Friday, March 31, 2006

King Leer

With the media flap over Charlie Finch’s “wifebeater t-shirt” remark still fresh, I thought it only a matter of time before other sexist ogres would be duly outed, held up to public scrutiny, and given their just excoriation. Feminism is not my usual posture, but desperate times call for desperate measures. So I will unsheathe my digital Bowie knife and whittle one particularly noxious instance of the phallocracy down to size. The show, thankfully reaching the end of its cynical, manipulative and exploitative run at a Deitch Projects near you, is Brad Kahlhamer’s Girls and Skulls.

The “girls” must conform to a particular physical type. K is only interested if they look like fashion models: leggy, lissome, slim, attractive and decidedly under clad. From testimonials available in the catalogue, he generally corners his intended prey at a party or opening, and utters a phrase known to (scam) artists everywhere: “I’d really like to draw you.” Models are encouraged to come for a sitting at his studio, but must be ready and willing to strip down to the only wardrobe he finds acceptable in his exalted depiction of woman: bras, panties, bustiers, garters, fishnets, sex worker high heels, and other light fetish wear. (As an aside: one has to admire the economy of K’s hustle. Most guys who need to experience a parade of leggy women in dishabille must go to Scores, and pay for it. K has them coming to his studio, for free. If there were artist/model couplings, inspired by the hothouse atmosphere of the studio, I assume it was consensual.)

There is nothing inherently evil in depicting the female nude, semi nude, or scantily attired. But K demeans and objectifies his sitters in service to his lecherous, adolescent fantasies. They are drawn reclining, spreading their legs wide apart, cradling rifles or electric guitars (in not particularly subtle phallic worship), and assuming other light pornographic poses. His drawings also include skulls, buffalo, unintelligible scrawls and daubs, as well as a lot of moronic, sub-Basquiat doodling and text messaging. More on this later.

Sex. Death. Guns. Rock and roll. Dude! Let’s call it art! K does have a background in comics. Perhaps he’s just adhering to the aesthetics of the form, like the graphic novel (and film) Sin City, where the guys talk tough and wear trench coats, and the girls, all hookers or exotic dancers, bust out of their lingerie. Pulp is pulp, and has its particular pleasures. But what is truly pathetic is K’s hypocrisy when he tries to anoint himself as spiritual or heroic, draping his Hustler magazine obsessions and pedestrian paucity of vision in the mantle of high art. This is accomplished with a conceit for the ages, the “Urban Prairie Girl”.

UPG refers not to his Unseemly Prurient Gaze, but rather to a strong, independent and resourceful, yet somehow rootless, waif like (and therefore exploitable) woman, “who only exists in New York”, according to a catalogue statement by Deitch. “She doesn’t exist in any other city, not even LA. And she can only exist in the 21st century.” Seems like a theory concocted a posteriori to justify the work. You be the judge. But I do have some questions. Were the models already strong, independent etc. before they entered the studio to strip down, or only afterwards? Do they maintain a disciple’s relationship to K, and only acquire their particular strength, independence etc. by virtue of donning fetish wear and allowing his spirit catcher paintbrush to reveal their semi nude essence? America needs to know.

In addition to the models, K’s drawings incorporate props that testify to his Native American status. The skulls, mask like and leering (both at us and at the models in the drawings), are often dressed in wigs and hats. They feel like territorial markers, a stand in for the artist himself, making an inherent claim recognizable to any street corner pimp: “These are my girls. This is my scene.” It is the artist’s way of inserting himself into his subject. There is also taxidermy, stuffed carcasses aplenty, and, in the larger drawings, lots of buffalo roaming. And we all know who almost made the buffalo extinct, right? It was the white man.

This is how K plays the “other” card, something he learned from Basquiat. Remind the (generally white, liberal) collector (or dealer, or critic) of your underdog, ethnic status. Inspire their guilt, so they accept anything you throw in front of them, and any claims you make about the spirituality of your work, however unsubstantiated. Use the genocide of your people as a calling card into the higher precincts of art. They will swallow it whole, or else risk being labeled insensitive or racist. Basquiat played this card well, but at the service of an art imbued with genius, poetry, and a unique vision. Not so with K. Judging from his pedestrian drawing skills, his etiolated scrawls and blotches, his demeaning and simplistic view of women as sex kittens hanging around the teepee, and his cynical, manipulative theorizing (UPG? UGH!), I choose not to buy anything from his trading post.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Rachel Whiteread at Luhring Augustine

In her contract with negative space – making it the sine qua non of her oeuvre – Rachel Whiteread generally creates sculptures that beg the interaction of humanity while remaining forbidding, unpopulated, aloof. A ceremony, and therefore a narrative, is implied by her austere castings of the volumes beneath a ceiling, around a stairwell, against a bookshelf, inside a water tank. But this narrative is conspicuously denied. We are set adrift, frustrated in our attempt to give significance to her plinths, altars, sarcophagi. We are thrown back upon an academic contemplation of their formal qualities, all the while yearning to assign them some specific context of human activity, some aspect of the anecdotal, vernacular, religious. But her sculptures remain obdurately obscure to our interpretation. They are, in a word, sphinxlike.

Although Whiteread’s work is self consciously monumental, her embrace of the void renders moot any discussion of progress or history, issues which often accompany the civic monument, and which, in fact, are the impetus behind the public commissioning of most monuments. Somberness and existential dread pervade her work, due to what she purposely leaves out – the panoply of ceremony, the celebration of causality. There is no defined back story with Whiteread. It is absent, or at best submerged: a truncated effort. Her emptying out of the "content" rhymes with her hollowing out of the "form". A fashionably pessimistic stance, but one that also realizes the primacy of entropy. In a sense, Whiteread is building a monument to the end of history, like the decomposed, half buried statue in Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which in its devolution still manages to boast: "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair".

But a new era of good feeling is apparent in her latest show, up at Luhring Augustine through April 1, in which she domesticates her presentation of negative space by making the sculptures 1. smaller, 2. cast from the insides of corrugated cartons, and 3. arranged in groupings that often incorporate simple wooden furniture (tables and chairs). As an overall installation, it is more intimate and humorous, and accesses the pack rat reality facing many artists and critics – certainly this critic – for whom piled boxes full of press kits, catalogues and other art related papers are a very recognizable motif of apartment living. Whiteread seems to view our compromises with décor (and possibly her own domestic situation) with dry wit and clear-eyed compassion. Storage, or the lack of proper storage, is one of the petty tragedies of contemporary urban life. This is her bittersweet shrine to that small tragedy of real estate. She shows us where we live.

In reducing the scale of the work, Whiteread is eschewing neither formal issues, nor the pleasures of craft, nor detail. The surfaces of her boxes, for example, take up the "grain" of the corrugations or cardboard from which they are cast. The surface quality of the original material is respected and made visible, as is often the case in her larger, architectural castings. But a new quotient of absurdity is added to the object. In their makeshift ranks and piles, teetering ambitiously towards heaven, they evince an ungainly physical vulnerability. The piled groupings, evidently stable, contain a subtext of Humpty Dumpty slapstick. We can imagine that, with one small push, they might all fall down. Whether Whiteread’s next body of work furthers this new intimacy and humor, or returns to the monumental, it’s good to know that she can work, as Eminem put it in Eight Mile, both "up there" and "down here".

Addendum, April 2, 2006

I had heard of Whiteread’s large scale project at the Tate Modern in London, but first saw it pictured today in the Sunday design supplement of the NY Times. Embankment, an installation of tens of thousands of castings from boxes, massive piles reaching towards the ceiling of the Turbine Hall, seems to be big brother to the show at Luhring. It certainly opened in London months before the NY show. The two share the same unitary act of creation: casting from the inside of a cardboard carton. But while the gallery arranges a finite number of objects in a domestic setting, the Tate effort is totally over the top: labyrinthine, oceanic, Biblical in a Noah’s Ark sense. It suggests the last shot of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, when the camera pulls back to reveal a huge warehouse filled with innumerable crates from all corners of the world. Whiteread’s ability to work both "up there" and "down here" can be seen to begin with the same basic building block, but then proceeds polymorphously, with very different intentions and results.