Less than a decade ago, Williamsburg was still a desolate haven for vast, raw, dirt-cheap lofts and an emerging art scene that imagined itself an ambitious underground alternative to the narcissism of Soho and Chelsea, a 90s incarnation of the self-destructive glamour of the Lower East Side portrayed in Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependence: witness the now legendary orgies of art, music, and performance held at the Old Mustard Factory. That, of course, was before the explosion of restaurants, bars, clubs, and stores, before the real estate market skyrocketed, before Bedford Avenue teemed with clean-cut, elegantly tattooed, cell-phone toting kids with IT jobs and lots of cash.
“Elsewhere” is a collaboration between over 33 galleries in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, centering around a series of openings, performances, and artist talks, beginning the second weekend of September and running through the end of the month. The title of “Elsewhere” implies a contrast with the slick, haute couture commercialism of Chelsea galleries, suggests the stance of the renegade outsider, but what I saw in studios and gallery flatfiles over the past few weeks struck me as characteristic of the fragmented art scene surveyed in PS 1’s “Greater New York” and again at the Whitney Museum’s Biennial. The best work is idiosyncratic and obsessively personal, seeking an irreducible mode of communication that reaches outside the confines of both aesthetic and political debate, and the lesser work competently and predictably rehearses familiar ideas and strategies from the past twenty years. This is not, I think, a moment of upheaval charged with the promise of radical transformation; it is rather a moment of retrenchment and private visions.
The most urgent single work on view this September will be the William Basinski, James Elaine, and Roger Justice video projection “Fountain,” at SideShow. “Fountain” consists of three streams of footage Elaine shot of a fountain in Santa Fe, New Mexico: a central image of electric blue water, agitated and rippled, continuously swirling, and two accompanying images of bright, cold, phosphorescent white water cascading against a deep perspective. Like Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton’s experimental films of the 1970s, Elaine’s images are abstract and almost painterly, their mesmerizing motion less an image of natural process than a metaphor for a deep, troubled introspection. Basinski’s ambient soundtrack is low and eerie, a hybrid of Luigi Nono’s minimalism with Aphex Twin’s early ambient tracks; it is meditative music which introduces subtle, electronic dissonances, a sense of queasy discomfort, as though to underscore the fact that meditation is an emotionally painful task.
The spiritual center of “Fountain,” however, is Roger Justice’s diary, read in a smoldering monotone by Basinski. Poet, painter, filmmaker, criminal, addict, Roger Justice is a poète maudit in the tradition of Arthur Rimbaud, Jean Genet, and William S. Burroughs, and his undated diary entries form what Spanish mystic and homoerotic poet St. John of the Cross called a “dark night of the soul.” Justice laments that his heart is dying, that the magical powers he once had have fled, that he is among the few whom God has chosen not to love, and yet his savage despair, his sense of damnation, gives him the demonic strength, and fuels rapturous passages in which his “I” and “eyes” merge with seas of sand, ice, and flesh. The text for “Fountain” is, finally, a love poem to some lost other, to the city, to heroin, to the always dying world. The images and music serve as foci of intense, meditative absorption, as icons of the bottomlessness of the self, and allow the viewer to identify with the voice of the diarist. “There are no defenses,” Justice writes, “it’s all over,” and yet he keeps going.
While “Fountain” is elegiac and sublime, the young Korea-born artist Min Kim’s drawing, which will appear along with an installation at Bellwether, are quirky and violent. The black profile of a woman vomits bright magenta, a tree with long roots afloat in the foreground. This cartoonish woman’s profile, now one-dimensional double, now superhero, appears in many of Kim’s drawings: she walks over waves, she lops a man’s head off with knife hands, her legs are riddled with nails. Like the Mogul-style illuminations of Sandro Clemente and Shazia Sikander, Kim’s drawings are full of allusive, stylized icons like trees, flowers, and flames, but the images are disconnected on the otherwise empty page and are rendered with a willful awkwardness, a girlish pop anti-style that make them seem like notes in a private dream journal.
Lori Taschler’s oil paintings will be part of a salon-style group show at Eyewash. Taschler smears almost pure pigment over wood supports and the heavy, protruding wooden frames. She paints ordinary household furnishings like tables, televisions, and chairs, in rooms that are windowless and claustrophobic. The thick, creamy, slathered paint, pink and sickly green, evokes not warm flesh, but the gross, leaky insides of bodies. One might naturally compare these paintings to Van Gogh’s empty rooms or the luxuriant rooms Matisse painted, but Taschler’s paintings are really about objects, which, as they stream shadows in the wrong direction, are subtly biomorphic, seemingly on the verge of coming to life: they are dream-objects, goofy, infantile, and menacing. And while Taschler’s generic furnishings sweat and breathe, the skewed spaces not only lack human figures, but actively exclude them.
Roebling Hall, meanwhile, will mount a one-man show of the work of David Henry Brown. Brown is a conceptual artist whose photographs and videos document extended performances. The ongoing project, which will dominate Roebling Hall, involves impersonating Alex von Furstenberg, fashion scion and German countess Diane von Furstenberg’s son, stealthily slipping into high-profile parties and having himself photographed with partying celebrities. The snapshots, which will be blown up large for the show, are predictably titillating: wily, grinning, suited imposter David Henry Brown rubbing elbows with Sean Puffy Combs or Hillary Clinton (at her 50th birthday party), wealthy sycophants and body guards milling around in the background.
Brown is interested in abject, undignified emotions involved celebrity fanaticism, and yet the images, hastily snapped by bystanders, fail to embody any distinctive visual language which takes us beyond what we already know—that fandom is at once vulgar, embarrassing, and addictive, that “celebrity” is an arbitrary, artificial concept. Brown claims that the imagination internal to the elitist history of high art is bankrupt, and what he seeks to do is not just bring works of art closer to ordinary people, but tap the powerful collective imagination embodied in popular culture. This is neither a surprise nor a new idea. Mining popular culture has been a standard strategy of cutting edge art form Andy Warhol and Jack Smith to Mike Kelly and Cindy Sherman; the problem with Brown’s photographs is that, unlike these other artists, he fails to deepen and complicate the idiom, and relies for effect on gimmicks and sheer chutzpah.
The videos Kim Kimball will be showing at Pierogi 2000 are also grounded in performances. In “Birth of the Uncool,” “The Phonemes,” and “The Message,” Kimball’s image, divided up into a field of bright, pulsating rectangles, laughs uncomfortably, mumbles nonsense, and emits long, off-key squeals. Kimball is fascinated by inarticulateness, discomfort, parody, and the grotesque, and thus the faces he presents to the viewer are distorted, the words he speaks (when they are words at all) stuttered and barely intelligible.
In “Fifteen Faces I’m Not Proud Of,” Kimball twists his face into hideous, unnatural expressions. In the “Bob Olliver” series, Kimball parodies a nerdy, vulgar American guy. His face refracted through a fisheye lens, he mumbles one-liner clichés between forced, creepy, compulsive laughs. Kimball’s work is most effective when it has a sense of sweaty, unshaven, inarticulate self-loathing, but when he tries to take on specific characters, as in “Bob Olliver” and in a piece on a pathetic artist asking his friends to come to his Chelsea opening, his jokes quickly grow tired and nasty. Kimball leans heavily on Bruce Nauman, but where the aggression of Nauman’s dunked clown videos and his unforgettable “Clown Shitting” prints is ecstatic, Kimball’s work remains prosaic, annoying, and depressive.
A more interesting piece is Omer Fast’s video “Glendive Foley,”” which will be shown at Momenta. Glendive is a small town in southeastern Montana, distinguished in part by being rated the smallest television market in America. “Glendive Foley” consists of two facing videos. On one monitor unfolds eighty images of houses in Glendive, shifting from a fixed medium position, cars and people intermittently passing, what appears to be a summer storm streaming through the incredibly deep Montana sky. On the opposite monitor are collections of a microphone in his tiny, claustrophobic East Village apartment, generating the entire soundtrack—every passing car, every dog bark—with his mouth.
Fast was born in Israel and immigrated to the United States as a teenager, and “Glendive Foley” is an effort to absorb and master, through theatrical mimicry, through that classically malleable and infantile orifice, the mouth, the foreign idiom of the ordinary of the ordinary American town. The images of the houses are beautifully framed and serve as flat, thwarting, sentimental fantasies about small town American and the west; and yet when one turns and sees Fast’s contorted face producing the sounds, he seems isolated, harried, and obsessed, his project infinite and absurd.
By contrast, the most robust, old-fashioned pleasure this fall undoubtedly will be Peter Gourfain’s woodblock prints at 4 & 12. Gourfain made his reputation as a sculptor in the late 1960s, and he continues to do large-scale works in wood and ceramics. In the tradition of northern European artists like George Grosz, Max Beckman, and Otto Dix, Gourfain’s prints are bold and frontal, full of irony and riotous satire. Cabs burst out of men’s chests. Chairs are heaped as through labyrinths of scaffolding and machines.
Gourfain portrays the basics of the human struggle, with work, with technology, with persecution, and while his themes are similar to those of Leon Golub, Golub’s paintings often trade on nostalgic melodrama and founder in the subtleties of oil paint. Gourfain’s work has a tough, vital, immediate impact, and, with its sharp, black-and-white contrasts, its confident, curving lines, its beautifully flawed grain, seems very much a part of the world it depicts.
As was the case with both “Greater New York” and the Whitney Biennial, the work to be exhibited in Brooklyn this fall is not radical, does not propose a transformation of our experience of art or the world, does not develop a new language. In recent books and essays, philosopher and critic Arthur Danto has argued that the history of art as a linear progression of the sort envisaged by Clement Greenberg stopped with the end of modernism, and what we are left with are fragments without overarching theory or banner.
Danto’s view strikes me as an accurate description of American art at present. The virtue of this is that creative energy is invested in personal pursuit rather than rationalizing ideology, and that, I think, is a powerful antidote to the frightening global commodification of art and everything else. So 21st century art begins, not with the optimistic zeal of cubism and futurism, but with what Baudelaire might call fruitful boredom and confusion.
For a complete list of “Elsewhere” events, see www.artwilliamsburg.com.