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'We're Only In It For the Money' by Joe Speier at Aeon bookstore / Gern en Regalia, New York

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Through a “language built from a lexical and syntactic emptiness,” the French author and poet Marie Redonnet creates concise, fatalistic narratives occupied by people who are essentially left ambitionless, notwithstanding their desire to keep a job. These are characters who continue to survive in her narratives because they pursue financial stability. Unfortunately for those employed, they are all sure to meet the same fate: a painful, exhausting existence until its natural end. 

In Redonnet's 1986 collection Dublares, we encounter twelve characters from whose names each story takes its title. They are described by her as “twelve little machines to make death and failure.” Ultimately we witness the same story over and over again, each a tale “of disappearance and undoing, owing to the character’s fatal need to make themselves a copy of one another.” 

In Lia, Lia is a toymaker who struggles to stay healthy enough to work while competing with a rival toy store that employs her protégé. In Lii, Lii is a man who is struck with indecision regarding whether or not to try life as a carpenter, his father’s occupation, or else to continue to work at sea. Lia cannot keep objects intact, while Lii cannot inhabit a sustainable space. Both woman and man are eventually driven to their deaths by illness and poverty, from working themselves sick, then failing to keep up with the competition. 

Crafting indexical short stories, Redonnet’s writerly practice calls to mind a painter establishing a series of works. She is intent on revitalizing a consistent meaning imbued through varying situations and character-occupations, much like a painter may return to the same images through different spatial compositions. Perhaps optimistically, Redonnet preserves the ambiguity or emptying of intention that arises from the hopelessness of her scenes. 

'We’re Only In It For the Money' is Joe Speier’s first solo exhibition in New York. Speier has borrowed the title from the 1968 Mothers of Invention album. However, unlike the psychedelic rockers, who used the phrase to take shots at the anti-capitalist counterculture of the 1960s, this exhibition is more disaffected than overtly reactionary. Speier has developed a downtrodden, volatile image economy that runs the gamut between sincerity and willful cynicism. 

In his depictions of martini glasses, hands, and cowboys, there is a starkness that calls to question whether each figure can sustain meaning beyond its position as a clichéd signifier or point of return in a flow of popular imagery. Much like the provincial characters in Marie Redonnet’s collection of stories, we begin to question if these renderings have been selected with a certain stock preference, each neither overly persuasive or fully pastiche. 

Behind Speier’s crudely sketched-out anonymous characters or aimless linear abstractions, there is a familiar semblance that becomes exhausted at the event of each depiction’s inclusion in a spatial composition. Similar to the “little machines” in Redonnet's Dublares, who tirelessly labor, fail to meet the competition, get replaced, attempt to continue to work, and then die, Speier’s illustrations of eyes without faces or traces of open-palmed hands offer no signal and seem to compete with one another to the point where each is rendered interchangeable. The individual function serves to substantiate a cluster. 

If Redonnet’s characters lack personality, it is because they have become alienated through their labor, only perceived as valuable to the narrative in their ability to survive the competition. They are put to work, and nothing less (or more, really) is expected of them. Aesthetically they are predictable, arriving as clichés from a larger literary history. 

Similarly, Speier’s images are affirmed through redundant deployment. At one point, these slightly nostalgic depictions were perhaps surreal, but now may be more reminiscent of doodles in the margins of notes or exercises in a figurative drawing class. With such consistent returns to these popular subjects – the cowboys and alcohol, the eyes and hands – this exhibition may present a rather pessimistic outlook for the project of painting. With such comprehensive studies, Speier may actually be only in it for the money. 

Still, is a work's ambiguity preserved this way? Or, as Redonnet does, perhaps Speier intends to enact the belief that all labor, personal and vocational, is tragically futile, constantly exhausted, and hopeless beyond its exchange for capital. 

— Marc Matchak 

19.5.19 — 19.6.19

Gern en Regalia

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'The Anticipation' by Daria Melnikova at 427, Riga

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