The free takeaway from Anthony Discenza’s current solo show at Catharine Clark Gallery (the labyrinthine-titled Anthony Discenza Presents A Novel: An Exhibition by Anthony Discenza) is an inky newsprint edition optionally pre-placed in a matte plastic bag. The bag is meant to protect clothes, hands and accessories from the black pigment within, but possibly also from the ideas within -- mind-bendy meditations on identity, exhibition-making and the work of being an artist.
The premise of Anthony Discenza Presents A Novel is that of an artist named Anthony Discenza exploring “the history of an unrealized exhibition by Bay Area artist Anthony Discenza.” If that isn’t confusing enough, the aforementioned unrealized exhibition, tentatively titled “A Novel,” was meant to take place in late winter of 2016 -- a time decidedly unhistorical. Instead of an exhibition remade, we see the makings of an exhibition: photocopied research materials, studies and considerations.
The show at Catharine Clark is fragmentary, filled with vinyl text pieces, ghostly inkjet prints, a sound installation and a scattering of mysterious rubber wedges (wheel chocks for trucks). The objects share a type of deadpan and monochromatic humor that keeps the viewer forever off-balance, questioning the rationale behind each piece.
Text-based work (on walls, neon tubes and in frames) is offset by layered compositions of often-unidentifiable objects. On the floor, a stacked arrangement of re-densified polypropylene packing foam resembles oversized chunks of charcoal. These things are opaque in meaning, but solid in form.
It's Study for an Essay (On the Disappointments) that really destabilized my viewing experience. The inkjet print looks just like a photocopy of a book spread, showing a portion of an essay written by somebody named Anthony Discenza. The subject is The Disappointments, a novel written by somebody named Lane Hobbs who may or may not be real. And so, “the disappointments” are now the feelings I have after reading part of an essay about a book that sounds amazing, but might not exist.
The passages within this essay effectively capture the dissociative effect of wandering through Discenza’s show: “...the book does possess a distinct feeling of unreality, a suggestion that the events described could be taking place entirely in the mind of one of its characters, or perhaps in some alternate reality almost identical to our own.”
Though the above could describe many things -- that split second when you don’t recognize yourself in an unexpected mirror, Jonathan Lethem’s novel Chronic City or any Charlie Kaufman film, at all -- it provides a framework upon which to hang the disparate elements of the surrounding exhibition.
The soundtrack for this journey of confusion, distrust, anxiety and (possibly, ultimately) acceptance is the final element of the exhibition, a sound installation in a darkened room filled with toppled PA speakers playing guided hypnosis MP3s. Overlapping voices of men and women telling me to relax and breathe deeply had the opposite effect. Their words, along with a droning hum that I may or may not have imagined, filled me with dread.
This isn’t a bad thing. How often do you step into an exhibition that makes you feel, truly, anything? Discenza’s ability to conjure emotion, make my brain work (perhaps even hurt) and leave me with something I actually want to ponder over, talk about and puzzle through is a surprisingly rare thing.
Away from the hypnosis hum, I spread out the newsprint takeaway to spend some time with the Anthonys described within: one a sympathetic but critical observer, the other a self-doubting, conflicted and underperforming artist. Within these inky pages, the disparate narrative threads, objects and images inside the gallery start to weave together into a story not quite science fiction, but some version of reality almost identical to our own.
Anthony Discenza Presents A Novel: An Exhibition by Anthony Discenza is on view at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco through April 16. For more information visit cclarkgallery.com.