Thursday, February 26, 2009

On the P.S. 1 Spring Openings and the Post-Alanna Era

P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center
Lutz Bacher, My Secret Life
Jonathan Horowitz, And/Or
Kenneth Anger
February 22 - September 14, 2009

I might eventually write something more extensive on P.S. 1, but a first impression of the three shows that opened on Sunday, February 22 - Lutz Bacher, Jonathan Horowitz, and Kenneth Anger - was that it felt like a rather thin and tepid affair, the issue-oriented credentials and vaunted cultural semiotic concerns of the various artists notwithstanding.

Bacher's main gallery, which the press release defines as "the installation's frenetic epicenter", contains her alterna-captioned news photos, reformulating world leaders as kibbitzers (JFK with Barry Goldwater: "So you want this fucking job?") or focusing on the utter strangeness of Jane Fonda during her anti-Vietnam War days.

Bacher also appropriates, to tasty effect that both critiques and rewards the "male gaze", some Vargas girl pinups taken from Playboy Magazine. It is a heady send-up of America's heedless cultural hegemony and shameless vulgarity during the 1960s, particularly trenchant in light of our current moment of uncertainty.

But while there were other pithy cultural meditations on view - I particularly enjoyed the Jackie and Me series of low resolution b/w photos, purporting to document paparazzo Ron Galella chasing Jacqueline Kennedy through Central Park - the show suffered from terminal enervation in several of its peripheral rooms.

Admittedly, this enervation is often purposeful, and results from found imagery intentionally chosen to reveal its graphic degradation - through "signal disturbances, tracking problems, stoppages, burnouts and other artifacts of a corrupted or damaged videotape" - as per the text for Olympiad (1997). But I wonder whether a fashionably pessimistic, slacker aesthetic of precious graininess and graphic interference, a fetishization of media's inherent entropy (the seeds of its own destruction - hello Karl Marx!) is enough to carry our interest throughout the various rooms.

Horowitz can also be a hit-or-miss proposition. His Ben Hur/Rome mockumentary is an uncertain effort; one is never quite sure on which side of Irony Street he is actually standing. A bit better is his metaphysical conundrum/assemblage film, Silent Movie, which conflates film segments of deaf, dumb and blind protagonists like The Who's Tommy and Patty Duke's Helen Keller, all to the unmanned accompaniment of a player piano.

The political commentary of a publicity photo of Bush, framed and hung upside down (like the Antichrist), or a Vatican portrait of Pope Benedict torn in half is, well, obvious. As is the extended photo excoriation of gay-basher Anita Bryant.

A king-sized bed covered by a white duvet, under the neon sign of a double cross, attempts to locate the bedroom as the true locus of ingrained religious, political and sexual intolerance: sleep locally, act globally.

Tofu on Pedestal in Gallery
is hilariously and precisely that; so is the photo of Britney's crotch. And it is easy to embrace the minimal, lockjaw humor of mon.-sun., a video monitor accompanied by seven VHS tapes that continually displays the text of the appropriate day of the week. But some of Horowitz's other gestures are either overly obscure, poorly enunciated, too deadpan, or perhaps just too understated to resonate.

No one would claim that an over-the-top, tabloid sensationalist like Anger suffers from similar understatement. But his eight films (including Invocation of My Demon Brother and Scorpio Rising) are miserably crowded into a single large second floor gallery, and suffer from a murky hodgepodge of vinyl coated floors and walls, alternating soundtracks, cubbyholes, dangling light bulbs, and other spooky ephemera. I'm sure the intention was to create an installation that was moodily dark and goth, a mirror of Anger's own rebel consciousness. Unfortunately it results in physical confusion and total incomprehension.

At this point, with the recent "leader out" forced march of Alanna Heiss, a major question circulating among the art pundit-ocracy is how the institution will fare. As I have pointed out in an earlier posting, Heiss has not been immune to missteps, to mounting obscure art and indulging in woefully failed experimentation. The three Spring 2009 shows are probably part of her continuing legacy, and were undoubtedly prepared under her aegis. So the jury is out on the essential question: Does P.S. 1 still need Alanna?

This text was originally published as a shorter alphanumeric-ism.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

John Miller organizes "The Big Payback" at Swiss Institute

Swiss Institute, New York
curated by John Miller
February 18 - April 4, 2009

Barbara Bloom, Sophie Calle, Trisha Donnelly, Sam Durant, Maria Eichhorn, Sylvie Fleury, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Dan Graham, Renée Green, Fabrice Gygi, Jamie Isenstein, Mike Kelley, Louise Lawler, Leigh Ledare, Sam Lewitt, Allan McCollum, Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock, Mai-Thu Perret, Walter Robinson, Aura Rosenberg, Jim Shaw, Greg Parma Smith, John Waters, Lawrence Weiner

John Waters, Loser Gift Basket, 2006

Andrew Goldstein's snippet in New York magazine provides an interesting take on REGIFT, the exhibition organized by artist/curator/critic John Miller at the Swiss Institute. But rather than viewing the show as a commentary on a potential new art world gift economy occasioned by the larger recession/depression, I rather thought REGIFT offered testimony to the social support system that Miller has built for himself. In effect, it acknowledges the many perks that he has enjoyed over the years as a darling of the art world - gifts of exhibitions, employment, travel, fellowships, etc. - and attempts to offer a commensurate recompense. Nothing is being given away here. What we have is standard careerist logrolling.

Hence the following entities were rewarded with the "gift" of inclusion: his longtime gallery, Metro Pictures (work by Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Louise Lawler, Walter Robinson); the university (Columbia) where he teaches (Sam Lewitt, Greg Parma Smith, and additional writers/contributors in a planned catalog); his wife (Aura Rosenberg); his fondness for the good old days of American Fine Arts/Pat Hearn (John Waters, Renee Green); his friendship with John Armleder (Sylvie Fleury, Mai-Thu Perret); a nod to a couple of grand old Conceptualists who have long histories with Swiss Institute (Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham); a nod to a new one (Leigh Ledare).

Of course, many curated shows depend on a social network of repaid obligations for their selections. And Miller, a clever fellow, is quick to acknowledge these machinations in his press release: "Gift giving often invokes unspoken obligations, exacted in terms that are mutually understood but nonetheless not completely accountable: emotional, social, hierarchical and so on." But still, rather than REGIFT, this exhibition might have been more correctly entitled "The Big Payback". Pace James Brown.

The show is nothing if not eclectic, and approaches the cultural, social and aesthetic prerogatives of gift giving from various perspectives.

Installation view

There is Waters and his photograph of a pathetic, grotesque gift basket, containing stink bombs, a coupon for the Betty Ford Clinic, a Yanni CD, Preparation H, a carton of high nicotine cigarettes and various packaged goods for the carelessly obese.

Also funny in its hovering, threatening presence is Gygi's Christmas Tree, all silver sharp edges hanging like a slapstick stalactite or a missile-toe above our heads.

On the other side of the sincerity spectrum is a candy spill by Gonzalez-Torres, axiomatic in its iconography as "gift", although I would question whether this was the artist's original impetus. (I find that G-T's work deals with issues of choice and community and mortality rather than with gift exchange.)

Durant's installation continues his crusade against the betrayal of Native Americans by the greed and duplicity of the white man. A folded blanket and whiskey bottle invokes the U.S. Army's spread of smallpox and drunkenness among native populations during the early days of manifest destiny.

Perret also confronts ironies of history with an "atomic cake" shaped like a mushroom cloud. Apparently just such a cake was baked to commemorate the successful H-bomb test over Bikini Atoll.

Kelley contributes a pile of iron-on decals for a t-shirt. They have a back story: he once gave the image, of two hearts pierced by a dagger, to a friend for private publication in a book, only to later see it used publicly and commercially.

Robinson creates a "sculpture" for the show that resembles a gift wrapped birthday present. Rosenberg has a similar approach, although her "present" is rendered as a large color photograph.

Fleury submits a stuffed animal wrapped in clear plastic, her girly take on Valentine's Day sentimentality and commodity culture. Shaw is represented with several works on paper, including one of his thrift store finds: for a "world famous" brand of fruitcake.

Eichhorn advances an "interactive" piece, with the public encouraged to bring gifts they have received (but not used) and add these to a growing pile in the gallery. These are intended for re-distribution among the participants on the last day of the show.

Ledare is allowed two pieces. Both orient gifting within the family: a projection of porno footage that his mother gave him for use in an artwork, and a series of documents that promise to gift MoMA upon the death of his grandfather.

In a similarly autobiographical work, Calle contributes a large upright glass case, with lots of shelving, that displays the object accumulation of one of her hermetic research projects: a piece from 1980 entitled The Birthday Ceremony.

Also in a textual, conceptual vein is Green's welcome sign in Esperanto. McCollum has one of his "Thanks" paperweight multiples displayed in a vitrine that also contains editions by Lawler and Graham. Lewitt contributes several book cover pieces, From A to Z and Back. (I suppose that "back" somehow connotes "regift" to Miller.) And Weiner, not unexpectedly, inscribes a gnomic phrase directly on the wall: "Put Wheresoever".

But as indicated earlier, the writing was already on the wall in this multi-valenced, intellectually scattershot curation, which seems to spiral off in so many directions as to finally arrive nowhere at all. But as an autobiographical effort, with Miller the ultimate gifter/giftee, acknowledging his support structure and symbolically returning the accumulated favors, this exhibition makes perfect sense. It is Miller's metaphorical exorcism of his fellow travelers and enablers, both institutions and individuals, which make his life in art possible.

This text was originally published as a shorter alphanumeric-ism. Please accept it as my gift, or even my regift.

Monday, February 09, 2009

From the Archives: 40 Years/40 Projects, at White Columns, New York

Willoughby Sharp, Inside-Out, at 112 Greene Street, 1974

White Columns, the venerable downtown New York alternative arts space, celebrates its fortieth birthday this year. A retrospective exhibition, organized by Matthew Higgs and Amie Scally, the current WC director and curator, provides a necessary historical overview of its various SoHo and West Village addresses, and of the hundreds of projects and thousands of artists that have passed through its doors. From the Archives: 40 Years/40 Projects continues through February 28, 2009.

Forty years, one show from each year, is a good structure. Like any retrospective, there is a high nostalgia quotient for those who viewed the particular exhibitions when they were first mounted at 112 Greene, 325 Spring, the two Christopher Street locations or the current West 13th Street address of White Columns.

The show is decidedly archival and historical. There is some actual work - by Frank Majore, Lutz Bacher, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cheryl Donegan, John Stezaker, Kathe Burkhart, Lovett/Codagnone - but mostly we find documentation of the events: press releases, invitation cards, exhibition checklists, installation photography, typed artists' statements and letters, posters, catalogs, brochures, slides, videos, photos from the openings, a short grainy film, clippings of reviews from various magazines and newspapers (some no longer being published - another lesson in ephemerality).

Installation view
, White Columns, 2009

This funky, low budget presentation is appropriate to the funky, low budget status of the alternative space. In our present moment of financial uncertainty, with many galleries and museums closing and everyone wondering about continued commercial viability, this sort of show provides (a) a model for low cost exhibition, privileging grainy xeroxes, b/w photos and accumulated materials taken from deep storage in flat files and cabinets, over expensive artwork, (b) a survey of how other generations of artists dealt with previous economic downturns, and (c) a lesson in alternative art spaces as keepers of the flame, true believers who work closely with the artists on their "projects", without the expectation or reward of sales.

Which brings me to artist Jeffrey Lew, who is rightfully acknowledged in the 40 Years exhibition as the grandfather of the entire enterprise. The show is introduced by a two page interview with him, mounted on the wall, and photos of him (with Willoughby Sharp and others) appear in a nearby vitrine. Lew bought the 112 Greene Street building and founded the ground floor space as a truly experimental venue with "no administration" and an open door policy of exhibition.

Jeffrey Lew

I called Lew the other day. He is currently living in South Florida, an original player in the rejuvenation of Miami Beach, and is still drawing, painting and sculpting, an amiable pirate/artist. When I congratulated him on the exhibition and review, he indicated he was aware of neither. Computers and the internet are not a big part of his life, so he will probably never read these words online. But I believe he will be buying the February 16, 2009 issue of New York Magazine at the newsstand. It contains Jerry Saltz's review of the show.

My first experience of White Columns was at its second incarnation, at 325 Spring, under the aegis of Josh Baer. I missed the earliest days. So at the risk of angering Saltz with an "annoying glorification of the so-called greatest generation", Lew's recollections are evocative of a particular moment, hanging out with Gordon Matta-Clark, Alan Saret and Richard Nonas, watching Jene Highstein punch holes in the wall to install a transverse pipe that changed the axis of the exhibition space.

Gordon Matta-Clark at 112 Greene

But apparently it was not the physical destruction or transformation of his building that alienated Lew as much as the creeping grim professionalism of administrative committees and debate club protocols that began to govern the 112 Greene experience once they sought to win government grants. Lew could understand physical challenges to the space, but could not abide non-profit politics, filling out forms in triplicate, and all the other bureaucratic paraphernalia. It did not sit well with his anarchistic temperament. So he eventually divorced himself from the enterprise; or rather, since it was his building, he told them to take a walk.

My point in this brief account (admittedly based on hearsay and subject to revision) is that art spaces have not only changed physically, as Saltz indicates, "from looking like Beaux Arts salons to simple storefronts to industrial lofts to the gleaming giant white cubes of Chelsea with their shiny concrete floors". They have also progressed administratively, perhaps not always for the better.

White Columns remains one of our best non-profit institutions, free form and inclusive, but is certainly no longer the original socialist/syndicalist experiment as envisioned by Lew and Matta-Clark, when the space was run by artists and seemingly anyone could walk in and have a show. With our current burgeoning infrastructure of arts education, replete with mass-produced MFAs and arts administrators with business degrees, with the steely veneer of a professional class that eagerly imposes an industry standard (from august museums down to the street corner alternative space), and with the musical chair careerism of curators and administrators moving up the pecking order of institutional appointments, perhaps it is silly to imagine that we can recapitulate the naive but heady exhilaration of the original 112 Greene Street, the original White Columns.