GREATER NEW YORKby Thomas Micchelli
MOMA P.S. 1 CONTEMPORARY ARTS CENTER | MAY 23 – OCTOBER 18, 2010
Greater New York has already taken its lumps in the press, and deservedly so. What I found most troubling, however, wasn’t the show’s provincialism, its emotional hollowness, or its wearying pile-on of sensory (mostly auditory) stimulation. More than other recent large-scale surveys dominated by screening rooms, neo-conceptual installations and junk-art assemblages—perhaps because the majority of the artists here are emerging or unfamiliar—many of the selections come off as mutant offspring from the marriage of insularity and conformity, a propagation of miniscule mannerisms ricocheting pell-mell inside a theoretical echo chamber.
On the surface, it would seem as if the curators, Klaus Biesenbach, Connie Butler, and Neville Wakefield, are doing everything right: artists are presented as working across a variety of media (usually with video as a required ingredient), which accurately reflects current practice; everyone is given ample space; there is more than a dash of offensive, difficult, and assaultive art. They even make a valiant attempt to contain the show’s sprawl, organizing it by formal affiliations that afford the visitor a subliminal, if tenuous, sense of cohesion and perhaps an occasional insight. However, once you step past the cordon of institutional endorsement and ask hard questions about the artworks’s premise and necessity, many of the selections collapse into a disorienting muddle.
This presents a particular problem. Just because I don’t see the point doesn’t rule out the possibility that someone else can. Much contemporary work, especially if it includes imagery, features a personal, intuitive, and frequently obscure system of iconography. But obscurity, a quality that can be applied to oeuvres as diverse as the philosophical drawings of Maria Bussmann, the anarchic installations of Jesse Bercowetz and Matt Bua, the dreamlike films of Catherine Sullivan and the fantastical animations of the Quay Brothers—carries its own set of demands. With these artists we sense that their often-arcane imagery is grounded in varying degrees of intellectual inquiry and life experience. This lends their work a kind of transparent density—to employ a contradictory term—rather than a hermetic opacity. We don’t need to know that the bent tennis racquet hanging from a wire in the Quays’s This Unnameable Little Broom (a k a The Epic of Gilgamesh) derives from a sight they stumbled upon when they were adolescents*, yet its origin as an impenetrable enigma (how and why did it get there?) endows the image with a compact mystery redolent of all the unanswered questions we push to the periphery of our mental lives.
Much of the work in Greater New York, however, fails to connect with what might be termed a common subjective language. One room after another becomes a blind alley, where the art on display may come across as odd, irritating, amusing, or curious, but short on the emotional and structural interrogation that leads to rigor and depth. This is where the pitfalls of insularity and conformity come into play. As with the New Museum’s The Generational: Younger Than Jesus, which also featured mostly the young and emergent, the artists in Greater New York seem to pick up the neo-conceptual tools they’ve been handed without questioning their lineage or efficacy. In this regard, they are like fledgling rock musicians who uncritically gravitate toward the drums, bass, and guitar because that’s what their grandfathers played, rather than swapping them for, say, the soprano sax, didgeridoo, and thumb piano.
This absence of experimentation in experimental art—its narrow parameters and consensus of focus—is as dispiriting as it is academic. Variations of once-original ideas are trotted out without the context and considerations that made those ideas click. A case in point is David Adamo’s carpet of baseball bats on the same floor that recently held Christian Marclay’s installation of vinyl LPs. Marclay’s piece felt like the end of an era; Adamo’s might as well be product placement for Major League Baseball.
There are exceptions, of course. LaToya Ruby Frazier, whose work shone in The Generational, presents unpeopled black-and-white photographs bristling with quotidian horrors and sidewinding beauty; her “Tangled Roots and Debris” (2009), of a felled tree on a city sidewalk, says more about destruction and decay than David Brook’s sensationalistic but ultimately inconsequential roomful of concrete-encased branches and leaves. Lucy Raven’s 52-minute photographic animation, “China Town” (2009), about an open pit copper mine in Nevada, is mesmerizing in its documentary sweep and ravishing, baroque imagery. Tala Madani’s very short painterly animations are punchy little metaphors of catastrophe’s perpetual capacity for surprise. What these three artists have in common is a simplicity of means and a direct, unfussy approach to their subject. While their contributions are by no means the only things worth looking at in the show, these particular works are noteworthy in their unmediated engagement with life outside the studio, where nothing ever goes as planned and conceptual frameworks tend to blow apart with the first blast of cold, fresh air.
* From a conversation with Edward Waisnis, curator of Dormitorium: An Exhibition of Film Decors by the Quay Brothers.