Jason Schwartzman’s adventures with strangers can read as morbid fantasies, lived out by experiencing them vicariously. As a reader you get the sense that Schwartzman seeks out grown men who act out an exaggerated version of some tendency inside him. Most of the stories form small but unending worlds of want and gratification.
That premise of voyeuristic fascination risks condescension or spectacle. But whatever the initial inspiration, the pieces turn towards demystifying otherness. The characters flesh themselves out. There’s this illusion that the subjects of the stories are given the reigns on Jason’s life and voice. The most obvious moment of artistic agency is choosing the subjects, and those choices give the work its initial lure and radicalism.
I recently moved to New York City. Like most newcomers I have been flabbergasted by the level of eminently visible poverty and desperation. As the story generally goes, anesthetic takes over next. Rather than find a way to help, one stops seeing the need, or stops caring about it, feels helpless, and finally justified in ignoring it. Part of the allure of Jason’s work is its stark contrast to these strategies. The work engages with raw interpersonal discomfort. In “Joshua,” Jason inserts himself into the life of a homeless man trying to scavenge for enough donations or possessions to amount to expensive daily medicine for nerve damage. When he cannot afford the medicine Joshua suffers debilitating pain, and turns to less expensive street drugs for help. Unfortunately the low upfront cost of those drugs belies their expensive aftereffects. The story is painful to read but Jason does not present it as an attack on the reader. Like an image of disease or detritus the viewer who would otherwise never approach is safe to get close.
The journey that unfolds is open ended and unabashed. The work makes it seem possible to have your own conversations and relationships with people whose very existence would threaten to turn your life upside down. Some of the work has nothing to do with socioeconomic discomfort. On that end of the spectrum, “Being Ram Man” follows Karl, the super St. Louis Rams fan. The piece starts as a fascination with extreme fandom and turns into an exploration of personal branding and identity. Karl recalls his earlier days breaking into the superfan world, and how his appearance and name took a major turn.
The difference between him and lessor superfans is that once he found an adequately effective name and look, he stuck with it, allowing fans to remember and recognize him. Again, here Schwartzman tends to gravitate towards those who get public attention through the extreme nature of their public presentation. In this case the subject is less morbid and more obscure, but the way Schwartzman holds the reader’s interest is the same: we learn things we do not expect about this particular human’s experience of being inside a readily stereotyped persona.
Whether Schwartzman’s work qualifies as art is contentious. The style of the work is undeniably journalistic. Yet his process differentiates itself from typical journalism. His works are not motivated by assignment or promised publication. Jason seeks out the work, creates it, finishes it, and later investigates opportunities for propagation. The process aligns itself readily with studio practice: attending to intuitive direction, following, playing, redefining, all without external function or expectation. Jason drives the bus of his creative process from start to finish, and separates creation from branding and dissemination.
That source of the work gives it unique power. Without that type of self direction we would have a series of personalities, interesting but not necessarily in conversation with one another. Instead we have literature on a lifestyle, and a collection of characters that were magnetic to it. The stories have efficacy both as singular investigations and as a body of work, building off one another to flesh out the potentialities of our minds that fascinate and frighten us.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
JASON SCHWARTZMAN: Doesn’t have a website, but he writes, and you can email him by clicking his name!
NETTA SADOVSKY: Netta Sadovsky is an artist working out of New York. She graduated in May 2012 with a BFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Netta has shown her work at various spaces across the USA, including Temp Art Space, Los Caminos, Des Lee, Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts, and Pig Slop. Her curatorial projects include an exhibition at the Luminary Center for the Arts and a series of pop-up exhibitions for Children of the End of the World in 2011-12.