George Horner’s house speaks to me.
For years now, as I’ve passed it heading to the subway, it has called out to me on the sidewalk, suggesting things. Intimating things. Things that respectable houses shouldn’t say publicly:
YOU LOOK LIKE YOU SMELL LIKE PEE
YOU NEED A CHECK UP FROM THE NECK UP
SATAN IS HAPPY WITH YOUR PROGRESS
SAW SOME TRASH ON A STREET CORNER AND THOUGHT OF YOU
I ALWAYS WANTED A WATCH FOR CHRISTMAS
THAT’S WHAT THE WHORE SAID TO THE BISHOP
IT’S NICE OUT. I THINK I’LL KEEP IT OUT.
I HAVE NOTHING ON EXCEPT THE RADIO
WELCOME TO THE DARK AGES
THE PARTY’S OVER
George’s house, on the edge of Park Slope, was once a funeral parlor, and he keeps his studio in the ground-floor storefront that once probably housed the show caskets. On the pebbled bay windows, he tapes up his letterpress posters, facing them outward so passersby can read the words on them and speculate about the intentions of whomever may be sitting inside, wanting such words to be read.
I’ve been his neighbor for more than a dozen years, and I’ve always loved the indeterminate voice of his posters, the way their observations and insinuations and outright provocations seem to have drifted in accidently from the culture at large – from a comic book, maybe, or a dream or an old television show or a dirty joke overheard at a bar. I also love how they make his stretch of Union Street into liminal art space, a continuous work about language and humor and the blurry boundary between the public and the private sphere, where things get interesting. This liminal nature confuses some people. And it enrages others, who shove notes under George’s door accusing him of all kinds of terrible leanings and asking him to stop, as if he’s not just taping up gnomic statements on cardboard but broadcasting them by loudspeaker, compelling them to be acknowledged. It reminds me of Bruce Nauman’s great print, “Pay Attention Motherfuckers,” whose angry imperative is necessarily obeyed in the act of its comprehension. With George’s work, the interaction seems more like a two-way street. You might not want to read what he’s put up in his window this week, but you just can’t help yourself, and then it’s too late. You’re implicated. You’re in on the joke. You’re part of the problem.
“I like the way it feels like a conversation,” he told me. “Even if it’s a conversation that exists mostly in my own head.”
I think of George as the most insider-ish outsider artist I’ve ever known. In no accurate way can he be classified as an outsider – he went to grad school at the University of Chicago, for God’s sake, then worked for a museum and has helped run Tony Shafrazi’s galleries for more than 30 years. But his drawings – the fingery, fecal, creepy ones he has made by the hundreds on Shafrazi stationery, drawn on work time with Shafrazi pens and impastoed with Shafrazi whiteout – could be images from the fevered brain of the inmate scrawling on the bunk in his cell or the night janitor whose masterpieces are discovered after his death in the secret compartment behind the mop closet. “What a strange world Horner inhabits in this body of work,” the painter Donald Baechler once wrote of the drawings. “We are applauding spectators at some kind of serial catharsis, a narrative with no beginning and no end in sight.”
George keeps decades worth of these catharses in an old dime-store wire rack with a sign on top that says “Comics for All Ages.” The drawings, which sometimes take years to complete, keep fitting company in his studio with his neons, which spell out messages from some of his posters or flicker off in darker directions. “I Gave You a Retrospective At The City Dump,” rendered in a brightwhite word bubble, is a verbatim quotation from his brother, who once, in a fit of misdirected rage, gathered more than a decade worth of George’s work from their family home in San Antonio and chucked it in the trash.
This really happened. But it’s so perfectly of a piece with the ethos of George’s art, it’s almost better to think that he made it up. George sings in the key of abjection, dysfunction, rejection and farce – personal, familial, societal and national. And singing, he links arms with quite a few artists over the last few decades – Richard Prince, Paul McCarthy, Dieter Roth, Mike Kelley – who have done the same in their own way, marching proudly forward with their pants down around their ankles and a sign that says “Artist” hung around their necks.
“When I was young, the art world was where you went to be a failure,” Kelley wrote, expressing a sentiment increasingly distant from today’s careerist contemporary art world. “And it was a chosen profession. You chose to be a failure.”
When I visited George’s studio this fall, he showed me an old letterpress poster, printed with the words “Satan Is Happy With Your Progress,” that some impassioned anti-Satanist had ripped off the wall at a gallery show in upstate New York, spat on and then tore into several pieces. Of course George had saved the shapely scraps – some kind of fragments shored against some kind of ruins – and he arranged them happily for me like puzzle pieces on the studio floor.
“It’s even better this way, don’t you think?” he said. “Doesn’t it look great?”
— by Randy Kennedy 2014