Friday, February 20th, 2009

Life on Mars: The 55th Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Mark Bradford A Thousand Daddies Mixed media collage on paper, 132 x 280 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Life on Mars is the title of a David Bowie song and now, too, the 2008 Carnegie International.  The oldest exhibition of international contemporary art in North America, it has taken 55 incarnations for the show to bear a title.  “Is there life on Mars?” is a question curator Douglas Fogle asks as a way to explore “what it means to be human today,” “investigate the nature of humanness,” and “demonstrate hope for humankind.”  Uh-oh.  It doesn’t take an extraterrestrial perspective to realize that stating an artwork is an exploration of human nature is just a touch more specific than claiming it is about life.  Fogle’s big questions, however, guided a selection of works that share material concerns recently associated with less unwieldy notions.

I am thinking in particular of two other survey shows of the past year: the much-discussed inaugural exhibition of the Lower East Side’s New Museum, Unmonumental, and the 2008 Whitney BiennialUnmonumental offered up the informality of assemblage and collage as the proper antihero for our times.  Shortly thereafter the Biennial made much the same proposition, with one of the show’s curators, Henriette Huldisch, adding the catchphrase “lessness” to the New Museum’s “unmonumental”. And so a style was born, or rather, codified.  Life on Mars shares a number of artists with Unmonumental, including Mark Bradford, Cao Fei, Thomas Hirschhorn, Matthew Monahan, Manfred Pernice, and Susan Philipsz.  For a show of only 39 artists, that makes nearly a sixth.  This is perhaps unsurprising considering the New Museum’s Eungie Joo served on the advisory committee for the 2008 International, but is rather suspect for a show that purports to be global in its representation.  Suspect as well is that all but seven of the artists are from the US or Europe and only twelve are women.

Fogle furthered aligns himself with Unmonumental by stating “these artists are inheritors of an artistic legacy that seeks to produce not the monumental but the momentary, the ephemeral, and the modest”.  The problem with speaking in terms of inheritors and legacies   is that it can make for rather reductive relationships between works.  Paul Thek’s Untitled (Earth Drawing I), an acrylic on newspaper painting of Earth as seen from space, has become the signature image for Life on Mars.  Besides this work’s obvious play with the show’s title, Thek’s inclusion among the others artists in the exhibition presents his use of ephemeral materials as a precursor for a younger generation.  But pairing Thek with an artist with a similar materials list, like Mark Bradford, flatters neither.  At his best, Bradford’s mixed media collages seduce with a dense, dark physicality.  When he uses quotidian materials it feels simply as if the work pulled them in with a gravitational force.  Attaching any meaningful metaphor to the fact that Bradford assembles map-like images out of scraps of paper that you would commonly find on the street leaves one with a lot of overly obvious and not so useful metaphors.  Thek, on the other hand, hardly used materials in a way that could be described as seductive, but the information those materials bring to the work is always pointed.  At the time of its making -1974, just five years after the first human contact with the moon- his painting of Earth featured an image that had recently and frequently graced the pages of many newspapers.  Thek’s rendering of this icon with his characteristic light and fast touch leaves much of the newspaper underneath exposed.  What could be a poetic image, Earth seen from a distance so great that all its features become abstract, is interrupted by information about the US Army building a golf course or an oil company’s profits.  The pleasure of such wry humor isn’t transferable to Bradford.  His work’s sexiness starts to feel like so much art school posturing in comparison, while Thek uselessly becomes the enigmatic outsider.

The prevalence of what was being termed “scatter art” in the 90’s also renewed interest in Thek.  Ironically, the very person to have written extensively about the problematics of such resurrection jobs, Mike Kelley, is included in the Life on Mars as well.  His contribution, seven architecturally-based works from his Kandor series, cleverly capitalize on their incongruous relationship to the doric columns and marble austerity of the Hall of Sculpture in which they are housed.  Noticing that Kandor, a fictional city in the Superman comics, is represented differently in one issue of the comic to the next, Kelley presents the conflicting depictions of this fictional locale as a series of miniature cityscapes covered in glass domes and basked in glowing synthetic lights.  Each dome is connected via respiratory tubing to an oxygen tank of candy-colored hue and displayed amongst sleek platforms, pedestals, and partitions, with the occasional random decorative element, like a throw pillow, tastefully placed in their midst and video projections of similar set-ups on walls nearby.  In other words, the life of a pop-cultural fiction, Kandor, is being sustained by a parody of contemporary reworkings of modernist forms.  Perhaps Kelley is suggesting Modernism is a sort of Superman: a constantly evolving fiction rendered invincible through endless resuscitation and regurgitation.  In any case, Kandor 1, 4, 6, 13, 15, 17, and 20 are ephemeral only in the jokey sense that they are connected to respiratory tubes.  The work seems to critique rather than support the claims made on its behalf by our curator Fogle.

Other works in the 2008 International are also well worth seeing, but gain little from their placement in the show.  Fischli and Weiss please as always with a scene built of fabricated items that would be common to any workshop, everything from a plate of peanut shells to workman’s boots, and please as well with a dizzying video of double-exposed and constantly moving images that is as mesmerizing to stare at as a gasoline spill or a rave. Bruce Conner more than pleases with Angel, a series of stark and beautiful photograms made using the artist’s body and a slide projector, appropriate photographic portraits of someone who always played with ideas of artistic authorship.  However, thinking of Vija Celmins star-filled skies as evoking life on Mars is the least interesting context I can possibly imagine for works that otherwise play with the very limits of representation.

And yet, Fogle is not without my sympathies.  The job of curating a survey show of the magnitude of the Carnegie International is a thankless one; such exhibitions make it structurally impossible to appease all or even most expectations.  The history of the International is a complicated one, with the exhibition first beginning as a convenient way for Andrew Carnegie to build the museum’s collection.  Rather than traveling to find work for the museum, the International brought work to Pittsburgh that then could either be added to the permanent collection or shipped back home.  In its current position, the International serves as one of Pittsburgh’s only points of exposure to a larger art world.  A rather big job, but not one at which it has been wholly unsuccessful.  I grew up in Pittsburgh.  When I was fifteen the International was the cause of my first seeing Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close, and Tony Oursler, artists with whom I can no longer imagine a lack of familiarity.  I’m sure to many seeing the 2008 Carnegie International this exhibition is similarly revelatory.  However, in order to avoid appearing to be guided primarily by an unimaginative ploy to escape provinciality, the next curator of the International would do well to take less cues from New York, show a less predictable group of artists, and contextualize their work in a less uselessly broad way.