A Thing of Beauty?

John Haber
in New York City

Gallery-Going: Chelsea in Spring 2004

Modern art always felt ambivalent about beauty. Art's subject became not a lovely illusion but a messy reality thrust in one's face. And yet Modernism demanded attention for the art object in its own right. It gave new weight to formal constraints. It thrived on a select audience willing and able to care, just as art of the late Renaissance turned less to civic commissions—and more to the connoisseur's eye. And it created a new kind of public forum for contemplation, the white cube of a twentieth-century museum.

With postmodern and contemporary art, the ambivalence often turned into open warfare. Every assumption, from the art object to the museum, came under fire. Yet that fire then became the subject of art. Michal Rovner's Afar (PaceWildenstein, 2004)

This spring brought lots of guilty pleasures. They can feel like interruptions amid ostensibly more critical issues, but they keep happening. In contrast to older ideals with beauty, they and their subjects can feel distant, inapproachable, and cool, but one has to value the chill wind. This column is overdue to drop the theory long enough for a walking tour of Chelsea. So consider the cold, hard facts of Jennifer Steinkamp, Diane Samuels, Michal Rovner, and Julian Stanczak.

The forest for the trees

It started even before spring. Jennifer Steinkamp must have satisfied an almost universal longing in winter's darkness. People who have little taste for art were moved by word of mouth to pay a visit.

On the four walls of Lehmann Maupin's front room, a gallery better known for shock art's dirty secrets than for sweetness and light, she projected trees. They could easily have passed for static, two-dimensional images, for narratives of growth, or for nature itself, but they refused each one of these. They stood for four seasons, if one buys the titles, but they looked too similar and contributed too much to a single environment for that as well. The confluence could suggest stepping outside of time, like a platonic ideal of beauty, but they relied on new media, and they slowly changed.

Rather, they took on a surreal beauty by contradicting themselves. In each image, a tree turned. In each, a flutter of colored light stood for leaves just enough to enhance the deep space of bare branches. The gallery has also displayed Tracey Emin, the chronicler of her own sex life who has rather different associations with dense undergrowth. But even that helped. It added darker, more physical overtones to the artificial light.

As one theme of this Web site, I keep insisting that that sensuality of the art object exists in the mind. It depends on the accumulation of associations, including the associations with past art and present-day politics and culture. It means tracing new media to multiple genealogies. It means that there can be no immediate appreciation apart from words and no such things as mere conceptual art rather than conceptual arts.

The themes let me have a lot of warm, fuzzy associations in front of a Rembrandt and a lot of hot ones when conceptual or political art has me really engaged. However, they allow for some lesser pleasures, too—even the cold, eerie light of Steinkamp's video.

By the actual spring, with real cherry trees on New York streets, I remembered the coolly digital illusion, the crisply shadowed branches, the flickering lights, and the sheer virtuosity as an empty show. By the end of spring, I wanted back my memories of self-indulgence—the viewer's, that is, and not necessarily hers or nature's. Forget the forest: I wanted to see again the trees.

Human roots and fallen leaves

All these associations raise a peculiarly postmodern problem: beauty is no longer either eternal or even in the present. It comes tied up with the past. Diane Samuels in fact calls her work Traces.

The closer Samuels approaches abstraction, the more she roots her art in a time and place. Over four years ago, her laser-cut tears tracked the passage of light through sheets of glass. She was transforming her memory of a chance shadow, at a synagogue in Eastern Europe, much as Ellsworth Kelly captures accidents of vision in shaped canvas or plant drawings. She was also transforming the metaphoric shadows of lives lost, through stacked objects that measure out the moments.

This spring, she rooted the viewer as well. Her black-and-white photographs capture the anonymous perfection of soil and fallen leaves. The square format, frontal images, shallow depth, and near life scale echo a formal tradition, of art and objecthood. The titles emphasize the place, however, again mostly in Europe. The combination begs one to accord a spot of earth that one may never have seen the inescapable existence of objects in a gallery now.

Variations on the photographs, but in video, confuse proximity and memory still further. One projection shines a similar square of earth onto the gallery floor. Could real roots hide in that blurry patch of ground? As another shadow moves on the wall, one pauses, gingerly. One makes a instinctive gesture, mistaking it for interactive art. Either way, one slows down to observe and to understand.

Rebecca Solnit has argued that landscapes always lies between two ideals—of a lost Eden and of a future urban utopia, although some, like New York's High Line in photos by Joel Sternfeld, may even trade on them both. The first assumes a world unspoiled by human sin. The second posits a world perfected by and for humanity. The first identifies nature with a passive, feminine ideal, before Eve got ornery and Ana Mendieta took off her chicken feathers and fell to her death. The second replaces nature with a male, scientific ideal. She wants a third way, guided by a sense of femininity as active and as humanity inextricable from nature—at the price of inventing gender ideals and an unspoiled unity of her own, without a past.

Samuels points to the past, without the narrative specificity of premodern painting. She makes one feel the importance of each moment, without the existential bombast of Bill Viola's slow-motion. Not even art, however, can suspend time. The more she roots her art in a place never to be recovered, the more she makes one understand the word rootless.

Signs of humanity

Once one starts talking about associations and the past, one can happily muddle the distinctions between biology, archaeology, and language, not to mention between sculpture and new media. Michal Rovner revels in them all, but it takes a few moments to find them. A work on paper, held safely at a distance by the cabinet, looks rather like a textbook image of chromosomes. But biology has become not nature's bedrock or even a fixed systems of signs. It has become an art. Given a moment, the chromosomes dance.

And well they should, for each is a video, projected from within the case above, of a naked human. Were the Israeli artist's aspirations not clear enough, most of the projections fall on stone. Two large works, like wells, make explicit the reference to an archaeological dig from humanity's deep past. The rows of images, sometimes broken by inexplicable spaces, resemble runic alphabets—but again of human traces. (In later work, Rovner turns from archaeological digs to drilling for oil.)

I find something almost too comfortingly pristine in the heavy artifacts and tiny images. You may not be screwing around with Sam Taylor-Wood, but you, too, would pose naked in front of a woman for video this small. The associations with deep history may also sound more pat than truly deep. Still, the associations between genetic traces and real humans—or between writing and the puzzle of human presence—are too good to pass up. Besides, writing (like art of a certain formalist generation) is supposed to be flat, right?

For some critics as early as the 1960s, the notion of passive beauty came to look increasingly like sexism. Yet the need to recognize craft and a traditional "woman's work" grew in importance, more even than in earlier movements that integrated art and design. With Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Gerhard Richter, if not sooner, painting itself became conceptual art, only to give fresh attention to the thickness of a brushstroke.

All the artists here have given that change a more personal twist. Is it an accident that all are women? Probably not, but the wonderful thing about feminism is that it changes perception for everyone, even perceptions of biology and art. Suppose the gallery tour ends, then, with a man.

Clearly it take many styles and conventions to allow art to look pretty these days. I might well have included Dik Liu here, who also had a fine show this spring, turning his eye for intense light and color largely to portraiture. In the case of Julian Stanczak, one might be tempted to say mindlessly pretty. He forces one to consider the phenomenon of vision apart from logic. One would be wrong.

Seeing the pattern

And there lies perhaps the great saving irony of Op Art. Its execution in fact requires at least as much calculation as a LeWitt—and without a huge cadre of uncredited assistants.

Stanczak's work at Stux has a new relevance after Bridget Riley's London retrospective, in no small part because he plays the game so straight. She pushes the complexity of vision through the sheer scale of the work, making one confront the disparities in one's impressions up close and at a distance. She toys with pattern painting and decoration decidedly apart from illusion.

The gallery ranges over much of Stanczak's career, but it sticks to works of his on an easel scale, down to the bits of color that infiltrate a dense canvas. One never loses sight of the conceptual logic, but he never has Riley's air of a successful experiment. She progresses from idea to sketch on paper, to painting, to the point that one expects the illusion to work—and is that much more shocked that it does. Stanczak, for better or for worse, works like an older abstract painter, for whom design implies shifting choices.

The easel scale shows him, too, not unlike a Renaissance painter in his positing of an ideal vantage point—if only to grant the viewer not the pretensions to objectivity of Michel Foucault's Order of Things, but a splitting headache. Art does have a way of undermining one's confidence in simple visions.

Or maybe forget beauty after all. The little splotches, like the leached darkness of the stripes, can look fussy and unsightly—until the illusion kicks in. Perhaps that serves as one more reminder that modernist and postmodern twists on beauty come with some impressive baggage. Reactionary critics, such as John Armstrong and Anita Brookner, keep insisting on a simpler notion of beauty. Then again, they have no time for the art right in front of their eyes. See the pattern?

Riley has moved to less jarring designs, betraying her conceptual impulse. Stanczak remains ever the phenomenologist of painting. Does Op Art seem after all these years a tempest in a teapot? Then again, Stanczak suggests, teapots can show the craftsmanship of decorative or indeed abstract art.

BACK to John's arts home page


Jennifer Steinkamp ran at Lehmann Maupin through February 14, 2004, Diane Samuels at Kim Foster through June 12, Michal Rovner at PaceWildenstein through June 5, and Julian Stanczak at Stefan Stux through March 20. Rebecca Solnit's essay "Lisa Meitner's Walking Shoes" opens What Eve Said to the Serpent (University of Georgia Press, 2001).


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME