“John Russell: SQRRL” at Bridget Donahue
Modern Painters, May 2016
Russell’s solo exhibition begins in a pink-tinted dystopia. A sculpture of a turtle impaled on a tree branch, titled Transformational Joy, 2014, is coated in tar-like black enamel and resin and appears to emerge from environmental catastrophe, swimming onward to something better. To its right, a massive canvas structure stretches diagonally across much of the length of the gallery. Only its blank back side is visible, backlit by several pink fluorescent tubes. On its front, a digitally rendered scene unfolds like a post-human history painting: various figures—a flamingo, a seahorse, and women, some with the head of a cat or with big ears and tails sketched on—dance in a circle in a mass of pinkish clouds while, at the far end, a human skeleton looks on.
The turtle reappears in Russell’s video SQRRL/BRUCE WILLIS, 2015, where it swims languidly across the opening credits, returning intermittently throughout. It’s one of the few familiar creatures among a menagerie of humans transformed, via technological augmentation, into rodent-reptile composites—better suited, as the narration explains, to space travel in the late twenty-first century. Like the characters it features, the video is itself a composite creature, composed of two previous works by Russell, SQRRL, 2015, and Aquarium Proletarium, 2014, layered atop one another. The video features two texts: a new work, “SQRRL”, which also inhabits the gallery’s homepage, and “Bruce Willis, Irigaray and the Aesthetics of Space Travel,” from 2014. Overlapping in subtitle-like phrases and blocks of scrolling blue text, respectively, Russell’s writing emphasizes the work’s theoretical rigor and its sci-fi impulse.
Online, “SQRRL” manifests as a heavily footnoted poem, interspersed with .gif illustrations of glittering pink angels, urinating flowers, and images of its protagonist, CarLEee the squirrel—or post-squirrel—as she prepares for space travel or navigates the web from her office inside a tree. The footnotes serve as a glossary of key terms, embedded with varied and sometimes contradictory references spanning de Sade, Donna Haraway, and the Accelerationist Manifesto. These resonate within Russell’s installation, cohering in a vision of a post-human near-future where nature and technology are collapsed into each other, permeated by forces of capital and desire.