Reality Bytes

Taking advantage of the Internet generation’s ADD mind-set, the artist Jordan Wolfson is making robots, videos, and a name for himself as an art world provocateur.

Jordan Wolfson

The humanoid robot, a busty female figure engineered to swivel her hips, move her handsfluidly, and follow your eyes, is not quite herself on a sweltering day in August, just east of the Burbank movie studios near Los Angeles. Her grotesque brackish-green mask is missing,exposing a tiny camera loaded with motion-trackingsoftware embedded in her forehead. Stripped of herskin and her white vinyl thigh-high boots, she looks like an anatomy dummy, with limbs made of cables instead of flesh and bones. But despite appearances, there’s no real cause for concern: The bizarrely lifelike sculpture, animated by 48 motors, is simply back in the workshop for a tune-up after her debut at the David Zwirner gallery in New York this past spring, where she was the hit of Jordan Wolfson’s solo show. And, in fact, she now needs to be cloned, as Zwirner sold out the edition ofthree to megacollectors, Eli Broad among them.

With her serious cleavage, direct gaze, and man’s voice, the gyrating hypersexual robot generated excitement not only in New York but also at Basel, where she traveled this past June as part of a performance art show curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist, fueling Wolfson’s anointment as the Next Big Thing. “It’s gimmicky,” the artist Jack Pierson said of the work, “but also shockingly soulful.” In *The New*York Times, Holland Cotter summarized the hype,calling Wolfson “the latest in a line of young male artists to shoot to the top of the New York career heap with relatively little buildup.”

Not unlike his animatronic protégée, Wolfson, 34, seems to be in recovery when I visit his studio in Glendale. Wearing gray Nike sweatpants and a souvenir T-shirt from the recent Mike Kelley retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), he rises to greet me from a tatami-style mat in a front office. “I was just meditating,” he explains. The space is cluttered with stacks of towels and a large blue Ikea bag filled with new dishes. As it turns out, Wolfson has just broken up with his girlfriend, the photographer Gaea Woods, and is in the throes of moving from the house they shared to a rental in Los Feliz. This latest transition follows his big move, about a year ago, from New York to Los Angeles, where he relocated, in part, to be closer to Spectral Motion, the animatronics studio that engineered his robot.

Professionally, too, much is in flux. “You caught me at a low-frequency moment,” he mumbles. “I’m in between things. One big wave just came in, and another is coming.” That approaching swell is a show at the Serpentine Gallery in London, slated for the fall of 2015, which will feature a character he calls Huck Finn—“a kind of a trickster kid, a permission breaker, a boundary pusher, which I think is maybe what an artist should be.” Best known as a video artist, Wolfson plans to feature the freckled rebel in an animated piece, some large prints (based on Photoshop-style collages), and a series of moving—or “falling,” he suggests without elaborating, not wanting to commit yet to a plan—sculptures.

At around 4,300 square feet, Wolfson’s studio, thoughhis largest to date, is modest by L.A. art star standards. He has a small mirrored room set up for hisanimatronics work, and an open area contains an ink-jet printer that can produce images as wide as 66 inches. He has only one assistant. But the artist does rely on outside collaborators, from the engineers at Spectral Motion to the assorted animators for his videos, which employ hand-drawn and computer-generated imagery (CGI) and sample an array of references, from Betty Boop to Caravaggio.

With its mash-up aesthetic, Wolfson’s work has been compared to that of the video artist Ryan Trecartin: Both capture the ADD mind-set of the YouTube generation. But Wolfson is more interested in the strange, persistent power of the images we consume and distribute than in the social tics and family dynamics that define us. His first major video, Con Leche, from 2009, consists of hand-drawn Diet Coke bottles filled with milk and marching through city streets—a surreal drama about commodities assuming a life beyond thegrocery store shelves. Then came Animation, Masks,2011, for which he took a stock Internet image of the “evil Jew” and brought the bearded, beak-nosed Shylock stereotype to life through CGI. “I had a playful and grandiose idea: to make for the first time a Pop art piece with a Jewish figure, without it being marinated in Holocaust guilt,” he said. His Jewish parents, understandably, were less than thrilled. “My father was concerned it would ruin my career.” Wolfson credits his aunt, Erica Jong, whose 1973 bestselling novel, Fear of Flying, famously read as a manual for sexual liberation, with encouraging him to go through with it. “I was able to affirm for him that you can’t follow what your family thinks is nice, or you’d never be an artist,” Jong recalls.

Irreverence runs through the jumpy story line of2012’s Raspberry Poser, which features Wolfson dressed as a punk in a Paris park. There is also a boyish cartoon character who disembowels himself; a giant animated condom floating through Manhattan streets spilling red Valentine-style hearts; and a spiky red image of the human immunodeficiency virus that bounces through themovie. “I try to work in a nonjudgmental, associative way—where I don’t say, ‘That’s right’ or ‘That’s wrong,’” says Wolfson, as he pets his dog, Midnight, a black Lab mix he found in the middle of the road one night. “Myattitude is to be a witness to the world.” He points to the springy animation of the virus as an example. “Some people will say I don’t have permission or license to use this image because I’m not HIV positive or gay. But all of this stuff exists within the world, and I’m witnessing it.” Says Philippe Vergne, the director of MOCA, “Jordan is good at pushing everyone’s buttons. He’s not a trickster but a court jester. His work is sweet and funny and mean and cruel and absolutely irreverent.”

Raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and in Connecticut by a psychoanalyst mother and an entrepreneur father, Wolfson had a comfortable childhood materially, but he struggled academically, due to ADD and dysgraphia (difficulty writing). Then, at 15, he was asked to create something symbolic in art class. He made a vivid Expressionistic painting of his grandfather, who was hospitalized at the time, and found he was “able to access a side of myself I couldn’t otherwise,” he says. He scrapped a vague notion of being a professional skateboarder—“I was not an athlete”—and before longheaded off to the Rhode Island School of Design.

In 2002, while he was still in school, the Stockholm gallery Brändström & Stene exhibited his video work, then gave him a solo show after he graduated that featured a larger video installation. Another early break came with his inclusion in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, where he presented a short video that translates a Charlie Chaplinspeech from the 1940 classic The Great Dictator intoAmerican Sign Language. In the Los Angeles Times, critic Christopher Knight dismissed the sign language piece as an example of “one-liners [that] pass as art.”

At the studio, finishing a green vitamin drink and reaching into the fridge for a hard-boiled egg, Wolfson shakes his head at the mention of Knight’s review. “Stuff like that fucked me up back then,” he says. “I was still a kid; I was not ready for it. I was 25, so I retreated and tried to make safe work. I was a dark person, jealous of other artists.” He describes himself at the time as “the most obnoxious, ambitious artist you can imagine.”

He meditates regularly, and in 2010 he started seeing a New York psychoanalyst who used hypnosis to help him work through his anxiety and anger issues. But like much of his art, those issues seem far from resolved. This past spring, at the Boom Boom Room nightclub in New York, Wolfson got into a fight with an artist he has known since college. “I put my thumbs in his mouth and started spreading it open at the corners,” Wolfson says. “He pushed a button in me. It makes me feel sick to my stomach that I still have this anger.”

Some critics find an ugly sort of misogyny or, atleast, unseemly gamer-style fantasy in his dolled-up and roughed-up female robot, whose rubbery body is dramatically smeared with dirt. That idea “came a little from Jeff Koons,” Wolfson says, referring to Koons’s quasi-pornographic “Made in Heaven” series. “I had this notion that she had escaped from something relatively unscathed, without cuts or bruises—just dirty.”

Strangely, the impetus for making the robot came from a visit to Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents with the artist Alex Israel in December 2012. “I saw an animatronic version of President Obama, and I was floored. He was moving his hands—and the physicality drove me crazy. I wanted that inside my work.”

Wolfson alternately identifies with the robot (“She is me”) and distances himself from his creation (“What comes out of me isn’t literal, isn’t my desires”). The sexy-scary robot both does and does not reflect his own vision of romantic intimacy. The bad-boy, attention-getting antics in his artworks are not, he says, intended to be transgressive: “I hate the idea of spectacle.” As for Koons, whom he mentions frequently, borrows fromoccasionally, and calls a genius, he denies any particular connection between the work of that master provocateur and his own, at one point declaring, “The only king in my castle is me.”

What’s interesting about these contradictions is justhow little Wolfson seeks to resolve them—and howmuch he believes in art as a safe space for exploring them. “I’m not rewriting the textbooks that go into high schools,” he says. “I’m not telling anyone what to think. I don’t have that responsibility. I’m expressing myself. It’s as simple as that.”

Photos: Reality Bytes

Wolfson, with (Female Figure), 2014, at Spectral Motion, an animatronics studio in Glendale, California, in October. Photograph by Matthias Vriens-McGrath.

A still from Jordan Wolfson’s Animations, Masks, 2011. Courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York, and Sadie Coles HQ, London.

An installation view of his Raspberry Poser, 2012, at David Zwirner, in New York. Courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York, and Sadie Coles HQ, London.


Sittings editor: Sally Lyndley. Digital technician: Casey Cunneen. Photography assistant: Barry Fonteno.