In Jonathan Paul’s New Exhibition, Two Goats Compete in an Absurdist Game About Human Nature

The show, “To The Victor Belongs The Spoils,” is on view now at UNIX Gallery.

Installation view of Jonathan Paul’s “To The Victor Belongs The Spoils,” 2018. Courtesy of UNIX Gallery.

What if someone living from hundreds of years ago could travel through time to today and watch a football game? How ridiculous a ritual would that game seem to them?

Artist Jonathan Paul considers this question with his new exhibition, “To The Victor Belongs The Spoils,” on view now at UNIX Gallery. The show is structured as the setting of an absurdist game, the rules and conventions of which are unknown. Performances of the “game” are held every Saturday.

“The temperament of the country today is polarized, to say the least,” Paul tells artnet News. “I thought about the idea of being polarized, and how we as a species are always drawn to making choices and taking sides,” Paul says. “I thought about that from the perspective of a camera going way up into the sky and looking down on all of humanity, seeing people that wear blue and people that wear red, and what they’re doing to each other, be it in the context of ideological belief or some sort of event. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at this through the eyes of watching ourselves as another species.”

Installation view of Jonathan Paul’s “To The Victor Belongs The Spoils,” 2018. Courtesy of UNIX Gallery.

Even if you don’t recognize the name Jonathan Paul, you’ve likely seen his work. He also practices under the name Desire Obtain Cherish, an alias that was given to him during his street art days. Today, Paul uses both names as a way to flex different muscles within the art world. His work as Desire Obtain Cherish tends to hew toward more sardonic pop-oriented art—melting lollipop sculptures and fake pills sponsored by fashion companies (a play on “designer drugs”). Yet “To The Victor Belong The Spoils” shares his signature wry wit.

Gallery-goers peer down at the exhibition from an elevated platform, like spectators at a sporting event. Down below are a series of objects—ramps, boxes—and two goats who are evidentially pitted against one another. Hanging from the ceiling are piñatas stuffed with rose petals. The goats can release (and eat) the petals by pulling down on a string with food at the end of it, hanging from each piñata.

Visually, everything is dichotomized; there are two distinct version of every element, yet none of them are recognizably symbolic. There are two predominant colors, yellow and pink; two patterns, stripes and checkers; two crest-like symbols adorning opposite walls.

Artist Jonathan Paul. Courtesy of UNIX Gallery.

“It’s about language,” Paul explains. If I were to give you a particular symbol—a logo or an emblem—it’s going to immediately have a history to it. The challenge, then, was to create symbols that had no history to them. So I boiled it down to the simplest elements—this color, that shape; this stripe, that checker, this family crest. There’s enough there that you can understand the opposition, but not so much that you go, ‘Oh, that’s a cross, that’s Islamic, that’s Republican.’ I eliminated all that.”

But the exhibition hints at ideas larger than the absurdity of sport. For Paul, the question is an ontological one.

A goat’s nature, he points out, is to eat. So in a sense, victory happens when they feed themselves. “I wanted to reveal their nature, to simply let that nature be their nature. Looking at it from that perspective, we might start to understand our own nature. But then again, can we as humans even begin to look at our own human nature in that way?”

To The Victor Belongs The Spoils,” is on view through October 20, 2018, at UNIX Gallery.

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