Home » Loathed: Ryan Trecartin at the Power Plant

Loathed: Ryan Trecartin at the Power Plant

Though watching Ryan Trecartin’s films aren’t entirely a waste of time, it sure feels that way at the time. The hyper-intense mix of screeching voices, messily-costumed performers and banal scenarios come across like a reality tv show of drag queens on crack.


Ryan Trecartin, Still from A Family Finds Entertainment, 2004. Image: kera.org

Watch one of Trecartin’s videos on Youtube, HERE.

The videos on view at Toronto’s Power Plant (until May 24, 2010 – click HERE) reminded me of the at-first-hideous-but-in-hindsight-kind-of-brilliant film Idiocracy, “about the demise of North American civilization. America, 500 years into the future, has become a place where advertising, commercialism, and cultural anti-intellectualism run rampant resulting in a uniformly stupid human society.” (Thanks, Wikipedia – and Jennifer)


Jean-Michel Basquiat, In Italian, 1983. Image: brooklynmuseum.org

The Power Plant calls Trecartin ‘the American wünderkind’ and sure, the editing is sophisticated and there’s something enjoyable about the snappy pace of the works, but it’s unclear why, exactly they deserve our time. Is the point to dull the viewer into submission? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to make the viewer feel? Or think? The effect of watching these works does have a po-mo feel of absurdity and dis-engagement that feels strikingly of-the-moment, but is unsurprising coming from an artist born in the 1980s.

The works just seem so self-indulgent.


A still from Pipilotti Rist’s video Open My Glade. Image: canadianart.ca

On the other hand, maybe Trecartin is capturing the feel of his generation the way that the young Jean-Michel Basquiat did of his. It’s easy to see, in hindsight, how successful Basquiat was at committing the energy of the downtown New York art and music scene directly to canvas.

Perhaps Trecartin is doing the same? Perhaps. But Trecartin uses video without the sophistication of artists like Kalup Linzy or the excellent Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, who also makes silly, seemingly non-sensical, but incredibly well-considered work.


Kalup Linzy as one of his performance characters of myriad gender identities. Image: burnaway.org

Rist has said: “I’m a typical child of television. I know the feeling when you can no longer tell the difference between what you saw in the afternoon in the forest and later on in television.”

Trecartin, seemingly knows that same feeling. But does he articulate it well enough?

VoCA remains, so far, unconvinced. Your thoughts?

20 Responses to “Loathed: Ryan Trecartin at the Power Plant”

  1. Matt L says:

    yeah, it totally does remind me of idocracy! :)

  2. elena says:

    I’m definitely with you in my initial reaction to Trecartin’s work. Especially when seen alongside the thoughtful work on display right now (Joachim Koester in particular; Sharon Lockhart and Peter Campus), there’s nothing to make me subject my senses and sanity to the Trecartin installation.

    I feel like this this revulsion I’m experiencing is the desired effect: Trecartin would endeavour to highlight contemporary culture’s more outlandish aspects by combining them all into one loathsome beast. But if this is true… I’d rather Trecartin tell me something I DON’T know.

    Regardless, I’m trying to reserve judgment until I see it once more.. if I can bear to put the headphones on again.

  3. Regarding:“a place where advertising, commercialism, and cultural anti-intellectualism run rampant resulting in a uniformly stupid human society”

    It would be so great if you could at least provide the link to text you lift right off of wikipedia for your “review”.

  4. K.I.A. says:

    didn’t know about the artist beforehand, but was somewhat excited by reading the young superstar/young blazing ascension/young genius blurbs bestowed upon him & his work in the promo material… & then actually saw the work & was simply bored. just another drag queen w/a lo-fi camera, sci-fi costumes, a hi-speed internet link, & patronage. (it’s as if the ‘musician’ Jeffree Star were making ‘art’ films instead of ‘music’.) yeah, yeah, youtube quality aesthetic, reality-tv, mtv quick cuts, graphically cluttered computer screens, the interweb… context-collapse schmallapse.
    (oh, and the worst thing were the pitched vocals–or maybe the TitLeS With – dAsHes And’ApOsTroPHe’s.) OK, flame on.

  5. Regarding: “Is the point to dull the viewer into submission? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to make the viewer feel? Or think?”

    Missing from your piece is precisely the answer to these questions. Since you rely on pictures and vague references to wikis without describing the work itself, it’s unlikely you’ll discover its “point” . The one remark you make that comes closest to description is that the works remind you of a reality show about drag queens on crack. That doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. But you go on to compare his work ( in general?) to Idiocracy. Are you saying you think Mike Judge is an influence? It would be fun to see someone make that case. I don’t remember any drag queens on crack in Judge’s Idiocracy particularly however… Would Divine’s rec room antics be more suitable as referents?

  6. Quite frankly, I’m a bit shocked at your rather conservative (and, while I’m at it, poorly poorly argued and supported) judgments.

    First of all, missing from your discussion of Trecartin’s work is an actual discussion of Trecartin’s work. Instead, you make constant reference and comparison to other artists; this suggests a startling lack of willingness to engage with even the most basic realities of what’s in front of you.

    Second of all, how is it that you’ve come to equate pacing with quality? Your sole complaint seems to be that the speed of Trecartin’s work is grating. And how exactly does this speed negate “mak[ing] the viewer think or feel?” Surely it at least made you feel irritated; and your inability to think around why this might be suggests a startling critical immaturity.

    Did it never occur to you that his various rhythms — speech, pitch, editing — are central themes to his work, and loaded and communicative elements in their own right? Surely this is obvious from the get-go. Your “review” seems to suggest that only videos that move at a meditative-to-normal speed “deserve our time.” Furthermore, what your writing, and your almost complete and total deferral of opinion to your commenters suggests is that you were immediately frustrated by the work, and spent more time trying to rationalize your own sensorial snap judgments rather than actually thinking through the work.

    And please, for the love of God: “deserve our time?” How on earth is that an appropriate avenue of discussion into any kind of cultural output? Nothing can or should be quantified in that way. Might I, in turn, suggest that writing that fails to engage with art even in the most cursory way is surely not deserving of anyone’s time, neither mine as a reader, nor yours as a writer?

  7. K.I.A. says:

    “…where pretty boys do naughty things, and because the lighting is patchy and the camera is shaky, this betokens metaphorical depth. Its images are too commonplace to be grandiose. And at six hours, edited like an amphetamine trip, it is far too frantic to be meditative, and far too easily ignored to qualify as an exercise in endurance. Thus, its actual content fails to live up to its hubristic intention. Its comprising scenes are either banal or trite, and when tied together, seem rote, conceived according to a shorthand of grittiness or depravity, and thus neither gritty nor depraved … Just as its all-caps title is an empty gesture of authority, the film is an empty gesture of perversion. It comes across as pure product: beautiful to look at, and otherwise devoid of substance…”
    or mathematicallly speaking: Terence Koh (GOD, 2008) ÷ artfag.ca X sholem = Ryan Trecartin 2010

  8. Francesca says:

    This seems like the visual equivalent of Flarf, a poetry movement that appropriates all its materials and is deliberately very, very, annoying. In Flarf, bad taste, as well as bad technique are the point! Maybe that’s the case here. I don’t find this enjoyable, but it *is* refreshing.

  9. lola says:

    This type of review, especially your comment on whether the work “deserves our time” and really what the heck does “make the viewer feel? Or think?” have anything to do with making the artwork “better”. Assuming that the work doesn’t make an audience think or feel first of all is just such crap. Your impatience with the work’s rigor, shows a complete misunderstanding for the medium, and is lazy criticism. Just because short videos are popular and are seen more and more in 3-5 minutes spurts, doesn’t mean the alternative, the experimental, is “dull”. There are SO many fascinating angles to take with an artist like Trecartin. If you didn’t feel like writing about him, maybe you could have at least referenced other writers who have done it well. I see nothing interesting or critical about this “review”, and I’m sorry, but it didn’t deserve my time. There are hundreds of blogs that would have taken the time to consider an artwork before bashing it.

  10. anthony says:

    three things:

    a) the whole basquit as the only artist to signify bad boy aesthetics is incredibly tired.
    b) rist is many things, but silly is not one of them…how does rist and traficant have anything to do with each other?
    c) you have not talked about the installation, the formal qualities of work, the heritage of the pieces, the social or cultural context, i have no problem at all with free floating, but this is just lazy.

    i have a sense that sometimes aggressively queer work makes you feel uncomfortable, and maybe that is something you should look at.

  11. KIA: ha! delightful. You missed, however, my lengthy essay on Ryan Trecartin, which might have been a bit more on-topic to quote. I’ll just leave a tastefully understated and only slightly self-promotional link here: http://www.artfag.ca/af23.htm#ibea

    And one also might have noticed that both the Terence Koh essay and the Trecartin essay actually discuss the work. And I do believe it’s also worth mentioning that not once do I plagiarize from Wikipedia.

    (I’m also not sure about your math, but then again, the last time I was in a math class, I was 16, so I’ll just let that one go.)

  12. DDM says:

    My simple thought is, these videos reflect so much about the turmoil of life in USA, (and north america) the hectic waste of consumerism gone wild, television reality shows taking the place of real life, lack of confidence in anything, money and the lack of it, plain old crazy life, Basquiat is a reasonable comparison, more from the point of view that it took a long time for his work to get understood, these videos could be a reflection of youth, current life,
    and frustration with reality of the decade. There is no doubt they are noisy, abusive, wreckless, ugly, but you know many parts of life, are like that right now. The stories are true for many people. Although I don’t love the images, I do believe they have a strong place in the current world, sad but true.

  13. Jean-Paul Kelly says:

    On February 26, after your participation in “Face the Critic,” you wrote an expanded (?) explanation of why you find Brendan Flanagan’s work so compelling:

    “I think he’s a brave young artist. Brave, because he’s making work that is not afraid to be big, bold and ugly. He’s taking paint off the canvas and creating wonderfully cinematic paint sculptures.”

    And now, comes your distain for Trecartin’s work. Could you please expand on this? Is his work not “afraid to be big, bold and ugly”? Could you please clarify the differences in your position? I’d really like to know how you, as an art critic, are engaging your own practice–writing–with his practice? What do you think of Trecartin’s use of voice, identity, subjectivity and capital? How does his use of video–his exploration of alpha-channel transparencies, compositing, kinetic typography and vertical editing–connect to his exploration of on-screen performance? How are these media-specific processes connected to voice, identity, subjectivity and capital? I’m just not getting a clear picture when you say, “a po-mo feel”. Please clarify.

    It is very hard for me to gloss over the horrendously flat-footed statement that: “Trecartin uses video without the sophistication of artists like Kalup Linzy or the excellent Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist…” And, this is not too dismiss the substantial work of either Linzy or Rist. After all, Rist’s “I’m not the girl who misses much” (1986) remains a striking example of the exploration of subjectivity through its formal processing of a highly layered, vertically edited video signal–in this case, the (objectified) body caught within the peaks and valleys of analogue signals, rather than those bodies caught in Trecartin’s digital compression. (One cannot stress how important “I’m not the girl who misses much” is to a wide variety of video makers now working digitally–at a time when video had just begun its ubiquitous entry into daily life, Rist’s push and pull of the body into and out of a video signal is one of those rare moments of when an artist can outstrip a historical moment. Many videomakers, including Trecartin and Rist herself, have made pale replacements for this frenetic work.) [btw: Rist, really? This is your best example of a peer-based video practioner to Trecartin? Also, Kalup Linzy? A good artist, for sure; a good videomaker, of course. A more sophisticated use of video that Trecartin? Are you sure? This is your stand? This is what you’re going to go with? Really? Really? If you’re going to go for the throat in your criticism (“Loathed”), come prepared. Are these really the best names to be dropping in this context? I can come up with some other, more appropriate, more salient critical pairings. Can you?] Point of fact, Trecartin’s use of video is just as sophisticated, just as worthy of our engagement, just as in need of considered analysis, positive or negative. [btw: as an art critic, to ask whether or not an artist’s work “deserves” your time in an article that obviously gave that work very little time, may not be the most ambitious or rigorous display of your craft.] Trecartin’s process is another touchstone–just as Rist’s was–for the changing course of video-based practices–which has become, especially in the form of video installation, for good or bad, a fulcrum medium. [btw: perhaps engaging with the installation of the works may also be part of your craft.] Like many others, he applies a dense, thoughtful and precise focus on editing and the meaning generated by those edits. And, though the work may not always be your favourite–or mine–it is important to give it its due–especially when engaged in a supposedly critical discourse about art practice (inclusive of an educated analysis of the ‘sophistications’ of process). It may of good course for you, as an engaged critic, to give a thoughtful analysis in return. Perhaps YOU could be more articulate.

  14. Lisa says:

    I agree with several of the commenters here. Your position is highly conservative and borders on homophobic (whatcha got against drag queens?). Your criteria for dismissing the work is flimsy — as if its “over-the-topness” automatically dismisses it from serious consideration. But then you have what seems like a change of heart after remembering “safer” examples of already validated artworks that were initially met with the same “Eek, it’s too much response!” by critics like you. Give it 20 years or so…you’ll probably LOVE Ryan Trecartin.

  15. sally says:

    So much hatin’ on the Toronto art intertubes these days, I’m reluctant to join this thread. BUT I feel like pointing out that this post makes obvious some of the problems that arise from equating criticism with judgement. Making pronouncements about whether something is good or bad, important or unimportant, MAY sometimes be an aspect of good criticism but on their own they don’t cut it. And for those who are interested in the whole ongoing state-of-art-criticism-today debate, big words aren’t one bit necessary, but insight & interpretation are kind of key.

  16. Andrea says:

    It’s interesting for me to read all the comments about this post. My actual post is less harsh than the heading would suggest, and I do think there are some intriguing aspects to Ryan’s work. I like the disorienting aspect of the installation, for instance. I like how the films are a mash up of carnivaleque craziness. But after watching them, I don’t – personally – get a feeling that they are about anything more than what they present themselves as. But then, I’ve not written extensively on Ryan Trecartin’s art in magazines or journals where I would have taken the time to weigh out the work. The heading ‘Loathed’ is designed to provoke strong reaction, which is does, and of that I’m glad.

  17. ” The heading ‘Loathed’ is designed to provoke strong reaction, which is [sic] does, and of that I’m glad.”

    What is the part of your review where you describe Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy sans citation and using the exact same words from Wikipedia designed to do? Is it to promote intellectual dishonesty in art criticism? Or is it just some kind of inane filler for an inane “review” – since you seem to suggest the critically extensive weighing out of artworks happens in journals and magazines? How much of your readers’ time do you think THAT idea is worth?

  18. Douglas says:

    While there may be shortcomings in this blog post on the Trecartin show, I would argue with the accusation that it ‘borders on homophobic’.

  19. sally says:

    having just (finally) watched Idiocracy I totally see the connection. Love them both, though not without a sense of dread.

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