Night and Day

John Haber
in New York City

Gallery-Going, Spring 2006: Disconnections and Dreams

An artist's private associations may offer the remoteness and familiarity of a dream—or the antic disconnections of a farce. And, just as often, they come off instead as maddeningly self-indulgent. Sometimes, whatever Delmore Schwartz says, in dreams end responsibilities.

Dreams, farce, self-indulgence, and art increasingly have plenty in common. Impulse, energy, and personal gesture have returned, this time as manifestations of celebrity more than of genius. All, too, can seek at once to lead viewers to the edge of risky territory, while providing the entertainment and entrance into a vision to make it downright comforting. Jessica Rankin's Nocturne (MoMA PS1, 2006)

Take a quick run with me through galleries and P.S 1 this spring. Christoph Ruckhäberle stands for his layering of dreams through ideals of the primitive down through German Expressionism and today's fashion. Salla Tykka along with Jennifer and Kevin McCoy tries to make viewers mistake art for their own dream world. John Pilson, Cao Fei, and Sara Greenberger Rafferty walk the line between confrontation and comedy.

After such sophisticated clowning, I did best to head straight for contributions by Jessica Stockholder and Jessica Rankin. If I could not find more laughter, at least I had the serious benefits of lightness.

Private languages of art

A Whitney Biennial may not guarantee great art, but you can always count on one thing: it puts artists into galleries. The career boost all but ensures a dealer, and galleries love the publicity of a simultaneous show. Even a quintessential outsider like Daniel Johnston becomes an insider, with what his dealer calls a "historical retrospective." I am holding out for the ahistorical retrospective myself.

However, a Biennial can point to other activity as well. Galleries give even a Biennial as unrepresentative as that of 2006 more resonance and relevance. Just next door to Johnston, two have abandoned Williamsburg for a newly crowded block past Eleventh Avenue. The first opened its doors for Ken Weaver, whose phosphorescent colors, Warhol-like outlines, and theme of "Royally Fucked" all evoke the Biennial's late-night, semi-public sexual and musical transgressions of thirty years past. So does Hernan Bas with his ghostly figures titled "Dandies, Pansies, and Prudes," all dressed up with nowhere artistically to go. Closer still to the Biennial's secret codes, his gallery also allows Christian Holstad to take over a deserted midtown deli for dark allusions to gay subcultures past and present, without so much as a sign on the door.

I may not enjoy these shows as much as a not dissimilar dark recreation by Mike Nelson, but they truly live up to the Biennial's title "Day for Night," and they have something else in common, too: they immerse one in the artist's personal associations, not unlike a second Brooklyn refugee, Nancy Baker's City of God. Art becomes not just an expression of the artist as celebrity, as in so much art from the last fifteen years, but almost an artist's private language. One can think of Johnston's musings as a graphic novel in need of fleshing out, as the hasty thoughts of Raymond Pettibon while stranded in Texas, as the journal of his own mental illness, or as a musician's musings after an aborted road trip. Either way, one just has to be there.

This kind of art can have an appealing informality, and it makes one feel like an insider oneself simply for coping with it—an art scene that makes me think of a private club. It also puts me off—or makes me think that the artist has not taken art past its initial impulse. It comports with a scene that rewards art-school connections, with the consequent overvaluation of easily described and graded student projects. As Jerry Saltz writes in The Village Voice, too many artists never get to the end of a famous directive: take an object; do something with it; do something else with it. Jasper Johns, who notably said so, always remembered to do that something else.

Still, sometimes a private language can feel as moving as the spoken one. In part, one's exclusion from its full meaning brings the work closer to a dream state. I felt that with Christoph Ruckhäberle. The bulky, simply outlined figures and warm, flat colors recall another Zach Feuer artist, Dana Schutz. However, the images impose her primitivism on a night world out of German Expressionism and "Degenerate Art." The poses, turned into the picture, and the occasional masks also suggest both anonymity and familiarity. When a figure leads a horse, he becomes part of a supernaturally slow circus.

Directed dreaming

More direct attempts at art as directed dreaming run comparable risks. Surrealism privileged the dream state, for imagery and methods alike that subvert the artist's ego. However, Salvador Dalí could make that state a little too much his own—and a lot too comforting for his own good. Even emerging artists today often repeat a private stock of images, with an adoring public lapping up purported nightmares as greeting cards.

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy's Dream Sequence (Postmasters, 2006)Dreams are supposed to reveal conflicts. They also are supposed to compress, to defy, and to lay bare the symbolic languages on which art depends. That gets harder and harder, now that horror films have become not an extension of Dalí's razor blade, but a product churned out as easily as any other. No wonder Salla Tykka runs into trouble. She has the conventions down pat, along with feminist lectures on cinema and the male gaze. However, despite a savvy and often lovely video, those very talents keep getting in the way.

Tykka's protagonist bears an uncanny resemblance to Hitchcock's favorite actresses from his late American phase. She carries a camera—an obvious gender reversal on Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window—as she slowly passes through a waterfront promenade and zoo. The work intercuts these slow, restless movements with a rough game of underwater rugby, and naturally her heroine comes to a suitably bad end. Tykka has her visual style down cold, and I easily fell into a dream state myself. Yet I felt I was watching a lost episode of Flipper directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Still, sometimes plain old creature comforts matter, even in art, right down to the comfort of a nice nap. Two other shows use different means to place one in a slowly unfolding landscape. Jennifer and Kevin McCoy definitely take things slowly. They build shifting models of suburban America, which they project onto gallery walls. At PaceWildenstein's newest Chelsea space, Tara Donovan creates an even vaster, dreamier landscape out of nothing more than plastic cups. Both come close to a formula, but if one does not analyze them to death, they feel awfully nice.

The McCoys incorporate static scenery and rotating plastic figures. They turn multiple cameras on each scene, so that its slow changes unfold on gallery walls in real time. The cuts, like the pacing, suggest the fragmentation of a dream. Indeed, each model presents more a sequence of distinct stage sets than a continuous landscape. One has the private home, the theater, or the dance.

At their best, the fake grass and figurines evoke at once a satire on the American scene and a wistful memory. I wanted this suburban pageant to feel more original, true to life, and disturbing, like the cryptic realism of paintings by Amy Bennett. However, if I could not get past the formula, I rarely feel so tempted by a community thankfully out of reach of New York City.

Comedy tonight

Maybe I had lowered my standards, remembering dreams instead of nightmares. Sometimes creature comforts matter, however, and I had to enjoy as well some art that elicits laughter more than wonder. Each almost cuts very close, and humor has that ability, too. In this case I shall try to settle for the almost.

John Pilson's four videos get confrontational—but, politely enough, not with the viewer. Pilson riffs on the facelessness of corporate culture, as in past work that reduced movers and shakers to song-and-dance acts, and his collision between theater and reality has real flair. Whether deal making or playing Dungeons and Dragons, these guys fight loudly for every inch. If they sounds like alpha members of a decidedly male world, one video lets seven women relax together on a sofa, as in a cuddly sitcom. Of course, they, too, have issues, as they spout dialogue by David Mamet.

Pilson chooses vulnerable targets, laying out in miniature a structure of power based on money, gender, and celebrity. I also admire how much his comedy relies on mere static poses and almost meaningless, if threatening dialogue. However, his sense of humor and knowing winks at his own TV-friendly environment keep worry too much at bay. Who cares to trace the lines to Mamet when such a nice woman is shouting "you are shit"? Come to think of it, what could suit a sofa gathering more than a play reading? I can always get angry tomorrow.

Cao Fei, too, mines the street and entertainment industry alike for stereotypes, and she, too, treats these as compatible forms of role play. The artist invited a hip-hop group to create its own Chinatown of street vendors and Chinese laundries. Shot in China, Japan, and New York, they could be living their parts, parodying themselves, or performing their latest recording, and part of the fun lies in the difficulty of deciding which. Part, too, lies in the monitors' haphazard installation, less like a series of videos than an actual street scene.

The artist also appears at P.S. 1, along with a dozen more videos from China. This time she places warriors—whether with swords or pretend sci-fi laser weapons—in subway cars, public plazas, and city streets. The exhibition title, "The Thirteen," sounds like a samurai adventure all by itself. Like Cao Fei, almost all contributors consider the clash of cultures, although without her impeccable comic timing. Like Pilson, she is raising serious questions about familiar roles but not worrying too much about their consequences. And again the work held my attention because of its all-too-obvious limits.

Sara Greenberger Rafferty, too, plays the clown. Pies appear to have flown through the air, a woman levitates, and no one gets hurt. However, she, too, get genuinely funny only when she indulges her dark side. I could live without the plaster-cast cream pies, but not her shadowy figure on video, who cherishes a microphone like karaoke reduced to silence or female beauty to a silhouette. I liked still better a second video, in which Rafferty tries to put on a straightjacket single-handedly. She violates assumptions about female passivity or art as a magic act, and yet she struggles perpetually for their constraints.

Lighten up

Of course, P.S. 1 always holds work as solemn as one can stand as well, and the men on display out in Queens all those proper male things. Photos of disturbing activities after dark from a riskier decade, by Peter Hujar, continued an extended run, while Demetrius Oliver combined the space of a study hall with an episode of another male fixation, Star Trek. A group show of international artists was "Reprocessing Reality"—which might mean almost anything or nothing. Yaron Leshem analyzes Israeli war games under cover of a fake Palestinian village, Ricky Swallow turns the illusion of transience in still life into somber sculpture, Torbjørn Redland forces nature itself to dance to his tune, and Wolfgang Tillmans earns a retrospective for his large, mostly abstract photography. Another German artist, Clemens von Wedemeyer, even manages to restage Laurel and Hardy as a parable of commercial sales and urban desecration.

Most of these come at least close to leaving a real impression, and Hujar has deservedly become a classic. However, I could not help noting by contrast how both Jessicas make greater use of lightness. Each adopts a cryptic title that itself evokes air and silence. Stockholder calls her assemblage Of Standing Float Roots in Air, while Rankin's exhibition traces "The Meaning of Every Pause." In fact, I paused far longer with hers than with anything else at P.S 1, even if I myself cannot swear what it means.

For Jessica Stockholder, lightness includes her usual preference for comically bright colors and disposable materials. Her two-story installation recycles a desk, plastic bins, fabric, and extension cords, all as stairway to heaven—or at least to the parallel light fixtures reflecting garishly off the top. As one looks down on it, a figure rather like a female scarecrow, suspended from the ceiling, presides over the clutter. From below, its inaccessible wooden tiers leave one stranded in P.S. 1's basement, a bit like the pyramid cast from stairs by Rachel Whiteread. Stockholder has always cultivated a combination of brashness and fragility. When it works, it creates an artistic persona as well, much like Janine Antoni with her tightrope walk over an evocation of Rapunzel's hair. Here, however, I waited in vain for the real high-wire act or comedy to get started.

Stockholder in fact returns only a few months later, with a full Chelsea gallery to herself. Perhaps she just needed the space. The cumulative effect of many works shows her ingenuity at stringing discards into something almost but never quite familiar. The objects more or less recall household appliances, making the gallery into a traditional woman's space while denying a woman's entrapment in those expectations. A large show also brings out her consistent style, of preposterously bright colors, as if trying to market the appliances before one catches onto their dysfunction. The brightness and that "more or less" also contribute to my feeling that none of this says enough, but one has to love having her gallery and the 23rd Street Home Depot framing the Chelsea action.

For Rankin, however, lightness means much more. Back at P.S. 1, it includes the passage of light through large swatches of cotton organdy, which she sews on, pins to, or suspends from their supports. It includes cotton's literal weightlessness and the thick, dark thread that weave its own way through the material and the images. It includes, too, the associations of organdy with summer dresses and of sewing with craft rather than fine art. Perhaps most of all, it includes spare compositions that may picture flowers, constellations, or simply thread itself. P.S. 1 refers to them as non-patterns.

Rankin is obviously reflecting seriously on woman's work, on drawing as a painstaking act, and on how an image coheres. One thinks of Julie Mehretu, but without the aspirations to encompass a universe. Rankin often pastes in text, such as "An Endless Release of Language," where everything but the an and of carries a lesson in post-structuralism. I loved the transformation of such knowing, contemporary concerns into images so concerned for beauty. As a traditionalist, a feminist, or existentialist would agree in their different ways, one could consider it art about caring. That alone brings it closer to one's dreams.

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Daniel Johnston ran at Clementine through April 15, 2006, Ken Weaver at Schroeder Romero through April 8, Nancy Baker at Plus Ultra through April 22, Hernan Bas at Daniel Reich through April 8, Christian Holstad at the Daniel Reich temporary outpost Leather Beach through May 21, Christoph Ruckhäberle at Zach Feuer through April 8, Salla Tykka at Yvon Lambert through March 25, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy at Postmasters through April 9, John Pilson at Nicole Klagsbrun through April 1, and Cao Fei at Lombard-Freid through April 8. At P. S. 1, Sara Greenberger Rafferty ran through May 8 and "The Thirteen," Jessica Stockholder, and Jessica Rankin all through May 1. I incorporate a later note on Stockholder at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through October 14.


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