Thursday, June 10th, 2004

Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures, Spencer Tunick at I-20 Gallery, Hilary Harkness at Mary Boone

“Cindy Sherman” through June 26 at Metro Pictures (519 W 24th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212-206-7100).

“Spencer Tunick: Public Works 2001-2004” through June 19 at I-20 Gallery, 529 W 20th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212-645-1100).

“Hilary Harkness” though June 26 at Mary Boone (541 W 24 Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212-752-2929).

Cindy Sherman Untitled 2004 dimensions and medium to follow Courtesy Metro Pictures
Cindy Sherman, Untitled 2004 dimensions and medium to follow Courtesy Metro Pictures

Now that the doyen of feminist performance photography has taken to masquerading as tacky, pathetic circus performers it seems a good time to come clean with a double confession: I have never found clowns or Cindy Sherman remotely entertaining.

Make no mistake about the gravity of these failings: Within polite art-world company not to “get” Ms. Sherman is tantamount to not having a brain, rather as despising the grinning goons who interrupt the jugglers and the lion tamers is to admit to not having a soul.

Clowns are a natural synthesis of Ms. Sherman’s familiar preoccuptions. Her meteoric ascent in the early 1980s came with fictional “film stills” in which she posed in artfully contrived stereotypical scenarios as the ubiquitous dumb blonds of B-movies. Rather ingeniously, this established intentional vacuity as her emotional affect of choice, a less is more aesthetic that allowed nonchalence to be classed as “subtle” and clichéd gestures as “subversive.”

In the 1990s, Ms. Sherman absented herself from the picture to pursue still-lifes that tested the taste endurance of viewers with lurid assemblages of detritus and vomit. Sex toys and sexually-posed prosthetic limbs became a favored motif to complement her pukey palette, and then gender warfare broke out between battered and besmirched Ken and Barbie dolls.

More recently, the performance artist returned lense-side to star in a series of stereotype-castings, as assorted middle-aged losers, personifying Hollywood wannabees and sexually past-it housewives. In her latest, clown incarnation, sick color, sad gesture, slick technique, nonchalance, and nihilism are brought together in a pantheon of the pathetic. Her large format tableaux fill two floors at Metro Pictures, where the artist has shown from the outset of her career: elaborately costumed, affectless behind grimly determined smiley masks, with artful, computer-manipulated backdrops, she is truly the sagging bore she seems to want to be.

The impression I had, trying my utmost to be moved or intrigued by these images, is of meeting the wealthy aunt of Ronald McDonald. Each is as corporate and ubiquitous as the other, and the product they push about as nourishing.

Spencer Tunick Finland 2 (Helsinki Art Museum) 2002 C-Print mounted between plexi, edition of 3, 48 x 60 inches Courtesy I-20 Gallery, New York
Spencer Tunick, Finland 2 (Helsinki Art Museum) 2002 C-Print mounted between plexi, edition of 3, 48 x 60 inches Courtesy I-20 Gallery, New York

Spencer Tunick is an action painter in the tradition of Jackson Pollock, only instead of dribbling paint on canvas with bravura speed and in all-over configurations, he uses naked people as his medium and city streets as his support.

The photographer puts out the word for volunteers who in burgeoning force agree to strip and arrange themselves in ways that vary from random gestalts to serial patterns. Sometimes his naked collaborators are an inchoate crowd, other times a disciplined regiment.

Mr. Tunick, who has been persuing this line for several years, has become something of an institution. Like Christo, whose career also proceeded from, essentially, a single antic (wrapping up edifices in his case), he has seen his motif progress from a spontaneous, somewhat anarchic gesture into something officially sanctioned across the globe. Once, speed was of the essence: participants had to get into their birthday suits, adopt the requested pose, and dress again before the bemused cops arrived. Now, artist and models can take their time; the events, carefully scheduled by contemporary art centers from Melbourne to Basel to Sao Paolo, are increasingly a focus of civic pride.

In art-historical terms, it is as if Mr Tunick is passing from an art informel phase to hard-edge abstraction. The earlier poses had an existential angst and tragi-comic urgency to them; nowadays, precision and formality are of the essence, the ever-dirigible mass arranged in artfully slick, tidy swathes of skin. The effect of the new orderliness ranges from absurdist humor, as in “London 5 (Selfridges),” (2003), where massed ranks ascend department store escalators, to touching, almost poetic decoration, as in “Melbourne 3,” (2001), where the figures on a river bank are like swaying reeds.

Some works in this new show at I-20, his first in New York since 1998, recall the earlier scatter pieces, like the melodramatic interior group portrait of HIV-positive New Yorkers in a diner. In “Finland 2 (Helsinki Art Museum),” (2002), the affectless, nonchalent expression of the sprawling, crouching figures is powerfully ambiguous, recalling his earlier work. The effect is precariously poised between humor and horror, with conflicting associations of free love and catastrophe, bacchanal and Buchenwald.

Hilary Harkness Matterhorn 2003-04 oil on linen, 20 x 27 inches Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery
Hilary Harkness, Matterhorn 2003-04 oil on linen, 20 x 27 inches Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery

Hilary Harkness is a deliciously perverse absurdist in paint who brings together the unemotional nastiness of Ms. Sherman and the crowd addiction of Mr. Tunick. The somewhat precious display of just three smallish pictures at Mary Boone’s Chelsea barn, Ms. Harkness’s first show with this dealer, is a perfect complement to the masquerades and mass actions explored in these other exhibitions.

Ms. Harkness’s all-female S/M orgies and girl’s own adventures at sea are a chilly marriage of medievalism and the comic strip. In “Matterhorn,” (2003-04) for instance, Hieronymous Bosch and Lucas Cranach team up with Quentin Tarantino, Henry Darger, Balthus and his oddball occultist brother Pierre Klossowski, gay illustrator Tom of Finland, and vintage bandes-dessinées pornographer Eric Stanton. In what reads like a sliced-open doll’s house, she offers cross-sectional, compartmentalized views of an army of skinny young women kitted out in black with sexy boots, hotpants, bikinis, and military caps who in each room torture, abuse, molest, and mortally dispatch sartorially and anatomically similar fellows. In fact, as no discerible emotion is displayed on the perfunctory faces or standarized bodies of any of the participants, it is not too easy to say what criterion, fate, or preference determines whether you are a perpetrator or a victim, although the majority of the latter are wearing white socks, which might signify something. No one registers much by way of pleasure or pain on their cute, dumb faces.

In painterly terms, Ms. Harkness favors a flat, nerdish, swiftly dispatched naïvete, in harmony, some might argue, with her moral maturity. What does actually make these sick, silly pictures interesting beyond the shlock-horror inventiveness of her abuse fantasies, and her nostalgic eye for period charm, is a compellingly crafted ratio of detail to whole, a weird sense of decorative balance and all-overness. Mind you, once you allow so formalist a take of scenes of rape and pillage, the artist’s warped values are obviously working.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, June 10, 2004