The show opens in the 1990s, in a setting you may remember—the East Village bar Flamingo East—populated by a cast of supporting characters you may recognize, like downtown starlet Chloë Sevigny and the artists Mariko Mori, Pruitt + Early, Rita Ackermann and Charles LaBelle. Two of the protagonists have improbable names (Bernadette Van-Huy, Antek Walczak), the third the more pedestrian sounding John Kelsey. From this crew springs a manifesto of sorts. The name Bernadette Corporation drifts into use, apparently as the title of a fashion line, documented in this show by a flat-screen monitor displaying the BC Fashion Images Digital Archive (2012), and a dozen mannequins sporting outfits made up of gold-leafed leather, big hoop earrings, repurposed Adidas sportswear, Gothic script initials acid-etched on fur pelts, and lots and lots of eye shadow. The mannequins wearing these recreated Purple Magazine-style ensembles give the show the feeling of being inhabited by spunky art students, even when it’s empty.
Things get weird in 2002, when the fashion line inexplicably morphs into Reena Spaulings, a Gossip Girl-meets-Semiotext(e) novel. Mr. Kelsey then adapts the name of that novel’s protagonist as the name of a commercial gallery, and, at Reena Spaulings Fine Art (which still very much exists, down on East Broadway), goes on to foster the careers of actual artists, including Seth Price and Josh Smith. “Everybody was Fucking Everybody,” the timeline helpfully informs. A period follows that seems to center on Berlin, where the group makes cheap movies (and possibly writes a screenplay called Eine Pinot Grigio, Bitte, although it’s not entirely clear), and around 2009 they reorient to New York to create an epic poem illustrated with what look like replicas of 1990s CK One fashion ads, and apparently written by the actor Jim Fletcher and the artist Jutta Koether, although, again, none of this is entirely clear.
Nor does it need to be. The last work in the show is magnificently displayed in a freestanding pavilion reminiscent of the jewelry display hut in the Isabel Marant boutique: inside, Media Hot & Cold (2010), 10 books consisting of the Amazon consumer reviews of works like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Koran are sold as publish-on-demand hardcovers (“total bullshit,” “this guy is a hack,” “Matt rated it ***” some of the text reads). And it is this kind of third-hand information and gossip that is the actual content of the Bernadette Corporation’s art.
In truth, the work on display in “2000 Wasted Years” is more in line with literature than visual art. “Real” galleries blur with fictional ones, “real” artists with characters in novels and people struggling to be taken as real artists. The Bernadette Corporation’s narrative exists on a historical spectrum with Lost Illusions, Balzac’s novel of callow youth and urban artistic ambition, Michèle Bernstein’s All the King’s Horses and Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls., with some Laurence Sterne and some grad-school theory thrown in. The implications are reminiscent of the philosopher David Lewis’s 1978 essay on the difference between the falseness of the claims “Nixon wears a silk top hat” and “Sherlock Holmes wears a silk top hat.” Seen through this lens, the show is equal parts smart, funny and pathetic.
It is also symptomatic: right now, in Chelsea, you can visit Thomas Hirschhorn’s pictorial-career-chronology-as-artwork at the Dia Foundation and Mark Flood’s video satirizing an art-world reality show, at Zach Feuer gallery, and both become fodder for the Facebook timelines of wandering gallery-goers. This is the most striking way in which the Bernadette Corporation takes a page from Warhol’s playbook: they instigate new ways in which we might think about the manufacture of fame, and fame’s afterlife. In the case of both the Bernadette Corporation exhibition and the Met’s big group show, the real Warholian gesture is in the curating, which in both instances reads as self-promotion. Sadly, both endeavors lack what may be Andy’s most lasting legacy in both art and life—his pitch-perfect cool irony—and maybe, unlike everything else he did, that really is inimitable.