Ryan Trecartin’s Manic, Dystopic Art Makes for One Killer Party

Ryan Trecartin, K-CoreaINC.K (section a), 2009.

Three days before the opening of Any Ever, Ryan Trecartin’s first major museum retrospective in New York, the artist stood at a podium at the Museum of Modern Art for the amFar Inspiration Gala to celebrate men’s fashion. He presented James Franco, one of his fans, with the Piaget Award of Inspiration. Courtney Love, another fan, was in attendance. Mr. Trecartin, who works primarily in video, has a large and varied following; it includes critics, visual artists, novelists, actors, musicians and web-savvy high school students. His popularity enacts his style: his art is a representation of the wandering minds created by the age of Twitter; having a feverishly multitasking brain—perhaps the only kind that exists these days—is the only way to find meaning in his work.

Any Ever, which premiered last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, occupies seven rooms on the first floor of MoMA PS1, each of them projecting one of Mr. Trecartin’s films. The setting he has fashioned for each film references what is happening on screen. His installations are, in Mr. Trecartin’s words, “sculptural theaters.” Items from any ordinary middle-class home are present—couches, dining room tables, patio umbrellas—and they can be sat upon or touched, but everything is out of place: mirrors are cracked, luggage rests in suitcases, curtains are draped over blank sections of wall. Speaking of his breakout feature-length film I-Be Area, Mr. Trecartin described his work as “a conceptual part-cyber-hybrid platform that obeys and functions with both laws of physics and virtual-nonlinear reality and potential in Web 2.0/ultra-wiki communication malfunction liberation flow, add-on and debate presentation.” The cluttered environments he creates are central to establishing this frenzied effect. The artist’s realities replace the viewer’s own.

Take The Re’Search, the first film in the exhibition. The space in which it’s screened is strewn with disorderly furniture and piles of clothing. Couches sit on top of wrinkled purses, and random objects rest in unnatural spaces: a dresser atop a police barricade, an upside down sledgehammer on a cinder block. Mirrors line the walls, forcing viewers to confront their reflections.

Easily the most disturbing and violent of all his work, the film opens with two teenaged girls throwing Blackberries at each other by a pool. The camera is in constant, jittery motion, zooming in and out or being shaken by the hand that holds it. At the center of the work are three young girls in a pop band, simultaneously trying to stymie their other friends from joining the group and plotting to kill their fathers. (Father figures are conspicuously absent from Mr. Trecartin’s work, which helps explain the recurring image in The Re’Search of a girl holding a sign that says “Dad ?-2009,” the year the film was made.) Voices are digitally manipulated to sound both monotonous and energized: they are high pitch squeals just slow enough to be barely comprehensible. Mr. Trecartin’s work is an assault of stimuli and ephemera—layers upon layers of superimposed images; a blur of color and noise; a dialogue between scenes taking place in different rooms at different times—all of this is melted together through rapid cuts and editing. But The Re’Search goes even further. It pre-empts the very idea of the viewer’s short attention span, beating the wandering mind at its own associative games even as it references such digressions. The longer you watch, the more you wish for peace and quiet. But the film is unrelenting: it ends with a collage of characters chanting, “Die, die, die.”

As young as he is—he turns 30 this year—Mr. Trecartin’s life has so far been as frenetic as the quick cuts that define the portentous pace of his work. He was born in Texas, grew up in Ohio, attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for animation and film editing, lived in New Orleans during the flood, was exiled to Los Angeles after his house was destroyed (and most of his artwork along with it), and hid out in Philadelphia and Miami, removed from but always circling around the center of the art world. Even as a student at RISD, his films were self-assured and original; he was diligent and constantly working. At age 18, he met his collaborator, Lizzie Fitch, at the RISD campus store. Ms. Fitch plays a major role in all of his films, not just as an actor but also as a set and costume designer. At school, he began to refine his working method, in which collaboration remains key. His films often feature dozens of cast members, all done up in gaudy makeup and garish outfits (most of which he assembles from whatever is on the clothing racks at Target). The actors are like walking paintings, kaleidoscopes of color and texture; they would look at home in both a transvestite nightclub and a trashy horror flick.

Shoots are done wherever Mr. Trecartin happens to be living. At RISD, he lived with several collaborators in what was known around campus as the Pink House. He films almost entirely at night and will commonly work until dawn. The actors do not see the script before shooting—Mr. Trecartin tells them what to say, having actors repeat a line until it reaches the power of a hypnotic incantation; he often keeps the camera rolling during these impromptu rehearsals and it is not uncommon for the b-reel to make it into the final cut. The actors spend most of the day sitting around in costume, taking hours to get into character. For this reason, even though his work is in no way realist, the line between life and representation is blurred; blunder and intent are indecipherable. A fellow student at RISD who has appeared in a number of Mr. Trecartin’s films said the best parties she could remember in college were shoots at the Pink House.

While still a student, Mr. Trecartin posted on the Internet portions of his thesis, a 41-minute film called A Family Finds Entertainment. Like his more recent work, the film defies the basic beginning-middle-end structure we take for granted in any sustained narrative; it is as chaotic and associative as any 10 minutes spent online, but there is still a central thread: Skippy, a tortured adolescent played by Mr. Trecartin, has locked himself in a bathroom. His family and friends urge him to come out. (Critics have read the film as an allegory of homosexuality.) As Skippy performs acts of self-flagellation, downstairs, perhaps in some alternate reality, a wild and nightmarish party rages with several bands playing simultaneously and cacophonously in different rooms. Skippy does leave the bathroom, but immediately rejects the creature comforts of domesticity and flees the house. Once outside, he is hit by a car. A feckless messenger materializes out of nowhere to explain what happened to Skippy, but struggles for some time to find the words. In response to this loss of language, the party in the house reaches a zenith of noisy chaos. Skippy is either raised from the dead or finally ascends toward heaven (though it could just as easily be hell): he joins the party.

Ryan Trecartin’s Manic, Dystopic Art Makes for One Killer Party