I first saw Alyssa Pheobus's work as a tiny graphic on my computer screen. I was drawn to the terse black and white image primarily through the words she had chosen to seemingly scratch, or draw. They began with, "HEY LITTLE GIRL, IS YOUR DADDY HOME..." and continued with three verses. I didn't realize until much later that they were the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen's haunting, "I'm on Fire." I found, though, in the un-sourced words the recognition of a pervasive subculture of sexual brutality. It's a theme that spreads throughout Pheobus's work.
With her drawing, "I'm on Fire," Pheobus took the popular Springsteen lyric that you've heard at home, on your car's radio, or in any number of public places and separated it from it's beat. You might have tapped your foot and sung along not even aware that it's a song about the singer's tortured sexual desire, but taken out of that context and hung on the wall there is little doubt. In another drawing, Pheobus uses Leonard Cohen's lyrics from "I'm Your Man," in which the singer offers to transform himself, and take any abuse his lover can dream up, in order to be her man. "I'll do anything you ask me to; And if you want another kind of love; I'll wear a mask for you," goes the familiar song.
We know these songs of love, and many more like them. They are all around us, like wallpaper. Pheobus asks us to take notice -- to pick the words out of the air -- and pay attention to the stories of desire, submission, sexual aggression and physical violence. Her work questions what the works say about us and how we connect with them. These songs and other poems and phrases used in her drawings are one element of Pheobus's work. The stringent, yet open-ended way she "plays them back" to us is an equally important part of her call to acknowledge our own involvement in the subculture of violence and desire.
The penciled letters, words, phrases, and primitive, cross-stitched-like designs of Pheobus's work hold together large wavy oceans of creamy, skin-like paper. The blank paper's presence tells the story first. Most of the drawings in her solo exhibition this winter, "Lay in the Reins," at Bellwether Gallery were big enough to be bed covers. They were lightly pinned to the wall, hanging freely, sculpted by changes in the humidity.
As a whole, the aesthetic of her work, as determined by its construction and execution, is shockingly simple. A stenciled pencil mark -- a small, barbed, dart shape -- repeated hundreds of times creates the letters and framing graphic forms. The grays and emphatic blacks are made in a way reminiscent of Minimal Art drawing scenarios such as Sol LeWitt's cross-hatched drawings where density is built up by superimposed lines.
Some of the song lyrics, poems and phrases, such as "ROUGH SEX WITH A BIG MAN," sit where they are told on cleanly seamed sheets of handmade paper. Others fume and beg -- "I'LL DO ANYTHING YOU ASK ME TO," -- muttering and spitting down from the top of the drawing until they are worn out. The drawings's compositions -- or graphic layout might be a better term -- lend attitude and spin as they refer to embroidered samplers, architectural plans, Gold Rush era wanted posters, 60's Minimal Art, bored student doodles, quilts, or outsider art.
Pheobus has cited the writings and films of Jean Genet as important to an understanding of the way she creates her work. In "'Prisoner of Love," Genet's last book, he writes of his time in the 1970's in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. His writing reflects his mistrust of all forms of institutional authority and his long time familiarity with captivity. The book begins with a description of the process of writing, which leads to a philosophical supposition closely paralleling Pheobus's work and vision:
"The page that was blank to begin with is now crossed from top to bottom with tiny black characters -- letters, works, commas, exclamation marks -- and it's because of them the page is said to be legible. But a kind of uneasiness, a feeling close to nausea, an irresolution that stays my hand -- these make me wonder: do these black marks add up to reality? The white of the paper... may posses more reality than the signs that mar them."
So which is it for Pheobus, the marks or the white? After thinking her work over a period of months, something shifted for me. The queasy fear from the implied threats collapsed. It was her deadpan delivery, I think. Fueled by Pheobus's recognition of subversive oppression (even the forms we ask for and participate in) I wanted an escape. What came to mind? I conjured the exacting physical comedy of Buster Keaton's silent films, where we confront pain with laughter. How about one of Pheobus's phrases, " NO INTEREST IN FREE LOVE," becoming a petition passed around a commune after the first blush of utopian freedom fades and no one has bathed in weeks? Push past the dread until it turns into the absurd. Can you see the possibilities? I can protect myself as Pheobus does, with the juxtaposition of the wild threat of the words with the controlled sureness of their setting. I'm not sure its part of her intention, but Pheobus's brave thinking and sumptuous execution help serve as my shield.
Image: "NO INTEREST IN FREE LOVE," 2007, graphite on cotton rag paper, 100" x 68" (detail), courtesy of the artist.
Alyssa Pheobus's work is included in a group show, "The Practice of Joy Before Death; it just would not be a party without you," a Die Storung situation, opening Saturday February 28, 2009, from 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm, at the Scaramouche c/o Fruit and Flowers Deli, 53 Stanton Street. (212) 228-2229.