The Generational: Younger Than Jesusby Thomas Micchelli
The New Museum of Contemporary Art, April 8 – July 5, 2009
The Generational: Younger Than Jesus sent me back to William Blake. In his Songs of Experience, he bids “Youth of delight come hither, / And see the opening morn, / Image of truth new born. / Doubt is fled & clouds of reason, / Dark disputes & artful teazing. / Folly is an endless maze.” (“The Voice of the Ancient Bard”).
If anything defines this exhibition of artists born after 1975, it’s a prevailing absence of doubt. Most of the works are glossy and bright and bustling, with only a handful seeming to question the premises upon which they’re based. This isn’t a criticism of the show, arguably the liveliest mounted by the New Museum since it opened its Bowery location. The choices, by and large, seem well considered, and its imaginative installation design makes the best possible use of the building’s awkward gallery space (the corridor behind the second-floor elevators finally feels like a desirable destination rather than an open storage bin). It certainly outshines the most recent Whitney Biennial, which was as dull and moribund as The Generational is lighthearted and hyperkinetic.
Most of the work, though, as might be expected from artists whose college studio critiques and theoretical seminars are barely behind them, springs entirely from the head. Even Josh Smith’s grid of eighteen abstract panels, “Large Collage (New Museum)” (2009), whose Street-Art-meets-Ab-Ex scrappiness all but leaps off the wall, is upon closer inspection a neo-conceptual project utilizing collaged digital prints impersonating uninhibited splashes of paint. From Adriana Lara’s slight “Installation (Banana Peel)” (2008) (“a museum employee is instructed to eat a banana each morning and discard its peel somewhere in the exhibition space”) to Chu Yun’s unignorable “This is XX” (2006)(“a rotating group of paid volunteers will ingest sleeping aids that will allow them to sleep through portions of the museum’s opening hours”), most of the work accepts a conceptual framework as a given. There’s a certain irony about young artists unquestioningly embracing conceptualism, a radically critical art form that peaked around the time they were born. Unmoored from its historical and political (read Marxist) context, it becomes the kind of received wisdom that it had itself rebelled against. Its interrogation of the conventions of its time, which had defined art as a discreet object from the hand of an individual maker, led to the strategies that the Generational artists are exploiting, but without a similar critique. Like any practice extrapolated from an existing style rather than excavated from the intersection of form and content, it essentially becomes just another mannerism. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the exhibition is that many of the works cannot be fully comprehended without the verbal dimension of the wall label (which is the source of the two parenthetical quotes above). The verbal thus completes the visual, rather than acting as a parallel or subsidiary component. Even so, it would be a disservice to most of the work on display if the uninitiated visitor assumes that a sidelong glance at the art and a careful reading of the text is all that he or she needs to get it. The strength of Chu’s piece lies not in its transformation of the sleeper into a “living sculpture,” as the wall label informs us, or in the “irony” that her drug-induced sleep is not a “state … of relaxation, but of withdrawal and extreme vulnerability,” but in the queasy, almost obscene power dynamic experienced by the conscious viewer gazing upon an unconscious subject.
Even though it would be simple to brand many of the works in The Generational with the label of neo-conceptual mannerism, they, like most art, reside along a continuum between intellect and emotion, the ideational and the perceptual. Thus, a work like “This is XX” or Kateřina edá’s “It Doesn’t Matter” (2005-2007)—a tenderhearted attempt by the artist to cure her grandmother’s apathy—elicits unexpected feelings irrespective of its conceptual roots and methods. Still, the relative handful of pieces that feel worked out in the gut stand out for their emotional nakedness and diversity of antecedents. LaToya Ruby Frazier’s searing black-and-white photographs, which come out of Roy DeCarava and Helen Levitt, force us into an uncomfortable awareness of the artist’s enmeshed alienation from her family. The lovely animation by Wojciech Bakowski, Film Mówiony 1 (Spoken Movie 1) (2007), reaches for mystical heights through a combination of limpid, flickering images and stream-of-consciousness language. And paintings by Tala Madani, Kerstin Brätsch, and Jakub Julian Ziolkowski, each in their own understated way, demonstrate the infinity of sources, affinities and purposes that the medium can offer an emerging generation. But what impressed me the most was Keren Cytter’s breathtaking video, Der Spiegel (2007). Any skepticism I might have entertained in my March Rail review of her Thierry Goldberg show was instantly eradicated by this vibrant and pugnacious work. Using the technique pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, in which the illusion of a continuous, real-time shot is created by cutting on an inanimate object, Cytter creates a loop that, like her Les Ruissellements du Diable (The Devil’s Streams) (2008), has no beginning, middle, or end; with a fever-pitch choreography that calls to mind the mad dreams of Raoul Ruiz and Catherine Sullivan, she conjures an endless maze of effrontery and self-delusion, condemning her actors to a swirling hell of sexual anxiety and the horror of aging, the vanity of youth and the corrosive folly of trying to hold on to it as it imperceptibly slips away.