Summer in the City

John Haber
in New York City

Gallery-Going: Soho in 1994

Looking for a combination art theme park and pricey restaurant complex? New Yorkers call it Soho, and it has already pretty much shut down for the season. Summer group shows are never as exciting as one would expect, much less hope, but more than a few shows of "name" artists do typically run through part of the summer. It is a great time to find discoveries of one's own.

I may as well start with the bad news, and I mean bad. Please, though, do not give up on me: it gets better. After some wallowing in Ross Bleckner, Sandro Chia, and George Condo, I get to describe the political provocation of Jenny Holzer and Laurie Simmons. Then I can turn from the polished edges of April Gornick and Michael Heizer to Nayland Blake's sly sadism. April Gornick's Cloud Plume (Edward Thorp Gallery, 1991)

Ross Bleckner, Sandro Chia, and George Condo

In a theme park one has to expect bad taste, and a long decade has flaunted it. By the 1980s, Pop Art's subversion of Abstract Expressionism was no longer enough. Not only is Pop too old to be cool. It can be downright cold, as reserved in its own way as older abstraction. Only real silliness would do the job, and one exhibit some years back was actually called "bad painting." After that, "shock art" needs some deflating laughter, too.

Ross Bleckner, Sandro Chia, and George Condo therefore all flaunt their racy style in a big way, and I mean big. Chia, the oldest, was part of a wave of Italian painters. His huge, rather fluffy looking figures, painted in light colors, atone for Abstract Expressionism. Yes, that stuff, the way artists used to reveal themselves more in their gesture than in person.

Bleckner's abstract paintings look as if they were viewed under black light. And Condo's none-too-slick cartoons add Cubist body parts to Spanish Baroque images, without troubling to say much about either one. The point of all three painters is to blend "pure" sensual enjoyment, mock outrage, and a knowing glance at art-world celebrity. They want to eat their cake and retire with it to the Riviera.

All this bad taste is not exactly improving, but mine is starting to degenerate. I rushed through the shows rather than lingering to argue back. I wondered if the changing approaches to abstraction over time would liberate its meanings or solidify it into a monoltih.

Jenny Holzer and Laurie Simmons

Those painters may make fun of high art, but they sure want to be a part of it. Others, however, distrust all transgressive gestures. They prefer to foreground the social and political context of art. Women artists in particular know enough to be concerned not only with what they see, but also with how they are seen.

Among the "Pictures generation," Laurie Simmons earned her reputation with large photographs of small female dolls, posed as uncomfortably as possible. Her latest works are just as clever and more reflective—but who, she asks, is reflecting? She might, for example, accompany color images of woman by thought balloons as in a cartoon. She frames other dolls up close in black-and-white, like lovers in an old movie. More effectively than ever, her photographs evoke outrage, wistfulness, and plain unease at gender roles.

With Jenny Holzer, much of her best work remains her electronic crawl screens. As in "Mediascape" at the Guggenheim Museum's Soho outlet or the work of Lawrence Weiner, the messages read like a joint effort of Big Brother, the left, and a fortune-cookie manufacturer. They allow one to turn away—and they challenge one to look. I had the unsettling feeling of being a voluntary agent in the world that her messages describe. Her latest show is scarier and more provocative than any I have seen, without once losing its wit.

Entering through a dark corridor, one is pressed beside an ominous scaffolding. Within is a kind of interrogation chamber and two modest, bell-like containers for more of her strange LED messages. Spiraling around the space in the containers like science-fiction characters, one sees the words emerge a little at a time, fragmented as ruins. At first the messages can sound funny or plaintive, an unnamed man's expression of his weakness and desires. They are in fact about his violence toward women.

Downstairs similar words are stamped on thin metal, clasped around tiny bones. They could be cheap jewelry or labels added by a field anthropologist; for a Jew, they could only resemble ID tags from a concentration camp. Still other slogans are shown in light-toned color photographs, where they could well be inscribed on paper—or on flesh.

One can never feel distanced enough from the emotions of lust and murder to leap easily to judgment. One cannot defend oneself from condemnation either.

April Gornick and Michael Heizer

Does all the hip play with politics and popular culture sound just a little too risky? Might not advertising co-opt the style that much more easily? Well, but abstract art and Minimalism were all just cool escapism, too, right? Maybe abstraction still is? The answer, most often, is yes to all of the above, and yet sometimes New Yorkers get lucky. Art has been worth the risk, and it just is not going off without a struggle.

April Gornick's sketches in charcoal are still a treat, if a modest one. Her new landscapes use overstated horizon lines and streaky, massed clouds to create drama rather more than realism, and she gets away with it. The light is just that intense. And Michael Heizer's sculptures add the elegance of polished stone to the rougher edges of 1960s' public art.

Heizer never had the openness to nature's processes of the finest "earthworks." Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty could vanish with the tides, his Floating Island with the drift of a city. This show is positively bathed in sanctimony.

To reach it, one must first walk five blocks west of Soho, to a phenomenally large, all but unmarked factory building. (The same space had recently filled Minimalism with hot air.) If that were not enough, one has to pass through three doors, and walk across a stone slab inscribed, "Art Before People." Heizer could mean that his art is prehistoric or simply better than human. Either way, I knew my place.

Some of the sculpture looks like primitive tools eroded over eons and blown up to poster size. The rest is big, rough chunks of granite. Tremendous concrete and unpolished stone hangs above us or is sunk into walls and floors. While I decided that I could touch the pink and grey stone or even walk on it, like any 1960s' earthwork, I felt sure I was going to be arrested by the guardians of art at any moment.

Still, one can touch it, and one wants to be close to it. Even the trappings of awe have the value of slowing visitors down long enough to look. I might never have noticed that the plane of one flat sculpture is actually slightly curved, drawing the object into and out of sight, like a real tool thrust into hand. The hanging loops of grey stone could almost be swings, waiting for the child of a new and purer age to play.

Nayland Blake

Bigger news lay elsewhere. One part was the showing in uptown galleries of late work by older Pop and abstract painters, including de Kooning before his passing. Another was the tentative growth of Soho a block or two south, including large installations of found materials. Shows movingly evoked anything from formalism to industrial and human decay. Thread Waxing tries especially hard to be an alternative space, and it offered a playful meditation on de Sade, called The Philosopher's Suite.

Nayland Blake has been refining, or coarsening, this one for years now, and the result is far less ponderous than its title. Blake is not advocating or enjoying sadism, for goodness sake, and neither am I. (The sexual nightmare can make a remarkable obsession, but that would take a different, more surreal artist.) He is asking how someone like de Sade could ever have been a serious political progressive. He looks at how artists toy with sexual desire to instruct us about the world. And he puts it to us to see how images of violence enter culture.

Blake creates scenes waiting for actors, based troublingly on de Sade's notion of sexual "instruction." As plays on desire go, this is not Juliet at her casement window.

One can sit before an empty theater, as in photographs by Katherine Newbegin, but the puppets are behind one's back. They look more ridiculous than scary hanging by the neck—and they are the closest the show comes to naked flesh. Or one can take the podium at the back of the theater's make-believe audience, where Nayland suckered me easily into reading aloud from de Sade. Believe me, it is hard to do without looking around helplessly and laughing.

Nayland plays on the word "instructed" in sadistic sex. Despite oneself, one is instructed by the artist and participates in the work's dissemination.

One gets to wander through a pretend classroom, eyeing the other students. Visitors are more than likely, however, to sit in their proper places, where Blake has left press kits to read. The bookshelf behind the student desks contains de Sade but also one of the classic texts on visual representation. Other pages from de Sade lie in jars—pickled or reduced to ashes. As the show multiplies scenes and possibilities, it literally becomes a self-consuming artifact.

I have to concede that all this makes much more sense after a healthy (or unhealthy) dose of Michel Foucault, and I am not all that sure I am getting it right. This is, after all, a "philosopher's suite." For what it is worth, de Sade has been read as powerless to control his own "pupil," much less his own desire. Just take my word that his many failures connect in some way to the promises and dangers of sex, politics, and violence.

In this exhibition de Sade's obsessions may simply be taken as a starting point. It is then up to everyone not to sanction their violence. One's burden is to recreate, along with the artist, a healthier form of freedom. Blake also challenges my confidence that I can wrap Soho up neatly in the packages I used to review other artists. He made me eager to see how galleries will change again the next fall.

BACK to John's arts home page

Ross Bleckner's show ran at Mary Boone, Sandro Chia's at 65 Thompson, George Condo's at Pace, Jenny Holzer's at Barbara Gladstone, Laurie Simmons's at Metro Pictures, April Gornick's at Edward Thorp, Michael Heizer's at Ace, and Nayland Blake's at Thread Waxing Space.


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