The Ritual Abuse of Art

John Haber
in New York City

After Nature and NeoHooDoo

After Surrealism, abstraction, and the blow-out that followed, does it still make sense to speak of the spiritual in art? Do irony and self-reflection leave a space for ritual?

Three shows in the second half of 2008 plead for old rituals suitable to contemporary traumas. "If Love Could Have Saved You" sticks to just one ritual, mourning. In practice, it adds up to shallow thoughts on a subject too deep for tears. Radcliffe Bailey's Storm at Sea (Jack Shainman gallery, 2006)

Two others have grander ambitions—a recovery of humanity itself. "After Nature" at the New Museum wonders if people are killing off nature or vice versa. "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith" at P.S. 1 scours Latin American art, feminism, and Minimalism alike for spiritual values. Each wallows in suffering, each scores a political point or two, and each throws in everything but the kitchen sink. The results should have more than just postmodernists thinking, "get over it." Perhaps no one really can.

A child of a certain age

When Wassily Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he may have reached for eternity, but he was not looking back. "Every work of art," he began, "is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own that can never be repeated." The slim 1910 volume argued not for known or half-remembered religions, but for a "spiritual revolution"—with a new painterly language to express it. It helped pave the way for abstraction.

Ironically, this period of culture is all about looking back, and it too needs a child of its age. Call it Postmodernism or something else entirely. Either way, it has an obsession with both mockery and recovery. One sees its anxious reflection in the strategy of appropriation, but also in its refusal to accept Kandinsky's universalism. Modernism all along had its investment in local politics and institutions, and a newer art was going to attend to repressed corners of a newly global culture. Irony had become a matter of life and death.

"If Love Could Have Saved You, You Would Have Lived Forever" cuts both ways: does it speak of love's strength in the face of death or its pointlessness? On the pointless side, consider the objects of devotion—Victorian hair wreaths, coffins in the form of pineapples and cocoa beans, Roy Kortick's "beloved dogs," floral arrangements for "gay icons" by Marc Swanson and Mama-Nitzberg, or Patricia Cronin's graveyard memorial to her partner—and herself. Her smooth, academic style looks like a parody, but she means it as a sincere tribute to gay love. In art, a little sincerity goes a long way.

If childhood occupies years, especially for artists, death takes eternity. That alone makes mourning a large theme, but the show cannily narrows it to many an artist's favorite among American rituals, kitsch. Often the artists simply collect or replicate everything they can find. Hey, someone has to clean out America's garages and closets after loved ones have passed away. Tammy Rae Carland does it for her mother's home. Becky Smith and Rob Hauschild do it in photographs of gravestones, records of roadside memorials, and paper effigies of as much of consumer culture as they can imagine.

In a sense, every portrait is a record of absence, like the hazy video of an activist filmmaker by Tanyth Berkeley and Todd Chandler. The earliest known portrait may have served to commemorate the dead. The appropriation for ritual of contemporary culture could play off that history. Instead, the strategy largely neuters it. Nods to the customs of other nations from Paa Joe, Amrita Das, and Leela Devi merely add pop anthropology to pop sociology.

The show's most poignant moment comes in a far quieter disruption of real time. Vanessa Albury's slide show repeats a single image, of her grandmother's funeral. Its harsh yellow-orange light evokes a sepia print given new intensity by twenty-first century grief. Perhaps love cannot save you from death, but art can save its share of the debris.

After you, Gaston

"After Nature" sounds both radical and relevant. It implies a world that can no longer look fondly or hopefully to a state of nature. Perhaps global warming has already destroyed the planet's ability to adapt. Perhaps human encroachment has eradicated the very distinction between artifice and nature. A world seen only through human eyes and human images, of a nature that may neither precede nor outlast the human race, also sounds ever so postmodern. The French call still-life painting nature morte, or dead nature, so art that can no longer represent the natural might be dead dead nature—and might still be life.

Instead, the museum-wide exhibition clings to an existential crisis that Alberto Giacometti might have understood. It is about nature struggling to regain its footing, with or without humanity. Almost anything would fit so vague and portentous a theme, which may explain the arbitrary choices. Why do sermons by the Reverend Howard Finster belong in this godless universe, especially framed and mounted like rare prints? Why include Nancy Graves rather than any of a dozen other examples of women's earth art from the 1970s, and why so many flayed bodies from Eastern Europe but not, say, Giacometti, Alina Szapocznikow, or Magdalena Abakanowicz?

Werner Herzog, whose films have explored the "wild child" as tormented nature, sets the tone with the first Gulf War as a lunar landscape. Other precursors on display include August Strindberg's photographic emulsions and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein's largely forgotten transition between outsider art and Abstract Expressionism. The procession of raw, crumbling flesh includes Thomas Schütte with heads on a pole, Berlinde De Bruyckere's wax carcasses, the mismatched and shattered arms and head from Huma Bhabha, the naked Lauren and Hardy act from Artur Zmijewski, and half a floor for Paweł Althamer and his lost village. They might be on the verge of tumbling into Diego Perrone's sand pits, Erik van Lieshout's post-AIDS Tanzania, or Roberto Cuoghi's scumbled terrain on glass. Cuoghi insists that he is mapping Bush's Axis of Evil, but extended to nine countries. Axis of Art anyone?

These works flirt with the headlines while infinity goes up on trial. Robert Kusmirowski hopes that reference to the Unabomber will make his woodshed more traumatic than memories of summer camp. Roger Ballen's staged photographs avoid moral and political responsibility for torture. Who knew that a stop-action mud slide by Nathalie Djurberg is "from the point of view of nature itself"—or that Bill Daniel's New Orleans after Katrina is a "dystopian society . . . painfully similar to our own"? The tree on crutches from Zoe Leonard looks ominous, but horticulture relies on much the same device.

All this reach for something beyond humanity amounts to pretension, and some witty artists suffer from the context. William Christenberry's photos resemble a madcap topiary, even if his kudzu vines overrun human habitations. Djurberg calls her wry video My Name Is Mud, and Fikret Atay's tribal rituals had better be funny. Heavy-handed selections bury other artists. Dana Schutz often merges primitivism and party-going, but not in painting a flesh-eating monster. Eric Wesley once laughed at stereotypes with his donkey kicking into the Studio Museum, as a tautly muscular horse here from Maurizio Cattelan (although Cattelan is not dead), with its head in the wall, never will.

A different show could have unleashed a dizzying concatenation of art and nature, disaster and recovery. It would have allowed its own hints of beauty to shine as well. "Living sculpture" by Tino Sehgal writhing in a corner displays coy exaggeration one moment, but a striking, athletic grace another. In a "refuge" off SANAA's grand stairwell, Klara Lidén with her video calls to mind Merce Cunningham. Perhaps the only way back to nature is a slow, backward dance.

Forget faith?

The faith in "NeoHooDoo" has many rituals, and Regina José Galeinde has videos for three of them. A man and woman enter like boyfriend and girlfriend, only the man smashes her head into an open drum of water. For a second cleansing, the woman undergoes a hosing. For her confession, she kneels naked and head bowed, too numb even to move.

One can see why this faith is forgotten. It worships at Michael Tracey's cross, the wood scarred by tarnished metal and a sword. It seeks refuge at Pepón Osorio's shrine, a hut collapsing onto crutches and bicycle wheels. It washes itself for Robert Gober in an empty sink of dry porcelain and jagged wood. It offers rituals as a means to preserve cultures of brutality and prejudice. It offers art in turn as a degraded ritual.

The degradation has insistent political overtones, just as Galeinde's rituals amount to water boarding, fire hosing, and stun-gun assault. Most often, it is the politics of identity. The artists all hail from the Americas, in Caribbean art and beyond, and the United States contributes mostly women, blacks, and gays. They assert their heritage, they cry out against its burden, and they take personal responsibility for ameliorating its cost. Amalia Mesa-Bains packs one room with herbs, elixirs, and testimony to Chicano traditions of family loyalty. She has created a laboratory for healing and for revenge.

Each work stages a confrontation between past and present—with only losers. Art brings the unseen to light and the spiritual down to earth, by putting both in modern dress. And modernity has its own degraded rituals, most of them drowning in alcohol. Brian Jungen takes a Styrofoam ice chest of Bud to the picnic, decorated with a death's head. David Hammons constructs a Minimalist glass circle from empty bottles. He might find the Night Train on sale right now behind a storefront marquee by Nari Ward, Liquorsoul.

For all that, the show speaks of hope. The curator, Franklin Sirmans, has taken his title from Ishmael Reed, who meant more than voodoo in ghetto clothes. He called for the same rhythms that he sought in his own poetry—hypnotic but free form. It sounds ever so 1960s, like the touchy-feely rituals of "Summer of Love" at the Whitney. Could it have fresh relevance to a global world? Could multiculturalism itself, as advocates for "the primitive" in art once believed, hide a common humanity?

Holland Cotter, for one, sure hopes so. In The New York Times, he celebrated the recovery of spirituality in art. He called the multiculturalism bravely out of fashion, news to anyone who follows art or reads his columns. In barely a year, the Brooklyn Museum has surveyed "Global Feminisms" and art of the Americas, while P.S. 1 has celebrated feminism in "WACK!" The Studio Museum has already moved on —to "post-black identity. By now, cultural conservatives should grow tired of complaining about political correctness, but they never do.

A thousand cuts

Compared to those past shows, "NeoHooDoo" displays just the open-mindedness that Reed would wish. It never preaches pride and revolution. If it tried, an entire floor of suffering would do it in. By the same token, though, the show is at war with itself. Its message of hope suffers death by a thousand cuts, and a good thing, too. Nothing less could rescue the art from its own shrill monotony.

That can mean literal cuts, in a show with a penchant for the literal. Rebecca Belmore's nude has her back sewn (digitally) into a bead curtain. In work after work, the human body takes a serious beating—but especially a woman's body. Ana Mendieta leaves the marks of hers in burning gunpowder. When Janine Antoni puns on an animal pelt and bridle, she imagines femininity reduced twice over to flesh and subjugation. As for men, Michael Joo lies naked and caked with salt beside a towering elk.

These artists cry out to escape, but are they fleeing ritual, or is flight the ritual? Radcliffe Bailey rides a wave of piano keys with a tiny war god at one end of his boat. Kcho's rusty spikes turn the beloved American Indian canoe from the Museum of Natural History into a prop for a horror film. José Bedia identifies a human silhouette with an altar, tied by long ropes to boats, trains, and planes. They bear necessities for the journey—in clothing, dogs, and of course liquor. They could equally be leaving humanity behind or tearing it to shreds.

Even with only thirty artists, "NeoHooDoo" has way too much of everything. Besides liquor, flesh, boats, and glitter, it has a predictable clutter of gods and totems. Along with Hammons's halo of liquor bottles, it has massive loops in gold by James Lee Byars and in industrial lighting by Marepe. It never misses an appeal to the obvious. From Marcel Duchamp and Piet Mondrian to Ad Reinhardt, many of Modernism's sharpest wits scorned appeals to deep meanings. This show could make anyone a late convert to formalism.

At its most introspective, the exhibition is haunted by death and half hidden in shadow. In Ernesto Pujol's photographs, a solitary figure stands in a mausoleum. His back to the camera lends him dignity, but it also equates him with a funerary monument or an apparition from beyond the grave, like posthumous portraiture in America. Adrian Piper's African American portraits resonate in gray on black. They also threaten to fade away. Terry Adkins's tribute to Bessie Smith in black fabric and peacock feathers buries her in the masquerade.

Like "After Nature" or "If Love Could Have Saved You," "NeoHooDoo" expresses a widespread ambivalence in art today. All three flirt with practical politics and the "return of the real." All three look to nature and the human body in order to recover painful memories. And all three have a Postmodern sense of a physical existence "after nature"—wrapped up in art, artifice, ritual, and consumer culture. All, in short, are dazed and confused. At least at P.S. 1, the confusion comes as a frank confession.

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"If Love Could Have Saved You" ran at Bellwether through August 8, 2008, "After Nature" at The New Museum of Contemporary Art through September 21, and "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith" at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center through January 26, 2009.


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