Thursday, June 2nd, 2005

Remote Viewing at the Whitney Museum and David Brody at Pierogi

“Remote Viewing: Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing”
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75 Street
through October 9, 2005

Julie Mehretu The Seven Acts of Mercy 2004 (detail) ink and synthetic polymer on canvas, 114 x 252 inches Collection of Dennis and Debra Scholl, Maimi Beach; courtesy The Project, New York and Los Angeles
Julie Mehretu, The Seven Acts of Mercy 2004 (detail) ink and synthetic polymer on canvas, 114 x 252 inches Collection of Dennis and Debra Scholl, Maimi Beach; courtesy The Project, New York and Los Angeles

The title of the Whitney’s new, “way out” exhibition — like so much else in it — has been borrowed from the 1960s. At a cool moment in the Cold War, the United States military is said to have recruited psychics to envision sites and phenomena they themselves couldn’t imagine. These unlikely personnel were classed as “remote viewers.”

“Remote Viewing (Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing),” curated by Elisabeth Sussman, is a fun, provocative, timely, astute eight-person survey that has its finger on the artworld’s most funky, visionary button. Through the intense channeling of data, or pseudo-data, and intimations of altered consciousness, these artists, it is proposed, conjure otherworldy spaces. “Atomic”!

Actually, “Remote Viewing” ties together several strands prevalent among younger artists. While the curator makes the usual noises about the disparate nature of her group, it being a mere coincidence that seven of the eight are New York based, the show she has mounted actually reflects a specifically Williamsburg aesthetic. Last year, the Brooklyn Museum’s sprawling survey of art made in its borough was overwhelmed by a surprisingly unifying characteristic: So many of the artists were engaged in what you could call fuss and fiddle.

Chipping away in former light-industrial lofts and workshops, these artists turned out to be engaged in painstaking, almost craftsy endeavors. Added to intensity of labor were two other common ingredients: informational overload and psychedelia. The Whitney eight exude plenty that’s trippy and tricksy, and certainly favor density of detail. But they part from Brooklyn drudge with their energy and scope. As with the difference between Hollywood and television, a big-budget mentality produces fearless chroma and sharp resolve.

Yet, to an unprecedented degree for a small-group museum show, the curator risks sameness. The show is divided into separate spaces for each artist, but with multiple cross-viewing opportunities. If you slipped into the show and started at the end (as plenty of museumgoers do), you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a solo retrospective.

Stand in front of Carroll Dunham’s seven-foot high “Green Planet” (1996–97), an imploding pumpkin inhabited by teethy little graffiti robots gnarling one another’s penile/nasal appendages. With the mix of splatter and cartooning, it’s Keith Haring meets Henri Michaux. To its right, in the far distance, you catch a glimpse of a big Julie Mehretu canvas, probably her Caravaggio-inspired, 21-foot wide “Seven Acts of Mercy,” (2004). Clockwise from that you see Matthew Ritchie’s “The Eighth Sea” (2002) whose swirling gestalt closely complements the Mehretu and the Dunham. Then look to another far vista, and you spy Terry Winters’s “Diplay Linkage” (2005), whose thick red curlicues and concentric waves on a yellow ground look like a beefed-up rendering of Ms. Mehretu’s weather-map vocabulary.

Of the artists you don’t see from this vantage, Franz Ackermann, Steve DiBenedetto, and Ati Maier all pursue a similar aesthetic to one another that oddly mixes nervous, worrying detail and a wild, exuberant whole. Alexander Ross is stand-alone in look and execution, though closely allied in intention and imagery.

A subplot of “Remote Viewing” is the issue of remote *making*. Considering the attitude of museums and the techie nature of these artists’ imagery, this is, quite remarkably, a show of the time-honored handcrafted mediums, painting and drawing. All the artists are invested, to some considerable degree, in manipulating their materials. Yet there is a persistent divorce between the way materials are put down and the degree of affect that results.

Matthew Ritchie, for instance, in his trademark way, places his four-part painting “The Measures” (2005) against slick wall decorations made from vinyl-adhesive. These derive their Baroque convolutions from the swirls and skeins of the relatively freely painted imagery within the canvases. The décor becomes a high-tech commentary on the painting, which in turn settles into a subservient relationship to the overall installation. Rendering demarcations even more vulnerable is the black, powder-coated, cut-out aluminum sculpture (a globe roughly 12 feet in diameter) placed in the middle of his space. Mr. Ritchie’s exuberance is as finely calculated an experience as Walt Disney’s.

On first impression Mr. Ross seems to allow greater leeway for local painterly decisions, but his technique wallows in the same slippery ambiguity as his lost in space triffid-like figures. Rather than following his pulp-fiction, sci-fi aesthetic to its logical conclusion in a flat, cool, impersonal paint surface, he actually favors sweaty, succulent, fatty brushstrokes. But this has nothing to do with expressivity in a traditional sense. It arises from his odd modus operandi. Mr. Ross makes sculptural figurines from colored clay, which he photographs under bright lights that cause the sculptures to sweat their oils. He photographs these, from which he then paints. The lush paint is a very literal rendering of minutely observed actual surfaces. His science fiction is pure fact.

Something that’s remarkable about Ms. Mehretu is that, out of seemingly manic complexity, she crafts images of striking resolution. There is a fantastic plethora of informational sources in her work, from aerial views of African urban sprawl to detailed studies of Ottoman decoration, and a corresponding variety in markmaking — ink drawn in calligraphic, precisionist, cartographic, and painterly hands and appropriated vinyl and commercial stickers. This makes for dense, complex, multidimensional images, with a visionary sense of scale, but her chaos generates its own organizing principles. Bewilderingly, her compositions cohere.

In fact, an enigmatic ratio of manic detail to satisfying whole is a persistent trait in “Remote Viewing.” Perhaps it is encouraging for all of us citizens of the information age that artists can strike a new harmony from conceptual excess.

It is probably a sign of success with a “zeitgeist” show that any artist in it can be switched out for a number who aren’t. Katy Siegel, writing in the catalogue, trots out a list of 16 equally plausible exhibitors who would make sense of Ms. Sussman’s hypothesis, and I could add to her list. It actually seems extraordinary to me that “Remote Viewing” could exclude Bruce Pearson and Fred Tomaselli, pioneers of the new intergalactic-psychedelic aesthetic. Mr. Pearson’s tantric manipulation of bizarre, appropriated phrases from the mass media, for instance, resulting in linguistic reliefs that read like lunar landscapes or fantasy cities, would have fit right in here. I would have switched him with Mr. Winter, who seems included in a museumish gesture to give generational gravitas to the group.

David Brody Planet of the Archbuilders: N 2005 gouache on paper, 30 x 22 inches Courtesy of Pierogi
David Brody, Planet of the Archbuilders: N 2005 gouache on paper, 30 x 22 inches Courtesy of Pierogi

While playing the game of curatorial reorganization, it also seems that Ati Maier is an ambassador for the whole Pierogi 2000 stable, and any number of the apocalyptic noodlers who show in that pioneering Williamsburg venue would have done as well. My personal favorite is David Brody, who is showing there now (until June 27). His watercolors, in a Piranesi-like series called “Planet of the Arch Builders,” extend his near-psychotic creations of imaginary cities from intuited, fractal-like variations, But bravo to the group exhibition that has you connecting beyond its boundaries rather than closing in. “Remote Viewing” is an exploding universe. Have a nice trip.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, June 2, 2005