Arts Desk

Adrian Parsons, “Everynone,” at Transformer

Adrian Parsons, at right, performing "Everynone" at Transformer.

If "Everynone" at Transformer guaranteed anything to viewers, it was the opportunity to see a delirious Adrian Parsons. And sure enough, when I saw him, at hour 46 of his continuous 48-hour drawing installation—during which he hadn't slept—he looked like one zonked-out Adrian Parsons. I'd seen him in this state at least once before: back in January 2012, when he fasted for more than three weeks in the name of D.C. voting rights. Spending two days doodling on the walls of a gallery sans sleep is tame by Parsons' standards.

What I perhaps had not expected in "Everynone" was a deep and centered show, one whose meaning grew more cohesive as Parsons grew less coherent. "Everynone," which closes on Saturday, is a show everyone should see—especially art viewers who have cast any side-eye on Parsons' antics in the past.

The first of three solo shows in Transformer's 10th annual Exercises for Emerging Artists program, "Everynone" is part performance, part drawing exhibit, part conceptual-art showcase, and even something of a sculpture show. For 48 hours, Parsons holed up inside Transformer and used pencil to cover the space's walls with various phrases transcribed from notebooks, which contained eight years' worth of concepts and ideas. He then invited viewers to pull an eraser from a mound and begin redacting his ideas, one by one.

It's a straightforward concept with some very pointed art-historical references. Robert Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning (1953) is the obvious one here: With the reluctant consent of Willem de Kooning, Rauschenberg made a new work by simply erasing a de Kooning drawing. Putting out a concept in place of an artwork is, of course, an honored tradition. Bruce Nauman, Yoko Ono, and many other artists spent the 1960s devising plans and performances and simply presenting them as works.

The texts, taken in as a whole, give the viewer the best notion yet of what motivates Parsons as a sometimes-artist and sometimes-advocate. In one note on the wall, he dreams of drones that deliver Zoloft. One phrase reads: "Travel to Mecca in disguise—not art, just you know." Another drawn-out concept describes a prank he plans for a newspaper thief who likes to steal the Sunday New York Times: Replace it with a bogus, printed Sunday edition full of apocalyptic headlines. He's a fan of puns, disguises, reversals, and symmetry, it would seem. In one sketch, Parsons describes a piece of terror-sculpture: exploding a backpack, then stitching it back together. (I like the sound of that.)

Many of the concepts drawn by Parsons had been rendered illegible by viewers by the time I arrived. Some of the remaining plans hinted at past performances. The phrase "Kool Raunch Kunt~halle" sounds like the sort of thing Parsons would be involved with (Kool Raunch being a Parsons performance troupe that includes Sebastian Rousseau, "kunsthalle" being a German term for a contemporary art house). The phrase "Trepan is next" is almost surely a reference to Parsons' notorious 2007 auto-circumcision piece. Give him this much: The man has a sense of humor.

When I was at Transformer, artist and Artisphere curator Cynthia Connelly showed up specifically to erase the word "failure" from the wall. It was a kind, even elegant gesture, and in one sense, Connelly's contribution captures the whole show. All of our idea sketchbooks, real and remembered, are filled with ideas we never quite got around to executing. The best ideas that we never finish—artworks, stories, apologies, whatever—tend to linger, and even haunt us. It's possible to read Parsons' work as an exorcism, casting out all those dreams that he may never get around to realizing.

Yet the show was even more substantial than that. Around the baseboards of the gallery, piles and piles of eraser shavings mounted like so much falling snow. The transubstantiation of concept into substance—of loose sketches of ideas into the lost remainders of sketches—is the real achievement of Parsons' performance.

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