Saturday, April 16th, 2011

The Canon is Under Fire: What Press Releases Tell You, and What They Don’t

An experiment. Walk around Chelsea, stopping into galleries to collect press releases. Once you have a fistful substantial enough to make a mathematically sound statistical analysis, read through them, separating them into two stacks, one for those which tout the work in question as a challenge to the established art world, and one for those which don’t. Key words and phrases to look for: “challenges our perception of,” “challenges notions of,” “questions ideas of,” “re-examines beliefs about,” etc. Chances are, the challenging, questioning, re-examining, anti-establishment stack will be as large, if not larger, than its party-line sibling.

The abundance of self-anointed anti-establishment shows reminds us that nothing in the art world is sacred, least of all art history. We’ve been served notice; taboos will be busted, idols smashed and sacred cows slaughtered. Sculptors will challenge our outdated notions of painting, installation artists our outdated notions of sculpture, and performance artists our outdated notions of installation. In the noisy crescendo of art that screams at us to rethink things on its terms, one message rings loud and clear; the canon is under fire!

Fahamu Pecou, The Treachery of (media) Images: After Rene Magritte's The Treachery of Images, 1928-1929, 2010. Oil Stick on Canvas, 66 x 54 inches. Courtesy of Lyons Weir Gallery

Fahamu Pecou, The Treachery of (media) Images: After Rene Magritte's The Treachery of Images, 1928-1929, 2010. Oil Stick on Canvas, 66 x 54 inches. Courtesy of Lyons Weir Gallery

So what are we to make of this curious industry in which the path to success seems so heavily greased by its practitioners’ insistence that they are a challenge to its authority? What is the meaning of a world in which the very rejection of its values seems as clear a path to acceptance as any? Is there a parallel world in our society that mirrors that of the contemporary art world as seen through the eyes of Chelsea? Imagine a law firm vying for your business by claiming a particularly irreverent attitude toward the law, or a politician cultivating votes on a platform of autocratic rule. To be sure, questioning our value systems is one of the chief roles of an artist (if he or she, unbound by the directives of others, cannot speak the truth, who can?), but it seems that we’ve arrived at a point where the act of questioning has become the greatest currency of all. Cézanne’s re-examination of painterly perception was a game-changer with implications about how we see the world (as were the developments of the Impressionists, Fauves and Cubists), but much of contemporary art seems unconcerned with real world implications. Art that adopts a full-blown revisionist take on the art-historical canon invariably fails to resonate beyond gallery walls. Take for example the show of Fahamu Pecou’s paintings at Lyons Wier Gallery, which “questions the concepts of inclusion and exclusion within the historical constructs of fine art,” by “appropriating famous images from the twentieth century and reinterpreting them through his own self-portrait prism.” In a painting titled The Treachery of (media) Images: After Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, the artist’s cursive phrase “Ceci n’est pas Fahamu,” accompanies his self-portrait. While the appropriation is obvious enough, the reinterpretation remains unclear.

It’s been a while since Duchamp displayed his urinal, Rauschenberg erased his de Kooning, Warhol made his ready-mades and John Baldessari commissioned sign painters to create work for him, sign their own names to it, and present it as his own. Kehinda Wiley’s reinterpretation of 18th- and 19th-century history painting has become so familiar that it is now more surprising to see Jacques Louis David’s white and sallow-cheeked Napoleon atop his war steed than Wiley’s African American stand-in.

These conceits all served in various ways to challenge notions of creativity, originality, and authenticity. Each was also interpreted, in its own way, as a sort of “joke on the art world,” the most recent iteration being the Banksy film, “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Here the street artist makes a documentary about his would-be documentarian Thierry Gueta, who in Banksy’s narrative is transformed from cameraman to street artist to art-world darling himself. The work produced by Gueta under his street name Mr. Brain Wash is pretty lousy by nearly everyone’s admission, but the fact that it sells well at a show in Los Angeles is presented in the film as the ultimate joke on the art world. But is it a joke? In a telling moment, Banksy’s dealer Steve Lazarides chuckles nervously, “I think the joke is on . . . I don’t know who the joke’s on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.”

If there is a joke it has little meaning. The film suffers from a sort of self-imposed impotence. The breadth of its meaning is a function of its scope, and in putting one over on the art world, it has few implications for the world beyond. The group show “Entertainment,” currently on view at Greene Naftali, offers a sort of litmus test of the resonance of art inspired solely by art world reference. Rachel Harrison’s piece Zombie Rothko, is a free standing block of sculpture splattered with vaguely Ab-Ex paint and topped by a doll’s head. From the press release: it “suggests an embodied version of painting (a kind of “walking dead”).”  Next to this is ITEA (International Trade and Enrichment Association), Michael Smith’s fake trade show booth “parodying the synergy of arts and business collaboration.” It works as parody, but nothing more. This is the affliction of the navel-gazing worldview: it’s a bite we’ve grown accustomed to.

Rudolf Stingel, Installation View, Gagosian Gallery, 2011.  Photo by Rob McKeever.  Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Rudolf Stingel, Installation View, Gagosian Gallery, 2011. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Thankfully, we still have that second stack of press releases, those that make no claims to historical revisionism. Instead, they correspond to a different kind of show, where the work on display feels altogether more comfortable with itself. Rather than trading in art-world reference, this work opens itself up to reference the world at large.

Take two sublime shows of painting currently on 24th street, those of Lynne Woods Turner at Danese and Rudolf Stingel at Gagosian. Each artist creates work imbued with an emotional maturity that allows it to stand autonomously and remain open to interpretation. Woods Turner’s paintings rely on their own narrowly defined formal parameters to present a luminous world that remains accessible at its core. Stingel takes the self-assuredness a step further. Employing silver and gold (and what could be better fodder for a revisionist re-evaluation of our cultural mores?) as the primary materials for minimal paintings of maximal visual appeal, the lasting question Stingel poses to us is one that artists have asked for centuries: can you imagine anything more beautiful?

Lynne Woods Turner, Untitled (9072), 2010. Oil on linen over panel, 10 x 8 inches.  Courtesy of Danese

click to enlarge

  • http://www.dominicfinocchio.com Dominic Finocchio

    Hitting the nail squarely on the head, Mr. McMahon brought a smile to my face and nearly a tear to my eye for having said what more of the art critics of this world should recognize. Hearing or seeing a joke more than once is pointless. A work of art that beckons or seduces a viewer to return yields the kind of rewards I would hope all art would offer. To be sure, influence kept the ball rolling for centuries, however, Degas’ work doesn’t look like Watteau whose work doesn’t look like Caravaggio and so on. The latter certainly challenged his contemporaries and art history was forever changed because of it, but his work is linked to what was his world and not simply an attempt at antithesis. I will admit that some of the strategies mentioned in this essay have on occasion, held some appeal, but they tend to feel a little more like a one night stand than a healthy relationship. If that’s your thing, well happy days for you. Those of us who prefer something more substantial, must search a little harder to find it.

  • http://www.petermalone.com Peter Malone

    That Chelsea galleries promote their wares as examples of breaking with tradition is itself a very old and tired tradition. What it illustrates is the superficial context contemporary collectors bring with them to galleries. But many exhibiting artists seem willing collaborators in this enterprise. Fahamu Pecou’s joke is aimed at those whose sense of art history came from perusing a textbook where it is likely an image of Magritte’s pipe was prominently displayed for those whose planned to do no more than glean a few talking points from Art 101. The artist is either exploiting their ignorance or suffering from the same general amnesia plaguing galleryworld. And speaking of amnesia, I’m having difficulty recalling when, if ever, Andy Warhol produced “…ready-mades”.

  • Ry

    Yes as far as I know Warhol actually subverted the notion of readymade. His stuff was often anti-readymade… in a sense.

    But the problem is not new to theorists so much as the gallerists and the illiterate art-schoolers that produce this chichi drivel. The (historical)avant-garde is a contradiction. The Fahamu Pecou painting displays nothing but his own belated aesthetics. Anyone who buys into it is a nonce and a fool.

    I appreciate this piece Henry. I hope to read more.


  • http://www.joannemattera.blogspot.com Joanne Mattera

    Caveat lector.
    Readers need to know the difference between a press release and a review, between ad and editorial, between bombast and exposition.

    How about a feature comparing the press release with the review?

  • http://www.jillconner.net Jill Conner

    Very good essay, which identifies how the ahistorical contemporary art market is suspended between America’s love for rebellion and that of pure decoration. Both, however, are pure fashionable marketing symbolized in pop culture by the likes of Winona Ryder, Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan. Unfortunately galleries can not get away from this either/or, leaving the impression that hardly any artists these days deeply push the envelope of art itself. Or if there are, they remain largely unknown and unexhibited within Chelsea.

  • http://www.studiomatters.com Maureen Mullarkey

    Henry McMahon offers a fine overview on the contemporary urge to swing a wrecking ball at the canon. Thank you for the article. I look forward to reading more of his essays. Perhaps, in the by-and-by, he will take things a step farther and examine the assumptions that grant revisionism its purchase. If we take seriously W.H. Auden’s comment (“However much the arts may mean to us, it is possible to imagine our lives without them.”), we gain a certain humility in relation to visual art’s ultimate importance vis-a-vis those things Auden set above the arts: religion, philosophy, codes of behavior.

  • http://tothestudio.com John Sevcik

    Revolution and tradition go on concurrently. Here in a country that began in revolution, the very act of an upstart has a sort of national cultural value. Press releases, which are an attempt to translate visual art for the verbal consciousness of the contemporary post-graduate successes running our economy, can only hope to approximate the impact its gallery director and publicity arm discern.

    There is really only a sort of health to all of these debates, and reassurances. Admittedly, artists may converse with the past canon. I don’t think they are subverting it so much as reflecting the changing world we create. Also, jokes are not just punch lines to be heard only once. Satire is a sort of joke that may make one grimace, but not laugh out loud. Satire has a sting, and sometimes one that is not welcome.

    The other function of revolution in art is, as befits our consumer society, a method of debunking the past, of disposal, of changing fashion. Degas is actually closer to Watteau, as is Picasso, when all Picasso wanted to do was be the next Watteau. This is partly because Watteau and the French canon is heavily reliant on charm — something Americans (and Picasso) achieve only rarely, and which feels odd to them, like some kind of servility, or weakness. It is because this charm is outside us, in another country, even, that it becomes dear, and we build collections of it, like an extra bit of cultural DNA, for possible re-inclusion at a later time.

    This is only to say that the conversation across time, which art conducts, which viewers enjoy, is part of the immeasurable value of all our art directions. It is the large, networking, cultural construct that measures out the heartbeat of our times. It is never irrelevant; rather, it shows us our preference at any moment, as in Henry McMahon’s preference for continuity and his reassured sense of beauty past continuing in beauty present.

    His point about the lesser value of parody parallels the low status of parody in literature. And yet, Shakespeare (the breaker of all rules) wouldn’t be Shakespeare without parody, as well, not to mention punning. So even the lowest form finds use in the wit of the greatest artists.

  • Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe

    The trouble is that the canon is always under fire in exactly the same way.

  • http://capscrits.blogspot.com CAP

    I disagree with Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe. To my mind the canon is constantly under fire from numerous directions. Mostly revolutionaries aim to continue art along some other direction. All the challenging, questioning, resisting really are a way of teasing out some novel permutation, adjusting the past to allow a brief present.

    But I don’t think even the Dadaists seriously contemplated ending art – the implications for our values and understanding are too vast, too deep-seated to even make for a coherent proposition. We have too much invested in the arts (not just fine art) to simply abandom them to say, leisure or amusement. But nor can we quite leave them be – anymore than we can accept limitations to science. And for the same reason: the business of making sense of our experiences – for furthering our grasp and appreciation of the world is only fulfilled by adaptation and innovation in art.

    Contrary to Auden, I maintain it is impossible to imagine living, in the full sense of the word – which we inherit from the arts – without art. It simply wouldn’t be ‘living’ in any acceptable sense of the word.