Friday, July 1st, 2005

Greater New York

PS1 Contemporary Art Center
22-25 Jackson Ave at 46th Ave
Long Island City, NY 11101
718 784 2084

March 13 to September 26, 2005

Wangechi Mutu Hanging In 2004-5 details to follow Courtesy of John Berns and Brent Sikkema Gallery, NYC
Wangechi Mutu, Hanging In 2004-5 details to follow Courtesy of John Berns and Brent Sikkema Gallery, NYC

“Greater New York” is a survey exhibition mounted periodically by PS1 to give an overview of exciting work done recently in or near New York by artists who are not household names.  Selected by curators from PS1 and MoMA, of which PS1 is an affiliate, the show is an almost overwhelmingly large assembly of works by 160 artists.  “Greater New York” has established itself as the antidote to Whitney Biennial, generally showing younger and more experimental artists In the current version of “Greater New York,” the old and the new clash with unexpected results.

Tactics that were popular in the 1990s, such as interventions, installations, and simultaneous work in various media look clichéd and lacking in inspiration, rather than showing a spark of rebellious genius.  Valerie Hegarty’s tree trunk, for instance, made of paste and cardboard and appearing to burst through the wall and floor of the museum, seems very safe, not at all disturbing to one’s perception of the museum space or subversively humorous.  David Opdyke’s “USS Mall,” a scale model of an aircraft carrier, whose top surface is composed of the details of a suburban mall and parking lot, functions only as a weak visual pun.  It lacks the sophistication to make any social critique and go beyond being a joke.  Another attempt at social comment, Elif Uras’ painting “He got Game,” depicts a culture obsessed with the possession and use of firearms.  In each case, these pieces are merely lazy ideas unsupported by technical skill, as uninteresting to look at as they are to think about.

There are “computer-aided” pictures, which is another way of saying pictures that have attempted to avoid the unavoidable need to know how to make something with one’s own hands in order to create an object that can bear more than several seconds’ observation.  Finally, there are several artists who believe that by working in diverse and what they consider to be unconventional media they are breaking from the traditional mold of the artist.  Of course this gambit (which has often been used to subvert the use of the art object as a market tool) is at least as old as Duchamp’s early work.  Here, it often has the result that perfectly respectable work in one medium is degraded by its random association with much weaker work in another medium.  Hope Atherton’s contribution is diminished when her ambitious painting The Watcher (acrylic on linen, 87 x 66 inches) is paired with a limp wall sculpture of a rabbit/unicorn.  Guy Benner takes up a whole gallery with a video of performers in ostrich suits, accompanied by the suits themselves, which add nothing.  Christian Holstad’s collages combine product logos in compositions whose inspiration goes beyond Pop mannerism, but this effect is undercut by his decision also to include a generic-looking floor installation.

Countering these  weaknesses there is a strong representation of work being done in the traditional mediums of painting, sculpture, film, photography, and (we now need to add) installation. Several installations reflect a thoughtful approach, as opposed to one that is mechanical or overly conceptual.  Wangechi Mutu’s piece combines collage with non-art elements in a harmonious ensemble.  Bozidar Brazda has two site-specific pieces.  One creates an image of a man camped out on a ledge outside a window, while the other, just beside the entrance to PS1’s large courtyard, is a real Jaguar XJ6, filled with books and straw.  The references these two pieces make are various.  One possibility is the museum director’s car, and in fact walking around the museum, not far away, one may find a single car, a BMW, parked inside the museum’s gates.  But the most evocative work of installation in the exhibition is Marc Swanson’s “Killing Moon 3 (Self portrait as Yeti in his lair),” which some viewers (though not those already familiar with PS1) might miss, as it is located in the basement, at the far end of the former boiler room.  Using the location to maximum effect, Swanson made a tableau that was poetic, and not at all ironic, despite the mythical figure central to its impact.  This white-haired being, also known as the Abominable Snowman, is seated on the floor, looking like a homeless person, surrounded by his scavenged belongings, or like someone who does not come from our planet (literally) and does not share our values.

In photography, Tanyth Berkeley’s portraits seem to have a new kind of light, and Gil Blank’s images of a man floating in water and of fireworks are simultaneously hip and serene.  Sue de Beer, who also has an exhibition currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Altrea Gallery on 42nd Street, creates installations in which to project her films.  What is really captivating is her mastery of conventional film language — her use of framing and narrative.  Rather than bringing conventional film language into fine art — as many artists have done — her work seems to yearn to break free of its self-imposed art world confines and simply exist in its natural habitat, the world of television and movies.  Film and video more firmly set in the art mode include  xurban_collective’s evocative stationary view of a city skyline at sunset, Abbey Williams’ effective coupling of footage of New York subway passengers with a rock soundtrack featuring sexy female vocals, and Pawel Woytasik’s enigmatic images of industrial systems that could be processing waste.

Dana Schutz Boy 2004 more details to follow Courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery/LFL
Dana Schutz, Boy 2004 more details to follow Courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery/LFL

The real achievements in “Greater New York” are left to the most traditional media.  Adam McEwen’s huge piece uses a photograph of Mussolini and his girlfriend, Claretta Petacci, strung up in a square in Milan, after having been executed and beaten by a crowd on April 28, 1945.  The found photograph is merely the starting point for this remarkable work, in which McEwen inverts the photo, greatly enlarges it and mounts and frames it in such a way that the final image is an imposing one that mixes a horrible melancholy with the inexplicable levity of seeing these mutilated figures that appear to be gaily dancing and singing.  Sculpture makes a strong showing in various modes.  Will Ryman shows his plaintive papier mâché figures, famous by now on the New York scene, and Tobias Putrih has an effective installation of gradation of sheets of cardboard. Nathan Carter uses mundane materials — acrylic and enamel paint on cut plywood — to make a structure  at once suggestive of the observable world (it looks like a mountain ski village with pine trees) and insistent on its nature as built and painted sculptural relief.  Interesting forays into material are undertaken by Ryan Johnson, who uses cut paper and acrylic paint to make three-dimensional figures, Mickalene Thomas, who uses rhinestones with acrylic and enamel paint to make a reclining figure, and Taylor McKimens, whose small  mixed-media television set has a refreshing home-made quality to it.

The most significant achievements in recent New York art, as presented by “Greater New York,”  are in the area of painting.  There are few examples of paintings that simply illustrate an idea (and many of these can be seen around New York on a regular basis); instead, one finds a generous sampling of painters who seem involved with the implications of the paint medium and the seemingly limitless variety of ways to use it.  The first work one sees in the lobby is the large-scale tour-de-force effort Perfume II (Feb. 2003) (114 x 180 inches) by Cheyney Thompson, which depicts, in loving detail, a typical New York magazine and candy stand.  The unpainted canvas surrounding the image underscores the reality that this work is about the painting, not the idea of a newsstand as cultural artifact, let alone the role of commerce in contemporary life.  The stand is simply a fact anyone can observe in New York, and its detail is carefully rendered by Thompson without ever becoming precious.  Kristin Baker and Garth Weiser contribute powerful large-scale treatments — she in acrylic, relying on a scraping technique, he in oils whose paint is pushed or allowed to accumulate in waves that become an idea of form.  Angela Dufresne, Kurt Lightner, Kamrooz Aram, and Anna Conway, in different ways, exhibit inventive approaches to imagery and technique.

The two most successful painters in the exhibition, who really show a way to travel with the tradition of oil painting, are Dana Schutz and Ena Swansea.  While Swansea has only one painting, it is a doozy.  Entitled “devil on the road” (oil on graphite on linen, 56 x 56 inches), it depicts a bright red devil wearing glasses in a crouched position, as if about to pounce.  The paint is laid on in precise, meaningful strokes, and the color is blended expressively, while the figure’s shadow is effected by the lack of tan paint on the ground.  What does it mean to say a stroke of paint is meaningful?  It means that its fact of being exactly where and how it is resonates in the viewer the realization that this stroke really has to be, it should be, where it is.  Contrast this to the plethora of easily-made and easily-encountered meaningless brush strokes, which, by contrast, command no sense at all of having to be where and how they are, but instead give the feeling of having randomly landed where they are (in a setting where randomness is not prized).  Schutz’s strokes, likes Swansea’s, command the recognition of meaningfulness, yet they are quite different.  Swansea’s marks, though readily apparent, are subsumed into a larger pictorial narrative of the painting and image as a whole, while Schutz’s marks are expressionistic, in that each individual mark has a life of its own and often a color value of its own, distinguishing it from other nearby marks.  Schutz has a small painting, “Poisoned Man,” and a large tableau, “Presentation,” a picture of a huge corpse, laid out in front of a crowd of onlookers, who could also double as participants in a medical class.  The scale of her imagery is impressive.

“Greater New York” is successful partly because of its ambition and scope, but mainly because of the acuity of its curatorial eye.  It lets visitors to PS1 be aware that the newest things happening in the New York art world today are happening in the oldest mediums.