Bruce High Quality Foundation: Empireby Maxwell Heller
Cueto Project, February 14–April 11, 2009
When Bruce High Quality Foundation’s Retrospective mocked art commerce last Spring, a “red-hot market” was fueling galleries and museums and sending hammer prices soaring at Sotheby’s. Flawed or not, the object of the exhibition’s ridicule was thriving. But this year, times have changed—Chelsea’s long strides have been cut short by general financial panic, museums are selling collections to stay afloat, art auctions are ending disastrously—and the Foundation is celebrating.
One word comes to mind when considering the Foundation: omnivorous. In February, it took on Broadway and cultural gentrification with Cats on Bowery, a display of ephemera and mockumentary film footage from its appropriative revival of Cats: The Musical. Now it brings us Empire, an exhibition “concomitant with the impending financial meltdown of the galaxy” tackling cultural poverty, urban sterility, and the dawn of the post-American era. On view, we find a collection of photographs, sculptures, assemblages, video installations, and paintings that reference artists ranging from Dorothea Lange and the Hudson River School to Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. There’s a lot happening here, though it is difficult to say exactly what.
In any case, Empire pulls no punches. It opens with “Thank You New York,” a photograph of cross-legged youths reading newspapers issued on 9/11/01, and “The Sack of Rome,” a heap of disembodied stone noses and penises. At first glance, “Sack” resembles the pyre of wooden cell phones that appeared in 2008’s Retrospective, but it accrues further meaning from the present exhibition’s references to Loreena Bobbitt, Egypt’s crumbling Sphinx, and a hoax involving forged Roman statuary. Taken together, “Sack” and “Thank You” make a daunting pair, juxtaposing 9/11 with castration, con artistry, and fallen empires. They make it clear from the outset that the Foundation wants to vent its aggression but, again, it is not clear where the aggression is directed.
Perhaps the target is New York. In Empire’s second room, “Pizzatopia” presents Manhattan as a pizza topping, its streets flooded with cheese. The piece recalls Charles Simonds’ earth-tone sculptures of abandoned Lilliputian dwellings, but here the ghost town is our own city, cooked up and served. Nearby, “The Right Relationship” also evokes Manhattan’s grid, but the buildings have been replaced with rows of automated teller machines, colorless and identical. The grim mood is enforced by an accompanying photograph of transients huddled near an ant-scale model of the city—they are fueling a small fire with newspapers and uprooted skyscrapers. In these pieces, the city is presented not as a living thing, but as an object constructed to inspire consumption. They point to the disappearance of public space for creativity in a city where corporate, commercial and luxury spaces have been rapidly expanding, confronting us with the New York of Jane Jacobs’ worst nightmares—a polis streamlined for consumers rather than inhabitants, a city hostile to diversity and cross-pollination but friendly to banks and commerce.
The exhibition’s crowning piece seems to discuss the vicissitudes of contemporary art and the rise and fall of American power in a satirical homage to Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire.” It is a series comprising large canvases depicting a primitive age represented by Henri Rousseau-esque jungles; an idyllic, pre-boom period of spiral jetties, Warhol daisies, and love à la Robert Indiana; an era of consumption fueled by great splashes of crude oil, where only Jaws the movie and Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd stand out from the fray; a time ofiolent decline from which only Joseph Beuys emerges unscathed; and finally a post-9/11 age of desolation. The Foundation borrows Cole’s basic compositions for each of these pieces, but it makes an important adjustment to his narrative. Rather than offering a somber view of the post-boom world, as Cole does in his “Desolation,” it presents a still-smoldering world where signs of life sputter amid the ruins. Two naked figures stand in the foreground, their backs to the viewer. They are surveying a landscape now leveled for reuse. While Cole’s paintings view collapse as an absolute end, the Foundation’s series seems to welcome destruction as an opportunity—destruction not only marks the death of the art boom, it celebrates it.
But it is impossible to say that Empire has a single message, or to fit it into the optimistic “the boom is over, long live art” discourse described by Holland Cotter and Ann Landi in recent months. While many art writers announce that artists will revert to their ideal early 70s mode, using adversity to fuel creativity, Empire pokes fun at this nostalgia-laden proposition. In its “Course of Empire,” all moments in art history seem vulnerable to mockery, and we sense that the coming era will probably not be an exception. Even if the current economic climate leads to a flowering of sincerity and non-commercial, de-professionalized art pour l’art creativity, we can expect that the Foundation will return to mock it again.