Let us pause for a moment to consider the contractions and permutations that occur as ideas pass through the distended digestive tract that is our culture. These transformations require constant attention and updating, which is why there are so many people gainfully employed trying to define such unanticipated (and un-anticipatable) transitional forms as “man repeller” and “aeroplane blonde”.
An interesting case in point: the complexities that have accumulated around the term “modern art”. In typical 20th century exuberance (arrogance?) the term was coined to reference the end-of-the-world radical cataclysm that for the people living through it seemed to be the end of (art) history. Which, of course now seems quaint. And “modern art” is now a a specific term—it means Picasso, not Cory Arcangel.
All of which poses an interesting problem for a certain beloved cultural institution as it aspires to be not mausoleum, but temple of a living muse. Tricky business at best, but when you add in to the mix not only a $20 price tag, a growth model based on tourism, and the word NEW, which seems to provoke uncontrollable anxiety in curators and consumers alike, in an exhibition’s title….well—the tightrope wire becomes dangerously thin.
A visit to the current edition of the annual New Photography series at the Museum of Modern Art leaves one with a peculiar sensation, as if one has spent lunch period sitting with the mean girls. The show is pleasant enough, and could not be clearer in its intentions (unless of course a photograph of the word REPRESENTATION spelled out in neon lights had been torn up and strewn around the floor). There are pretty colors and pretty girls, sky-high production values, and “insider” jokes broad as any sitcom. What was not evident was any sense of newness, much less freshness—or more important, any practical instinct about the future of the photographic.
The exhibition proposes that to undo the separation between commercial and artistic practices is somehow radical. Yet isn’t that the definition not only of reactionary but decadent? Such distance is essential: art made so uncritically out of capitalism’s cast offs (Roe Ethridge uses “the out-takes of his commercial work in his fine art practice”) is incapable of critique–manicured claws just don’t draw blood.
Also lacking in necessary distance is the appropriation of Hitchcock and Stan Douglas by Alex Prager. These are lush and beautiful quotations, expertly rendered: but they are re-enactments, not re-imaginings. If anything, the Hitchcockian filmette has been purged of Freudian/Surrealist overtones, as discomfiting as a perfume ad. Pretty enough, but why in a Museum–THIS museum? And why should it be positioned as a guiding star?
Elad Lassry’s recreations of Baldessari are likeable and entertaining, but unravel when considered side-by-side with the actual Baldessari show uptown. n another unfortunate coincidence, Amanda Ross-Ho’s sculptures suffer from comparison with the powerful Paul Thek show at the Whitney (work which is over 20 years old).
The exhibition is permeated by post-adolescent ennui, a fatigue not only for the photographic as a practice but as an ontology, a way of describing human experience, if indeed such a thing exists. The overwhelming sense of sameness feels oppressive—to quote that icon of popular culture Heidi Klum: it is all too matchy-matchy...as if the artists are all responding to the same grad school assignment (“ We live in a post modern universe permeated by images, are no longer capable of any meaningful emotions or experiences and there is no difference between the Real and the Fake—discuss”). This is a newness that already feels dated—they have been so extensively addressed in the last half century that the question feels frumpy, out-moded. As we enter a new decade, these obsessions of the last 10 (or 20? 30? 60?) years begin to seem like peekytoe pumps in a snowstorm: pretty enough but totally inadequate to the situation and not worthy of real consideration.
In fact, the ironic thing about all this irony is that dynamic, more iconoclastic precedents for all of this work can be found within 50 feet of the show, by strolling through the Pictures By Women show next door. Or of course in the John Baldessari show a country mile away at MET (more on that later ). The work seems overall to be sly, clever—SMUG. Perhaps that would have been a good subtitle: Smugness as a Vector in Contemporary Practice.
Which would be hilarious, except for (anxious) concerns about fragile future of a medium in flux— and the lack of support for practitioners (some can be found here, and here and here ) that are truly experimenting with the possible, the borderlands, who are soaking not only in the history of the medium but who have a desperate, passionate and perhaps irrational love for it.
The museums of this City have a lot to live up to: they are the Brangelinas and Britneys of the art universe, and, when the minutiae of one’s daily existence is subject to an almost tabloid-esque fetishism, well–let’s just say it is hard to relax. That said, one still has choices: about how to live, who to love, etc…. and sometimes it is hard not to feel that certain institutions have a more Disney-inflected, if not downright cynical, notion of how to navigate their mission and the spotlight.
Here, in three installments, a few recent excursions (in search of shelter from the elements, as much as anything else) that left this correspondent with differing degrees of warmth…First, the good news….
The Whitney, despite its forbidding modernist exterior, still manages to feel like a hometown hangout. Is it that the bookstore is, well, a real bookstore? A place where theory junkies linger, hunger and discover, and the stock feels deliberate and curated, as if someone in charge has actually read and loves the books? Or is it the kind of cozy unpretentious slouchiness of the lobby, where the carefully trained eye can often spot aging art divas lounging and taking a load off before braving the galleries or the cold? There is also something about the scale, a big-enoughness, that at this point is an anomaly for institutions of this importance.
The question of scale is a big one (sorry)–opening the door as it does to all kinds of inquiries about intimacy, insistence, volume….and as it happens, is one of the keys to the exhibition on the 3rd floor, Charles LeDray: workworkwork.
Mr LeDray is a craftsman par excellence, with an attention to detail that borders on —well, symptoms. He has recreated images of the world as deftly, as persistently as a camera, but in a vocabulary of exquisitely made objects of a maddening, cloying, astonishing tininess. There is the long line of (tiny) hats, a hymn to Maleness entitled Village People; a (tiny tiny) line of clustered blankets, coats and objects that was unmistakeably the homeless/crackhead bazaars of 2nd Avenue in the 80’s, complete with teeny tiny little vintage life magazines. There are what can only be described as meticulously carved portraits of objects, including a breathtaking strand of wheat, carved out of “human bone”, and unnervingly accurate cultural biopsies in the form of “portraits” of used clothing stores, including what I would swear is the long bygone Domsey’s Warehouse.
Like all true obsessives, Mr LeDray does occasionally carry on too long, and the curator allows this, possibly because of an anxious need to fill the large long galleries (perhaps more empty space might have been productive?). By the end one feels a claustrophobic discomfort, as if a sorority prank at the Bates Motel has suddenly turned creepshow.
Mr LeDray is at his best when going farther into the questions raised by single objects/installations. The devastatingly beautiful wheat, for example, or installations that take the perfect, perfectly made clothes apart again (oh! the horror to rupture work so painfully, lovingly assembled!) feel expert and eloquent, and banish specters of doll clothing and flea circuses. The constant repetition has a numbing effect—but not enough so as to outweigh the joys of exploring Mr LeDray’s relentless and masterfully rendered universe.
The term “portrait” as generally understood, comes with a contingent assumption of specificity: it is assumed to be “of” someone, a specific person at a certain moment in time. We are by now familiar, in the rarefied air of our fine-art-ness, with the usual interrogations of this assumption: can we ever really know anything about a person from their surface, is the portrait of the photographer or the sitter, ranging all the way to the higher altitudes of post-modern philosophical (absurdist) truths like is there really any body there to photograph to begin with, or does time exist….in general I have grown a bit fatigued with some of these debates, and some of the work they generate has left me feeling a bit chilly and undernourished, not to mention bored ( the way one is bored listening to a person at a cocktail party recite a litany of political outrage that one heard earlier almost verbatim on NPR). However, the current show at the KLOMPCHING GALLERY in Dumbo , up for another few weeks, was a welcome exception.
For Re-Enactors by Jim Naughten, the gallery is filled with portraits [mostly: there are a few landscapes which seemed a kind of obligatory flourish) of, well, re-enactors: people “who step out of their daily lives to transform into historical characters from the First and Second World Wars and re-enact battles and drills.” Although the artist’s statement compares the work to Avedon’s masterful In The American West, it is important to remember that Mr. Avedon’s subject/collaborators, although characters, were playing themselves. A more useful and interesting reference, to my eye, is Loretta Lux.
Despite Mr. Naughten’s stated game, which seems to have something to do with “role of photography in reinventing history.”, the masterful, exquistite digital prints are better than that. There is a sensation of presence and pathos, the feeling of moment of tenderness—but with whom? There is no context or frame of reference for understanding whom we are looking at….the character (Infantryman, Evacuee, Civilian)? The re-enactor, about whom NO information is given? Indeed, the very surface of the prints are so finessed, so artfully constructed—so REAL— that one is left to wonder: about the textures of skin, the electric blueness of an eye….Somehow all this strikes a delicate balance, as sweet and pleasing and full of yearning as the tinted hues of the images themselves—but this yearning is for Nostalgia itself, not for a particular time or person or place, but for that (long ago, lost forever) time when people and things could be reliably imagined as only and eternally themselves.
Introductions are always awkward, tentative ( why is it always so difficult to begin?). Sometimes the best way to break the ice is to dive right in….
To paraphrase that most monumental pre-internet mac daddy of photo-bloggers, Roland Barthes: the writer/critic as “ a public experimenter”, whose job is not to discover the “secret meaning” of a work, which is a “truth” of the past, but to construct a [new] intelligibility for our own time….but be warned, dear reader, experiments can and do get a bit messy….