Art Lies, Volume 1, March 1994

The majority of young contemporary American
performance artists employ ritual as a
deconstructive device. Such a use signals a
significant departure from tradition. As late
twentieth century art abandons its preoccupation
with the contemplative modalities of the sublime,
finding new purpose in issue-oriented, often
political concerns, this new breed of younger
artists has been busy pulling down from the attic
an elusive cultural history that had long ago been
secreted away and left to rust. In their hands,
cultural forms, ritual not least among them,
become tools for interrogating the societal fabric
of conventions, weapons to explode as it were the
illusions by which we live. Artists like Karen Finley,
for example, employ a peculiar mutation of ritual
catharsis with considerable effect: in the nineteen
eighties she successfully mainstreamed once
radical ideas by dwelling on the ritualistic character
of consumerism, remaking the comfortably distant
"primitivistic" strain of ritual into this more
immediate and recognizable guise.
In this tradition, the stakes are clear: Finley's
efforts and those of many others who entered into
the limelight in the eighties specifically aim at
revealing the strangeness lurking behind the
anitized veneer of popular culture. We come away
from it with a perverse sense of self recognition, at
once satisfying and disturbing. But such work is
directed toward society: in such work, it is society
that is revealed, and it is society that will come to
comprehend itself through such work. But as far as
I'm concerned, in the end it truly affects only that
part of us which partakes of society. Maybe that's
enough. Maybe that's all we have.
Here in Houston we find Jim Pirtle, amidst the
condiments. And one thing is certain-he could
care less about his impact on society at large.
Trampling anyone else's self-expressive acts in his
wake, Pirtle's work screams "ME, ME, ME...!" like
no one else can.
Ongoing projections of his own face, a duet of
singers who serve as extensions of himself, and a
hilarious cover of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You
Babe" performed with his own pre-taped image on
a big screen TV suggest that Narcissism was aptly
titled. Rather than pointing a finger at society's
obsession with self-love, though, Pirtle blows
himself, his family, and his past up larger than life,
and he drags the audience along in what becomes
an endurance test for everyone there. With his
compelling bombasity, he in effect forces us to
empathize at gun point.
It is curious to find Pirtle using high-tech gadgetry
and taking pokes at gross consumerism. We have
come to expect that such media strategies and

topics signal a concern for our collective
dilemma, when in fact all we get here is a gross
self-centered spectacle that forcefully defies
personal identification.
Nor does he seem on the surface much
interested in the notions of self-transformation
generally associated with the shaking of rattles
and the burning of incense. But be that as it may,
we are made to witness the strangest of
invocations, the birthing of a bonified ancient
and angry god, in all its majestic power-Stu
Mulligan by name, but don't say it too loudly
because it's wrathful.
The Stu Mulligan character, his on-stage persona,
is less a device than a credible presence. It
comes right out of Pirtle's head onto the stage,
and fills the whole room (or more accurately,
terrifies the whole room). Pirtle's genuinely
scrambled mind seems attuned to the creation of
such ritual personae. Nevertheless, I strongly
suspect that the grandeur of creativity evident in
this charged layering of identity will remain safely
beyond our comprehension until this threatening
seduction actually succeeds in pulling us over the
edge with him. And I for one am not willing to go
that far.
The performance has an unquestionably real feel
on stage, but as fascinating as it is to watch,
one's mind is made instead to dwell on plotting
out routes of escape in the likely event of a
further escalation.
We hang on the edge of our seats as Pirtle is
writhing and squirming, being fed globs of
mayonnaise from the tip of a sword, when to our
amazement he reaches out from his bed of
pudding...with a gift. It is a gesture aimed
personally at each member of his audience. Now
unveiled upon the stage is a supermarket-style
stack of tiny mayonnaise jars. You can almost
spot the one with your name on it while his
attendants ceremoniously pass them out to every
member of the audience.
Although motivated on the surface by the best of
intentions, his sudden shift of attention from
himself to us, without warning, quickly shatters
our tranquil invisibility. The voyeuristic pleasure
in the spectacle of Pirtle in abandon depends to
a certain extent on the vast chasm between us
and him, and it is only with apprehension that
one comes to accept this invitation to bond. My
first reaction when presented with this gift was
fear, particularly as someone sitting in the front
row. Would I be forced to smear my face with
mayonnaise the way he did?
He even provides a plastic knife for each person
there, inviting us not just to take home a
souvenir, but to experience the transformation
with him. But the act only went so far as
distribution, and one realizes that this strangely
polite gesture serves ultimately not to embarrass
but to cultivate the receptivity of the audience. It

was a prize for loving him a little bit, a thoughtful
act aimed at an audience conditioned and
condemned otherwise to read his culminating
gestures as willfully self-focused activity having
nothing to do with them personally.
With our acceptance of the gift we witness the
first step in the transformation of an audience into
a congregation (or spiritual family). However,
leaving that idealized version of congregation as
happy family far behind, this "spiritual family" is
perversely constructed along the lines of a
painfully real contemporary family. No happy flock
shepherded by gentle paternalistic minister here.
Strikingly clear is the construction of the audience
as docile and willing subservients to an egomaniac.
Together, we form this more familiar
contemporary version of family-family rooted in
drama (or spectacle): our complicity compels
Pirtle to rage on, and his raging on in turn
compels our complicity. This performance fulfills
the tragic cyclical pattern of parental authority as
alternately manipulative and contrite. This is a
pattern of abuse. Consistent with this pattern,
Pirtle's gesture of generosity feels like an
afterthought, and our redemptive forgiveness a
little forced. The final gesture of the gift serves
only to reify the glory of Pirtle's original self-
debasement.
Exiting the performance space into the lobby, we
see again the amateur attempts at art-making of
Pirtle's own family from the time of his childhood,
the same works that earlier, upon our entering,
appeared so charming. One now becomes aware
that Pirtle's own early, naive works are staked to
the wall directly, with nails banged right through
the middle of them. That's as expressive as it
gets. I don't care what it means; I don't really
want to think about it.
On the surface so similar to the exposures of
Finley and other performance artists who matured
in the eighties, Pirtle's ritual securely rests on an
entirely different sort of game. Most comfortable
in the aggrandized space of emotional ambiguity,
the self-expressive arena, he carefully avoids any
calculated consideration for his audience and
blatantly shirks responsibility for the affects of his
performance on this audience. What he intends to
do with us beyond simple manipulation is not, in
the end, entirely clear. And what else he can do
with his masterful skill is still to be seen, for at this
point, Narcissism is just that.
One is captivated, frankly, by Pirtle's own unease
with Stu Mulligan, his weakness of heart in Stu's
presence. His barely audible utterance of "last
one" while choking through a jar of salsa was so
strongly felt through the audience precisely
because we were struck by the unbearable weight
of Stu upon him.
In Narcissism, Pirtle artfully conjures powerful
primitive emotions and my own more
contemporary anxieties. I am still humming the

bars of his opening tune, "Getting to Know You."*

Carroll, Don. Art Lies, Volume 1, March 1994. Houston, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228034/. Accessed August 20, 2014.