is never satisfied.

It’s a performative task, that happens over time. Very close to one another – this work weight of every night… this same sort of beating. There’s this history of something being choreographed and fake, but also certain elements of true contact. It is actually, but not necessarily painful, but over time it escalates and becomes this thing that can be damaging. There’s a real sort of work ethic to it, and also ethic in an ethos type-sense of whether or not it’s brutal. – Peter Cotroneo

Ibsen’s fervor is insatiable, from beginning to end. It is actually difficult to watch as you – ok, I – want to root for him, either to cheer him on or to assist in his finding whatever he is trying to get at. Donning a beaver mascot costume, Ibsen performs as a termite that impersonates a beaver. The comedic aspect about this endeavor is that none of it is very convincing, except for his persistence. Ibsen’s steadfastness is distressing, even instinctual, and that’s how you fall into wanting to believe it.           

Can you seduce someone, excite someone, into believing something inside? You can start to present this other way to confront identity… just become something else, and that’s wonderful. It’s like a vacation from having to try to work so hard to convince people and have them consider all the things you want them to consider…. it becomes ONE thing, as opposed to 10-20 things. It’s just this one thing. It’s easier to do that when I’m in a costume and I’m not recognizable. I really LOVE that. – Alex Ibsen

Jamula’s work is also about an other. Rather than creating a persona to escape in, Jamula is creating something or someone that could possibly be his own stand-in. By recreating the Helvetica Man to his size and actual weight, Jamula aims to create an arbitrator to express his own interactions, much like artist Julian Opie, whose figures impart the specificity of an individual through a highly stylized reduction of a face or figure. But, this figure is a life-size doll.

What I am making deals with a generic thing, it is a universal thing… but the way I am approaching it specifically now feels so much more personal. I feel in-tune with it. I am thinking about endurance performances, like William Pope.L I’ve decided to create this universal form, and beat the shit out of it until it becomes something different. – Brad Jamula

A similar earnestness can be seen in Martinez’s work as he desperately searches for a way to obtain cultural identity. Being half Puerto Rican and half Korean, without a strong connection to either culture, leaves Martinez trying to take on roles that allow him to create an entry point. His self-manufactured Reggaeton posters promotes him as the Star:

It’s the only way I can access it, as an artist. I honestly don’t have a connection to the Puerto Rican side, or the Korean side… I never fit in to either one of those communities.

Being an artist and doing these performances with the posters, that’s like literally the quickest way and the only way I can connect to those Puerto Rican roots. – Mark Martinez

Illustrating their concepts individually makes it appear as though these four artists are in parallel play. But to see their ideas colliding as a group is where their commonalities strike chords.

For example, WWF wrestling events are notorious for being called out as fake, or choreographed. The same is questioned in Reggaeton. And as Martinez is crafting this Reggaeton star, he is looking for a connection to a lineage, which goes back to Cotroneo’s painted face – that ties into the history of Mexican wrestling – the masks they sported based on family legacy, like a coat of arms. The chair that Cotroneo interacts with is a stand in for the other opponent. Jamula has created his own opponent in a certain likeness. He is still negotiating the script, but the tension is palpable. And Ibsen’s artificiality is undeniable, while his opponent is himself.

These artists knowingly set themselves up for failure. Yet, their work ethic and tenacity keep on. They just keep at it. They get up and do it again. And do it again. And again. And again. Yes, it’s self-perpetuating and ultimately, it’s cruel optimism. According to author and professor, Lauren Berlant, at the University of Chicago: cruel optimism is a relation that exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.

I think everything that’s disappointing is accompanied by forms of refusal to be resigned to normative fantasy. And I do think it’s the job of writers and critics and artists and everyone to create better objects for better fantasies — which is to say objects that offer the possibility of less cruel-optimistic relations. – Lauren Berlant

These guys are playing with exactly that, “creating better objects for better fantasies.”

And, I am rooting for their resilience.




About the Author:

Kristen Mills holds an MFA from Tyler School of Art, and an MSAE from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She splits her time between Philadelphia and Boston, as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Tyler and MassArt. Mills’ work engages a variety of strategies: video, audio, interactive projections, text-based murals, performances, talk shows, collaborative engagements, mobile coffee units, and teaching – in an ongoing investigation of how meaning is constructed in our contemporary culture. Her work has been exhibited and distributed in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Rome, Italy.

To download a .pdf version of this essay, click UNDERSTUDY_Mills_Kristen_Dec_2014.

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