By Jason Foumberg
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” So famously begins William Gibson’s 1984 novel “Neuromancer,” which paints a bleak portrait of a dystopian society lost in the throes of cyberspace (a term coined by Gibson). The numb, silver static of the dead TV station reflected in a changeless sky and inert minds—such was the face of fear of a life lived too close to the screen. Twelve years later, artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel portrayed his dead artist friend Jean-Michel Basquiat in a film biopic, though the film’s action takes place around the same time as Gibson’s novel, the mid-1980s. Several times in the film, the actor playing Basquiat looks to the sky and sees it filled with a rapturously Technicolor screen, on it a surfer riding blue waves. Sheltering Basquiat was his dream of freedom, a fantasy unreachable—the opposite of Gibson’s static wall, a future crushed.
When we look to the sky today, what channel are we watching? Does the screen still reflect and represent our anxieties and unrequited fantasies? Artist Justin Marshall, who currently shows at Thomas Robertello Gallery, is a TV junkie; not only do televisions blare in the background of his studio while he works on his art, but also his current solo exhibit foregrounds the sets—both the TVs themselves as well as the sets and props of popular televised emotions.
In each photograph, the television set bears a message in text, and Marshall performs in response. “Do you think I’m pretty?” asks the set, and Marshall crawls backward into the safety of the sofa. “Good idea,” states the set, next to Marshall in a wig, curled up inside a refrigerator. “Baby, I wanna make-out,” hums the set as Marshall flirtatiously sucks on a lollipop while wearing a heart-shaped dress. The absurdities continue, from a bathtub filled with spaghetti to a bedroom sex scene with a smiley-faced TV set.
These absurdities, in the shape of irony and satire, veil Marshall’s embarrassment for his too-much love affair with television. He confesses to owning seven sets, but the satirical content reads as shame. The subject of TV in art has already been inducted into the post-critical purview, along with video games, cartoons, kitsch paraphernalia and celebrities, and sloughing off the tyranny of critical evaluation, bathes in an all-out love obsession. There’s no need to defuse the guilty pleasure with irony. Marshall’s televisual gaze reminds me of artist Mike Bennett, who in the 1990s obsessively recreated blueprints of houses in sitcoms by watching episode after episode. Rather than force a distance, Bennett whole-heartedly tapped into TV-land. TV is pro-pop and anti-conceptual. When we are so engaged with it, there’s no room left for afterthought or reflection. Eyes glued to the screen—we’re past the point of mourning for pre-TV art and into a stage of acceptance for the friend who is with us until the end.
Quips, comebacks and gags, all sitcom-sized sentiments, are the common stuff of human relationships today. But I’d rather not turn this into a morality tale. Marshall’s engagement with the subject of TV is light and entertaining, and although he exhibits some troubling psychological problems within his pictures, they’re ultimately just scripted, acted, funny and inconsequential. Just like TV.
Justin Marshall, “As Seen on TV,” shows at Thomas Robertello Gallery, 939 West Randolph, (312)421-1587 through November 24.