Before I saw Avery Singer’s paintings in Reality Ender, her first solo show at Hauser & Wirth in New York, I didn’t think it was possible to make great work about addiction. The subject often arrives with cliché, moral didacticism, or a feelgood treacly. Yet in Reality Ender, Singer uses alcoholism as a productive metaphor for how addiction relates to painting, the making of it, and the world in which it circulates—notable, because Singer is one of the artists I least expected this from.
The art market depends on a perpetual production of novelty, which Singer has notably produced. And in her short but robust decade as an exhibiting painter, she has fixated on mirroring the art world, giving it something to see itself in, titter at, and wave back against. The new paintings, though, are distinguished by an emphatic moral tone. Through her ruggedly contemporary strategies, both digital and analogue, Singer depicts the workings of an art-world ecosystem where emerging technologies are fetishized, consensus reality is fractured, new models are automatically taken as progress, and energy is sought after as the only incentive in an illusory condition where nothing on the internet ever dies. All this culminates in a stunning gesture of refusal.
Avery Singer’s first subject matter was artists inspiring themselves, drinking in the studio, taking meetings with gallerists and patrons, or acting out the romance of their freewheeling lifestyle for industry titans to ostensibly commodify and sell on the market. In short, a systems aesthetic. Her debut solo show, at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler in Berlin, in 2013, was titled The Artists. Its paintings depicted scenes of the artist’s life, like The Studio Visit (2012), which portrays an artist sitting to the left of a table, beer in hand, across from a curator or gallerist (one assumes) who sits in a baseball cap staring back at her cryptically. The painting established the technique and formal language that Singer would use in her early work. Utilizing SketchUp, a free online software released by Google, she would render block-like figures, then project them onto the canvas as a two-dimensional outline, on top of which she would mask with tape and airbrush to create the pristine, crisp lines that make the forms seem to leap out in space. She seemed determined right away to reveal how this world works, to expose its absurdities, its follies, and limitations, but in a demystifying gesture where so much mystique remains.
Paintings from this period—marked by her trademark grisaille—would go on to be collected by The Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim, The Whitney Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The artists in the paintings are having a fun time, and we have a fun time looking at them. They play like a fantasy of the bohemian life used to mask and justify the latent violences underneath. The paintings’ digital elements contain a nod to the online expectations of the creative industries, especially, where someone’s Instagram grid doubles as a resume. Singer seemingly embraced the commodity, albeit knowingly. Illustrations of raucous, orgiastic artist summits amount to sexual titillation for a monied class. As the critic Isabelle Graw put it, the rituals that Singer depicts are “a resource highly in demand.”
Nevertheless, it would be another eight years before Singer would frame this “bohemian fantasy” through alcoholism. At Hauser & Wirth, Reality Ender features literal drinking—White Claws, Heinekens—with some bottles opened and spilling. Then, other things: the epically-scaled China Chalet (2021) shows a restaurant table covered in human feces, whippets, pills, JUUL pods, and bongs. Named after the eponymous cult Chinatown nightclub (that Singer said she used to frequent before its closure in the lockdown), the monumental painting consists of twenty-five layers of paint including gesso, airbrush, acrylic, and liquid rubber. In one layer, you can see a photorealistic airbrush of a pregnant woman leaning on a White Claw can, wearing Balenciaga Triple-S sneakers.
Theodor Adorno compared novelty to a drug. He likened it to an empty sensation with a dazzling ability to distract. Singer seems to extend this same critique to certain visual image-currencies online. In Reality Ender, she opens up her paintings to memes, for instance, including one with about a dozen Wojak characters—a contour drawing of a bald head with forehead lines and a flat expression. Online, Wojak originated as an MS Paint drawing that went viral, though the origin is both obscured and irrelevant. Like all internet memes, Wojak is collectively and competitively authored but the commonality is that Wojak is the ‘feels guy’: sensitive about things without the ability to intervene, the non-player character (NPC) ignored in a corner, passive. Singer’s renditions present Wojak in a Yayoi Kusama installation; Wojak in military fatigues; Wojak sitting at a desktop playing Fortnite. One Wojak, drawn as Narcissus in a striped jumper, appears lying on the floor, paint tube clutched in a fist, weeping before a mirror. Another character, with an 18th-century wig, is killing the Narcissus Wojak painter with a sword, depicted here as a heroic act.
Given that Singer’s work has been marked by a persistent self-referentiality, the Narcissus in Wojak Battle Scene might be taken as a proxy for the artist herself. Either way, she presents narcissism, particularly the artistic kind, as an enduring narcotic. And where in her past work, death did not exist—artists pleasured themselves and amused their curiosity in a perpetually frozen, phantasmatic state—in Reality Ender, her messaging points to consequences. As with Wojak, “This is how reality ends.”
In Edgelord (2021), Singer goes so far as to draw a Wojak character in the guise of Martin Luther, nailing up his ninety-five theses against the church’s indulgences. A gesture like this is overt, borrowing from an explicitly Protestant critique of materialism and excess. But in addition to depicting the artist as a prophet, Singer is modeling herself as one, signaling her shifting relationship to pleasure.
Confessionals aside, Singer’s various proxies and self-portraits cohere to form an autofictional character of the artist-as-diviner. This character enacts a denial or refusal of the social. Arriving at this stage in her work, this new character inherits all of the past behavior, their production of glamor, their inherent magic and performance-turned-value. Singer’s purified protagonist does not exist outside of society, but within it, still enmeshed. She draws no less attention to herself than Narcissus might, the way all-black clothing only accentuates a priest’s exceptionality. Indeed, the ascetic pose appears chic within Singer’s new work. Glamor can become galvanizing when fastened to a moral compass. It becomes the affective force of refusing what you want.