Pressed for TimeJohn Haber
in New York City
Gallery-Going: Summer/Fall 2001
Is Postmodernism just modern art pressed for time? Sometimes it sure feels that way. In fact, awareness of linear time may be changing the face of art, especially video. Consider the latest installations and photography by John Coplans, Deborah Mesa-Pelly, Joao Onofre, Kara Walker, and Hiro Yamagata.
It had been a long, nerve-wracking summer of loss. With my first free fall weekend, I had just the thing to revive. I headed right for Chelsea galleries—but can I honestly claim to have seen them? And will dealers need to move beyond that art shopping mall for anyone to pay attention?
As art and financial markets soared, and a neighborhood came into being, young dealers and posh Soho émigrés had rushed to reserve space. Even in a downturn, openings continue too quickly for me to keep pace. For an afternoon, I pieced my way through still-surprising collisions with galleries, determined art lovers, and guided tours. With so many around one a decade ago in Soho, insiders almost always knew a dozen or two that stood out from the crowd. Here I found myself peeking through windows and ducking into doors, making snap judgments. Would I stay or would I go and move on?
No time like the present
Now, wait. I have to do better than that. The very premise of this Web site tells me so. I am supposed to interpret, not to dismiss—much less to admit to all that I overlook and to the fierce marketing of art, a battle for Babylon that keeps one from looking yet aspires to the dignity of a contemporary art museum. I am supposed to help bridge from ideas to gut feelings. I can try to keep an open mind, but that only makes things worse. I may well pretend to set aside the authority of familiar names and newspaper reviews, but then I am lying to you and to myself. Besides, I then have all that much more from which to chose.
In delightful interviews with his sitters, collected as The Portrait Speaks, Chuck Close does what one expects of an older, established, white male. He longs for the good old days. Close sees the problem as New York housing. With no cheap space, artists can no longer afford to nurture their art. They have to make it big—and fast—cutting corners by imitating styles that they already know and that sell. Art, he believes, gets trivialized along the way.
He has a point, and he and his friends have some great stories. Their memories are more than half the book's fun. Still, I am looking at it from the other side, as a viewer. Maybe I must. Graduating college more than a decade after his move to an unheated loft, I could hardly afford Tribeca, much less Soho. Drawn to art for its enigma, I could hardly claim insider status either. Yet gallery-going still made me feel almost a pioneer.
Either way, too, Close and I are speaking to forced choices and compressed time scales, all in the larger space of a global art economy. As a puzzled novice, still out of work, I would take a room or two at the Modern each Monday, when admission still came free. I could fill my Saturday with no more than four or five Soho galleries, for what else was there to see? Ironically, one of my favorites back then helped to end it all. Its owner and namesake became artistic director for the Dia Arts Center, which started the move from idealism to boom far west—and later in upstate New York.
Am I now judging more than ever? I do not mean to dismiss anyone except maybe myself. Close actually reverses the facts. In search of success, he worries, artists latch onto easily recognizable models. Yet he hearkens back to a tiny circle of insiders. Rosalind Krauss argues that the mythic "originality of the avant-garde" may well have sustained just that.
He may get things backward in another way, too, but then so, in the bargain, may Krauss. Artists have always learned from imitating others, be it in the academy, the School of Paris, or the Cedar Bar. When time runs short, however, for careers or for viewers, art must get attention fast. It has to stand out in a crowd—schock art when the world really needs more bad art. Forget imitation. It has to catch one by surprise.
Fitting it all in
In my own way I enact the same shock tactics as more and more artists who go over the top: I have been upending old stories and other critics. Like a good installation, I have to turn on myself, too. In practice, flash art and rote art may well not stand in opposition. The shock testifies to a more efficient, inescapable art market, the kind that makes me cut corners, the kind that in turn easily assimilates the shocks. A style becomes an institution, in a sprawling, chaotic art world of museum empires, like that of the Museum of Modern Art on its way into Queens. Postmodern critics, such as Guy Debord, have even put "spectacle" at the heart of today's media circus and media-driven world.
Even successful artists now up the ante with each new show. Again, linear time returns with a vengeance. Instead of works filling a room in series, reflecting on one another by differences, a career tends to take place strikingly in time. Year after year, a moment cut off from life at a time, Walker Evans could explore the familiar—and even collect it in picture postcards. Cindy Sherman finds stranger and stranger poses every time I think that I have spotted the woman behind the camera. She photographs herself for Close disarmingly at rest in her studio, props cast aside, but there, too, she has found a crafty pose.
Art has felt before the need to stand out in a crowd. That has invariably meant an era of overcrowded displays, a central location, and a high barrier to artistic entry. It has meant crowds eager to examine the latest fashion—and each other. In short, it has meant an academy, whether the French Salon or the British Royal Academy. A show coming this spring in London will replicate the latter, down to the three tiers of paintings on every wall.
Has Postmodernism, too, found its academy in Chelsea, and could anything, even the rush of artists to Brooklyn, shake it? Again, as I mean by citing Sherman, this has little to do with quality or artistic integrity. The very paradigm of high seriousness, Frank Stella, may well have initiated the change. Think of a career that has moved from black stripes to wild constructions one barely visible step at a time. Do narratives of Moby Dick lie hidden in his latest titles? Perhaps, but somewhere within lies Sherman's real face, too.
Just that Saturday, John Coplans shook me with his latest blow-up photographs, in the very same gallery with some oldies but goodies by Evans. Not long ago, Coplans first exposed, in black and white, his aging, naked flesh. Now he is posturing, in more ways than one. Pressing twisted limb or finger against limb, he puns on the brute fact of an orifice. Elsewhere, Deborah Mesa-Pelly returned to her narratives of childhood sexuality, but only barely. Her new doctored photographs disguise her presence so well that childhood wins out after all, this time as a game of hide-and-seek played with the implements of torture and suicide.
For her first, promising show, Macyn Bolts sets out diptychs, each of a slightly different gesture or symbol. Like artists before her, she explores abstract art's vocabulary. Yet flagstone patterns recur again and again. She tries less for an encyclopedia, like Alfred Jensen, than for a personal signature—the mark of a career. It may undermines the show's impact somewhat, for it leaves her formalism more limited and apparent, but it may also sustain her imagination.
Tears, laughter, and guilt
Art always has a way of insisting on "reality," including both the word and the scare quotes. As in Picasso's whore house, Modernism rubbed one's nose in the social fabric along with the artist's media. It insists on the viewer's presence (male, of course) in constituting them both. Art after Modernism keeps both sides of the equation, if a bit altered from ill use.
Since Fried's attack on Minimalism, art has taken up a more passive, even cynical notion of spectacle. At the same time, it has revived overtly political art, often about the art world itself. And it has done so by turning art as genre, realist or abstract, into art as installation. It means not just a new trend or simple reversal of Modernism or Postmodernism, but a scattered, complex eye on both.
Technology adds to the shift and makes it easier. Thanks to cheap digital video, anyone can act out a life, just as when Nam June Paik himself first bought a Sony Portapak for what one might now call a "single-channel video" of the Pope. It diversifies art. Not long before these fall 2001 shows, Christina McPhee was diversifying her art to painting, drawings, photographs, and new media, in ways that recall Mesa-Pelly's traces of women in startling landscapes.
Michael Fried tried to define Postmodernism as theater, while critics from both right and left has pictured the art world as a monolith. This mix of compressed time, popular culture, and the theater of personal experience turns out more like MTV. It means bigger and messier installations.
Shirin Neshat's newfound grandeur this summer already shows all sides of the picture—simpler narrative form, wider space, a popular musician on the soundtrack, and more heightened expectations with each new show. Now take just a few last examples of video or installation as home movie and performance.
Joao Onofre plays his real-time saga for laughs. Young models step up one at a time to recite a cry for revolution. They smile awkwardly, as the next attractive man or woman steps up and the last speaker moves right to the back of the line. Even if one did not recognize a quote out of a movie, one would have no trouble spotting the reductive conventions of daytime television, including the form of a personal confession. In a second video, just as self-aware about the idea of reduction, a choir recreates vocally the stasis and technology of an old piece by Kraftwerk. In the hands of the Portuguese artist, art can teach the world to sing in perfect chaos.
Scientism and Ecstasy
The allure of home video and the compression to the moment extends even to static installation. In maybe her finest show yet, Kara Walker projects her trademark shadows amid sparkling cover overlays. The black outlines of human figures, echoing stereotypic images from plantation days, could be William Kentridge cut to a flickering moment. In another room, a collage of text and images calls up—or calls for—the guilt and strivings of a black middle class. One cannot help associating the sense of personal achievement and confession with the popular black artist herself.
Not every example leaves me so happy. If video turns to MTV, Hiro Yamagata makes the ultimate visual dance club. He fills Ace Gallery with a dizzying array of light sources. They bombard the viewer. They dare one to find one's way. I ran head first, hard, into one wall, and I felt grateful to have made it out that easily. No doubt the only way to proceed without falling is to dance.
I thought of the line about dance music: what would it sound like if one came off Ecstasy for a moment? I thought of Ad Reinhardt, ever the caustic writer and cartoonist, who derogated sculpture as what one backs into while looking at a painting. Installation turns that idea of sculpture around but good, but all I got for it was a bruised forehead and a big smile.
Yamagata calls the piece NGC6093, as if he had pulled a heavenly body right out of an astronomer's catalog. The artist's statement takes pride in the scientism of lasers. Do not believe a word of it. Ace extended the work well beyond its original summer closing date—and not for an audience into enlightenment and a higher state of consciousness.
Filling Ace's maze of rooms with installation is no mean feat. The space housed Robert Rauschenberg's Quarter-Mile Piece with plenty of room to spare. The bad news is that ambition ends there. Oh, heck, it wants to say. This is only art. Lay back and have fun.
Installation art probably has grown too difficult and too easy. Too difficult, because the pressure to go more and more overboard is everywhere. Too easy, because it does not appear to take as much skill, especially now that anyone has access to digital video. If this leads to plenty of annoying installations, I am grateful for them, because it means artists are looking for ways to keep actively engaging and unsettling the viewer. I am trying to write about art right now, and I am getting into a deep mess! Just hope I do not make it into my own home movie.
John Coplans ran at Andrea Rosen through October 27, 2001, Deborah Mesa-Pelly at Lombard-Freid through October 6, Macyn Bolts at Kim Foster through October 6, Joao Onofre at I-20 through October 27, and Kara Walker at Brent Sikkema through October 13. Hiro Yamagata's installation at Ace Gallery was extended through October 21, 2001. Last I looked, Chuck Close's The Portrait Speaks had gone out of print.