Cue music: Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself." But instead of visualizing a snarling, bleached-blond MTV rocker from the '80s, imagine a crude video of a guy in a red body stocking and a red Alpine knit ski mask in an empty gallery space, awkwardly leaping across the frame.
Now kill the sound. The only soundtrack that accompanies Nicholas Frank's video installation "The Secret Choreographer: 'For Lost Walls' Maquette (After Brätsch & UB)" (2012) is the unmusical clunk and bonk of the artist attempting something close to balletic leaps and the solid thud of his landings. There are also sounds of swooshing through space.
The video is projected through a complex sculptural apparatus of upside down, L-shaped pedestals and Plexiglas, so that the projection is interrupted by luminous geometric lines and the phantom image of an unidentified abstract painting. The video appears in full form on one wall and refracts prismatically against other surfaces in the space, kind of the way histories are skewed by multiple retellings and false representations.
"The Secret Choreographer" is the denouement of Milwaukee-based Frank's current show at Lump Gallery, titled Spiraling Jeté (Down), the big "reveal" installed behind a black plastic curtain in the back of the gallery. Based on a strategy the artist calls "choreographic acts of historical memory," the show is part of Frank's larger project of making a pre-emptive strike at art history by producing his own.
Frank's efforts toward self-induction into such history include a book, or the idea of a book, titled Nicholas Frank Biography, which exists in a limited number of displayed pages. So, for example, Spiraling Jeté (Down) includes pages 72–74, individually framed pages, somewhat yellowed and representing second and third editions. Frank's Biography suggests a meticulously researched project, an almost devotional attempt to produce an overview of the life and work of somone who appears to be (or to have been) an important and mysterious artist. A writer himself, Frank (whom I will assume is the "true" author of this work) generates lines such as:
Much speculation exists as to the order of the seven video pieces, and the significance of the locations. Viewers who have endeavoured to see the complete set have reported that the dearth of visible clues makes ordering nearly impossible.
There is no author associated with Frank's Biography, but given the artist's elision of the "auto" in front of "biography" we are led to imagine a writer other than the artist. Indeed, the use of the British spelling of "endeavoured" is a hint of the imaginary author's non-American identity. Such detail is a window onto the level of precision that has been lavished upon Frank's ersatz biographical/ historical project, which is beautifully typeset and includes quotes from the artist, elaborately conceived footnotes and archival photographic documentation. In this work is the echo of Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which the author hijacked the biographical form in order to inaugurate herself as an Important Literary Figure.
The main gallery space is dominated by a work that takes up much of the floor, a series of gessoed canvases on 80 inch-by-160 inch Masonite panels, its dimensions precisely those of the artist's studio floor, upon which the canvas originally was placed. The canvas is splattered with paint and inadvertent spills and stains offset by advertent test markings, the media of which includes oil, acrylic, ink, mediums, pencil and photo chemicals. The title of this work, "Bio 1" (2007–09/ 2011–12), clues us in to Frank's historical/ biographical intentions. "Bio 1" and Frank's other painterly works on view function as aesthetic objects but serve equally as artifacts, process-driven products of painterly efforts built up over time, a form of historical overlay, a palimpsest derived from the sheer materiality of a painting practice.
The similarly conceived "Bio (Rags)" (2007–12) is an arrangement of used studio rags, random washcloths and kitchen towels mounted on raw canvas, mundane testaments to the vital muddy mess of art making.
The show is rounded out with three square oil paintings of modest scale but smothered in thick gobs of oil paint, glimmering, multicolored and luscious, wild vortices of painterly action. Indeed, "action" is the operative word here, from the overt references to Jackson Pollock's action painting (and the fact that Pollock laid his canvasses on the floor to paint them) to the titles of the paintings: "Activity" (numbered 4, 2 and 5).
One of the conceptual wrinkles of Frank's project is his blurring of real and false. His masterfully trumped-up biography puts all the work on view in question. Despite Frank's dubious history of secret choreographies, his narrative is backed up by evidence in the form of video documentation of the artist executing such action. His aesthetic claims are supported by actual oil paintings—even the olfactory presence of oil paint and spirits permeating the gallery space impresses upon us that Frank's project is really real. But odd and sundry details push back against such a reading, for example, the way in which the Plexi in Frank's sculptural projection apparatus was fabricated to "look like glass," in the words of Lump's director, Bill Thelen. Nevertheless, the artist donned a leotard and jumped around in front of a camera. The paintings (or "paintings") that hang on the wall do what paintings do. A fake dance is still a dance. A fake painting is still a painting. And in the end, whichever historian attempts to write about Nicholas Frank will have to find a way to include Nicholas Frank Biography, in all of its purported editions, as part of a fascinating body of work that actually existed.
Think of it this way: Billy Idol called himself "Idol" before anyone knew who he was.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Inventing history."