Roving thoughts and provocations

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Innocuous Items Gone Creepily Wrong: Taking the Pulse of Art in New York

New Yorkers currently have two large exhibitions with which to take the pulse of contemporary art, and neither shows the patient feeling altogether well. At the Whitney Biennial, this time around presenting many videos along with paintings, installations, and artists’ collaboratives performing music, the spirit is retiring, docile, and a little like spending an afternoon at some lackluster shows in Chelsea.

There are some veterans on hand—the minimalist sculptor Robert Grosvenor, the whizbang figurative painter George Condo, and James Casebere, who photographs tabletop models of buildings and interiors he first makes by hand; but they aren’t seen at their best. And while there are a number of engaging works, especially videos (which I will come back to), one takes in what feel like inevitable Biennial items: abstract paintings of a monkish austerity, a sofa upholstered with newspaper clippings about current politics, a photo display showing how alike Michael Jackson and Charles Baudelaire were (maybe you knew this already).

At the New Museum, on the other hand, which has been given over to “Skin Fruit,” the title of a selection of works from the collection of the Athens-based Dakis Joannou—he has been acquiring art since 1985—the message is raucous, almost assaultive. In the crowded and vivid show, which has been organized by the artist Jeff Koons (who has chosen one of his own works for inclusion), our chief impression is of large, sometimes overbearing, figurative sculptures. The scariest, Roberto Cuoghi’s Pazuzu, a takeoff on Assyrian art, is some twenty feet high. More specifically, Joannou’s collection tends to show the human body as a tarnished or humiliated survivor—and not in an abject spirit but with a certain glee. This is an exhibition where pieces such as Pawel Althamer’s Schedule of the Crucifix, a performance art reenactment of the Crucifixion, and David Altmejd’s The Giant, which gives us, in effect, Michelangelo’s David as it might appear after some futuristic cyclone, are right at home.

There are sweet surprises, particularly Christiana Soulou’s delicate pencil drawings of women, and we are given the chance to brush up on work by a number of by now well-known and esteemed figures, including Cindy Sherman, Charles Ray, Robert Gober, Chris Ofili, and Kiki Smith. But either their voices are lost in the din, or else their own feeling for the gruesome (in Sherman’s case), or for a kind of Gothic woe (in Smith’s case), or for showing innocuous items—like kitchen sinks—gone creepily wrong (in Gober’s case) blends in all too well with the show’s essentially Expressionistic, and overinsistent, way of saying “We are all damaged goods.”

Muted as the Whitney Biennial is (it could use some Expressionism), it offers a few pieces that made sharp impressions, if only because they presented artists I was unfamiliar with or, maybe more importantly, were occasionally funny, an element in short supply in Joannou’s choices.

A still from Alex Hubbard: Annotated Plans for an Evacuation, 2009
(Gaga Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, STANDARD (OSLO), Oslo, and Maccarone Inc., New York)

Alex Hubbard’s Annotated Plans for an Evacuation, for example, a video of a fellow doing various inane things to a car, has a winning comic pointlessness. On a Ford outfitted with a sail-like board on its roof, he slathers the hubcaps with plaster, mucks up the windows, takes a drive, stops, tries to balance oil drums on the trunk, and the story is over. It is as if the silent film comedians, who also industriously went nowhere, and William Wegman, who, in his videos from the 1970s, might demonstrate how something didn’t work, were adding a crazed fellow traveler to their ranks.

In Marianne Vitale’s video Patron, in which the artist, speaking from a TV-size screen, harangues us about a movement called Neutralism, we are again unprepared for the comedy. Vitale is every high-flying drill sergeant, angry feminist, or despotic chef-owner in one; everything in her manner has the force of a demand or a threat except that what she is saying is amusingly nonsensical. Both her and Hubbard’s videos are punctuated with little edits along the way, which come across like twitches and make the pieces seem speedier, another plus.

Dawn Clements: Mrs. Jessica Drummond’s (‘My Reputation,’ 1945), detail

Dawn Clements’s Mrs. Jessica Drummond’s (‘My Reputation,’ 1945), however, an awkwardly titled, wall-size ballpoint drawing based on a little-known 1940s Hollywood melodrama, is one of a few works that need extra time to be deciphered. Recreating, in jumpily discontinuous form, the different living room scenes in this “woman’s picture,” which she drew while watching the movie on TV, Clements makes space itself twist and stretch, shatter and regroup. We seem to see, following along, the way a memory or thought comes haltingly to life.


2010: The Whitney Biennial, an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, is on view through May 30. Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection, an exhibition at the New Museum, New York City, is on view through June 6.

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