Nothing New Under the Sun?

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 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.