Jason Puccinelli
With photographs by Adam Weintraub
Consolidated Works, 381-3218
Through Nov 23.

The opening of Jason Puccinelli's Dazzle Camouflage was like a scene from a Fellini film, a decadent and degraded world of surface and ego and spectacle and bad behavior, and it had a polarizing effect not immediately obvious in among all the noise and activity. As often as I ran into people who were enjoying themselves immensely and who thought the show brilliant, I ran into people who found it almost unbearably shallow. And the distance between those responses seems, on reflection, to be the point.

The ongoing installation of Dazzle Camouflage is a series of five stage sets that Puccinelli, who builds commercial sets and props for a living, has built over the last six months or so, each one, without actors, like the scene of a crime not yet committed: an iceberg with a furry baby seal; a Napoleonic war room; a stock exchange floor; a slaughterhouse; a sere, clear-cut hillside. The idea was a variation on his popular face-through paintings from a couple of years ago: to test moral boundaries, however vaguely and perhaps ironically, by allowing us to put ourselves in various perverse and unlikely situations. These new sets would require our full three-dimensional participation, a more vivid vicariousness than the face-through paintings, and it was part of Puccinelli's intent from the beginning that other people would use these sets as a starting point for their own works (there is a set of amateurish videos, which take place on Puccinelli's sets, by Cornish film students); he provided the moral landscape, you provided the action.

As it happens, this idea was turned inside out when Puccinelli and photographer Adam Weintraub hired a model to inhabit the seal-clubbing set for a press photograph. This model--mindblowingly skinny, clad (in those original images) in a bikini bottom and Canadian-flag pasties--transformed the set into an image that was cruel, funny, glamorous, and surreal, taking the cliché and giving it a precise embodiment, however unreal. And here Puccinelli discovered the kind of ethical distance he was after.

This was why the opening became a performance, a series of debauched fashion shoots, with models, photographers, production assistants, groupies, VIPs, and other shady characters harder to identify. There was milling around while the models were made up and the lights were arranged and rearranged and people hunted for extension cords; then there was posing and pouting and fighting and all those little dramas on the fringes of the action. These, in their tiny specificity (as opposed to the grander themes played large), proved to be some of the most rewarding moments of the evening: the jealous, vixeny model Satie marching into the middle of a photo shoot to confront her sleazy photographer boyfriend; a hyperactive producer whose accent swerved from cockney to Long Island and back again; the humorless, hardworking production assistants (a steely woman and a taciturn mulleted man); the photographer shouting into his cell phone, "You don't need to work with me ever again," while his camera never ceased to click. There were the models, tawdry and bored, one of them with her dress pulled tight over her body with those hemostat clamp-things and not seeming to care whether or not they showed. In the slaughterhouse shoot, two models groveled in fake blood, and there was Puccinelli, diffidently leaning in every so often to mop up the blood from the floor.

I found this all hilarious, especially the places where reality and performance crossed over--finding, for example, that among all the fake photographers was a guy shooting a real video for a grant application. Most of the characters were played, with varying layers of transparency, by artists I knew, and it seemed that if you wanted to be pulled in, wanted to be part of the performance, the performance was ready to absorb you (in a bored monologue about her boyfriend, Satie said, "His cock is enormous--you can write that down," apparently taking me for a reporter from Women's Wear Daily), and if you didn't want to participate, then nonparticipation was a choice you made. And what happened was that although the first few photo shoots seemed to be made up of those who were acting and those who were watching, by the end of the evening--when a fierce bomb-strapped model threatened to blow up the stock exchange--the audience was fully complicit, cheering on the terrorist and insulting the stockbrokers.

That the idea of our distance from moral decisions arrives with something less than the force of revelation tells us something, I think, about where the art in this performance is. Of course we know that it's wrong (and actually illegal) to club a baby seal, and we are very nearly bored by the fact that the problem of logging is a complex one, and obviously we have evolved a pretty sophisticated cloak of irony and guilt in order to protect ourselves from having to reckon with these things. Whatever politics seemed to be at work in Puccinelli's empty stage sets, this show was, in the end, about shallowness. And like Delia Brown's paintings of models lounging around the house--which make people angry because they feel excluded from that world, when exclusion and anger are the point--Puccinelli has landed on a way of critiquing a world by using the language of the thing he's critiquing.

It is one thing to create a spectacle, and entirely another to make us see how we behave in one. What does it mean to long for things to get out of hand--for the insults, the mob mentality, the groveling in the blood? Are you a joiner, or a scoffer? What is the relationship of the role you chose to the situations being enacted? How absurd was this absurdity, that some people present mistook it for the real thing? And it is all the more complicated because Dazzle Camouflage tangled critique, spoof, and earnestness so inexorably that one's exquisitely calibrated sense of irony might not know what to make of it. This, in the end, is what Puccinelli means by "dazzle camouflage"--the surface that distracts us from what's happening right in front of us, blood and litter and the joyful depths of depravity. The surface of a painting, the surface of the world.