Generation X Art

John Haber
in New York City

Knight's Move, Art Trends, and Resentment

I wanted to like Jules de Balincourt in April, honest, but I was just not cool enough. Okay, I can see why Deitch Projects had to set such strict rules for its next to last show. The artist has ascended from upside-down maps to textbook awesome. He combines Pop Art portraiture with what look like posters for the next 3D film release. I can see why, too, when so many New Yorkers are lining up in front of me to celebrate the departure of Jeffrey Deitch for LA MOCA. You would, too, if you could just get there first.

It was crushing all the same, so around the corner I went, to plead personally with the official cool committee. But the young, naked, and ever so photogenic cast of Ryan McGinley at Team was unforgiving. Maybe next time. Line up some credentials first from the vast conspiracy of dealers, museum curators, and academic theorists. Or maybe enough receipts from enough Lower East Side bars. Learn to love irony and hate painting. Virginia Poundstone's Flower Field (Sculpture Center, 2010)

Obviously I am kidding, but plenty of artists are not. If I learned one thing this spring, it is that. Their feeling of exclusion ran through reactions to art fairs and the 2010 Whitney Biennial. It drove the month-long exhibition "#class," which turned a gallery into a class on the art world. It rose to a furor after two assaults on installation art in The New York Times by Roberta Smith—and it is wrong all the same. I, too, am exasperated at trendy, trashy exhibitions, and one has every right to lose hope as a struggling artist, but the populist outrage is disturbing and self-defeating.

The dominant art of today is not a trend at all, but a drift. Modernism and Postmodernism collide, mix, and explode, including old and new media alike. They bring hope, but also fears for art's meaning and vitality. Consider "Knight's Move," a show so close to the mix that I myself might have curated it. Then turn, seriously, to the mess today. I want to urge artists to see past resentment—and to the real dilemma.

De-defamiliarization

"Knight's Move" has more than one false start. SculptureCenter, a few plywood stairs by Matt Sheridan Smith and Nikolas Gambaroff lead exactly nowhere, other than into a blank wall. It blends into the debris on a dead-end street, and I missed it entirely on my way in. David Brooks picks up where it leaves off with his Buried Boardwalk—except for the mountain of gravel that blocks progress. Its "observation deck" at the end overlooks pretty much nothing anyway, give or take people like me wishing we could climb up. Even if we could, we might find ourselves trapped like criminals on a scaffold.

One gets a third chance on entering the building and at least a fourth heading into the basement tunnels. In practice, almost every work involves repeated starts and inconclusive endings. It might be Alex Hubbard on video, puttering around his studio without ever quite appearing, much as in the 2010 Whitney Biennial. It might be Mika Tajima, leaving paintings on a rack as if waiting for someone to display them. The entire show could serve as an allegory of the art world, where anything seems possible but success. For all the talk, big installations are giving way to smaller experiments, at the risk of no one breaking through.

Not that uncertain progress means futility. Brooks's walkway gently twists and soars as an actual boardwalk never could, and it leads the eye from debris to greenery—much like his demented sidewalk in a gallery this spring. At the far end of the sculpture court, he stacks dumpsters like colored blocks, with flora growing on top, high overhead. Downstairs, Joanna Malinowska piles her polished imitation walrus tusks next to a washer-dryer as In Search of Primordial Matter. In art apparently, evolution can go through cycles and still clean house. In fact, the show combines any number of interdisciplinary trends and favorite artists, to the point that I could almost have curated it myself.

One, as with Brooks or Allyson Vieira, is the transformation of Minimalism into what Mark Dion might call urban archaeology. Vieira's plaster fragments bring the Parthenon to industrial walls, while Esther Kläs's horizontal slabs form a broken pyramid. Others, like Erin Shirreff and Sara VanDerBeek, transform photography into abstraction, but based on real sculpture and model architecture. For Tamar Halpern, that leaves the space of abstraction and of imagery difficult to tease apart. For still others, like Hubbard or Uri Aran, process art leaves a real-world mess. Aran's shavings and shredded wheat suggest a compulsion to create something, even if no one will see it—or, one hopes, eat it.

"Knight's Move" in fact feels less like a chess endgame than a grab-bag of tricks, trends, and opening gambits—some of them very clever gambits indeed. When Virginia Poundstone leaves flower boxes on brightly printed vinyl, appropriation veers on the decorative arts, especially as it might make a nifty shower curtain. When Ohad Meromi sets a primitivist sculpture next to an early modern tower, it approaches identity politics, without having much of an identity. With Cassie Raihl's TigerStack, assemblages by Alexandre Singh modeled on magic acts, and Tom Thayer's low-tech animations, trashy installations come close to incompleteness for its own sake. It is not so easy to break free of a static and divided art world. I might turn out a lousy curator after all.

The actual curator, Fionn Meade, finds an old-fashioned optimism behind it all. The show's title quotes Victor Shklovskii, the Russian formalist critic who coined the term defamiliarization. Shklovskii might enjoy the irony of turning to him to justify so much that is now so familiar. But maybe the trends are converging for good reason, in a revisioning of the city as a site for art. Brooks's mound might well have risen up from the stones of the Maya Lin sculpture court, and Smith's stoop might mourn the new glass apartment tower with its back to the museum. Shirreff closes the show with the United Nations as seen from Long Island City, in distorted color—like so many artists with dreams of Manhattan.

Frenetic impurity

Artists have reacted for so long now against the purity of formalism that one can forget which impurity they bring. For Pop Art and Robert Rauschenberg, it was commercial imagery and found objects. For Minimalism, it was industrial materials and space surrounding the art object. For earthworks, it was the earth itself. For performance it was the artist and the audience. For Neo-Expressionism, it was ego and emotion—and then some.

For Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, and the "Pictures generation," it was an impurity at the heart of Modernism all along—the impure motives of museums and the market. Not that Modernism ever pretended to purity, not in the tradition of Cubism or Dada. Not in the infuriating desires of Picasso's women or the political urgency of Guernica. As art came to middle-class America, things could only get worse (or, if you prefer, better). That is why Clement Greenberg had to demand higher standards. Then again, in Abstract Expressionism itself, Robert Motherwell did dedicate his art as an homage to the Spanish Republic.

Michael Behle, for a recent example in Brooklyn, could have an interesting conversation with Elliott Hundley, perhaps art's consummate networker on canvas. Like Hundley, he plays between two and three dimensions. His painted constructions that tilt onto sculpture or canvas, only with toothpicks rather than Hundley's twigs and plastic straws. These days, artists can throw pretty much anything as art against the wall, and it will stick. He also likes the manic energy of pop culture, warns against it in the interest of reason, and incorporates it onto canvas anyway. Where Hundley finds the tension in Greek tragedy, much like Nietzsche's opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian, Behle's "Animal Faith" takes the low road.

His wooden grids land on bronzes that could pass for archaeological digs. A similar geometry, but in paint or collage, caps magazine clips—a rapper, a guy with a football, and the archetypical dumb blond. Many have called such "primitivism" racist. Think of Cubist quotes from African art and Pop Art slices from advertising, with maybe a buckyball or two to keep them in line—and I cannot help thinking that Behle sides with the rapper. He even calls another collage photo a self-portrait. Still, could that geometry substitute for tin-foil hats? Is it too late even to take sides?

Perhaps it is too late. Somewhere down the line, the frenetic impurity of the last ten or twenty years got out of hand. No sooner had painting arisen from the dead but artists started trashing it, along with the rest of the gallery. What matters more, though, is that traditional media have embraced impurity, too, in a quieter but more pervasive way. One can no longer so easily distinguish painting and sculpture from photography and new media. The very core of Greenberg's formalism or McLuhan's anti-formalism alike, the medium as the message, is out the door—or out on the Web—and it makes much artist hatred of intellectual and artistic trends meaningless.

I believe that art takes words, that informed criticism is essential, and that most criticism is anything but informed. Difficult ideas are still a critical window on the market, and marketing babble is not critical theory. I believe that painting is alive and well, while Jeff Koons and his crowd at the New Museum are already history. Besides, all art is conceptual, while the handmade is no guarantee of quality. I could argue, too, that lousy painting floods Web sites, open studios, and group shows, and the real problem is not a style or a medium, but power and money. And I have—but here I want to insist on another problem, the resentment itself.

Old media and resentment

Nietzsche preferred to say ressentiment, and Walter Kaufmann, the great scholar and translator, stressed its closeness to another of the philosopher's favorite targets, pity. Nietzsche chose the French for its roots in ressentir, to feel keenly. Christianity, he wrote, is the religion of pity, but its show of compassion condescends to the weak and denigrates the strong. It descends quickly to self-pity, and this, too, fuels resentment. Not that I have a brief against religion myself, and arrogant elitism has obvious dangers of its own. Still, he offers a real sense of the present.

He anticipates right-wing populism in politics today. He captures its assault on the intellect and the use of that assault to sustain privilege while denigrating those who can least speak for themselves. He captures its nostalgia for cultural norms that may never have existed—and that exclude genuine rebellion and experiment. Artists, of all people, should be the last to mirror every single point. They should know that it makes a poor excuse for despair. As Nietzsche said, "When we take pity upon ourselves, we denigrate our strength, and thus invite others to denigrate us."

As so often, critics take on the moment only when it has past. Amid so much debate over oversized installations, one can easily miss the explosion of other media and other messages, from realism and abstraction to photography, a sparer conceptual art, and new media. One can miss, too, how often now they spill over into one another. But is that impurity I keep describing a good thing?

Obviously it opens possibilities, while reinvigorating the past. Artists can look back at traditions from painting to appropriation without the careless cynicism of the 1990s. They can return to the open-ended meanings that deconstruction once promised or the diversity of the politics of diversity, before these became rote one-liners. They can see the decay and rebuilding of cities and art institutions lost in the trash heaps of big-name galleries. They can draw connections between popular culture and real history. It is if I dared them to surprise me, and they did.

At the same time, it can make things way too easy. It is a plain fact of life since the 1950s that anything can be art, but as the challenge fades, that risks becoming anything goes. Call it generation X art. It says something that the diversity mirrors the transformation of the art world and ideal of a market economy. Not just every day, but every painting can be an art fair. It is far from the angry coherence of modern and postmodern art movements, with their fierce urgency of now.

At heart, though, anger hardly matters. Only in the culture wars do people judge the present, as if it could go away any faster than it already does. Just as when art history looks at the past, a critic's job is to see the context, so that others can navigate who brings it alive. Impurity has connotations of contamination, and contamination can mean both corruption and a frank look at despair, disease or cross-pollination. Love them or hate them, anyone who sees only celebrity artists, dealers, and critics has forgotten how to look.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Knight's Move" ran at SculptureCenter through July 26, 2010, Michael Behle ran at the Hogar Collection through May 24.

 

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