The Great Debate About Art
ENVOY ENTERPRISES | JANUARY 25 – MARCH 8, 2015
Exhibition making is far from rocket science, yet books, master’s programs, and magazines suggest a genius in curation. GDA1–anonymous, the current exhibition at Envoy Enterprises, exemplifies the pitfalls of the craft’s recent glorification. This first exhibition in a series of four inspired by Roy Harris’s book The Great Debate About Art is a deformed example of commercial presentation. There is no unifying thread among works outside of the dialogue supplied by Harris, explained below. Fourteen flat, mostly abstract paintings are arbitrarily shown in the naked space. As a justification, the press release claims to counteract the market with this “decontextualized situation/environment.” “Well-known and emerging artists are shown anonymously, side-by-side,” supposedly forcing “the viewer to judge the work by its artistic value, and not by any other criteria.” The room is more vacant than liberated, more dated than enlightened. Even the gallery attendant, absent from the desk at the front, fled the scene of the shockingly bland crime. GDA1’sutopian aim falls into its own trap—it supports opinions generated by assumptions, successfully making an ass out of you and me.
Let’s first consider Harris’s book, which simplifies the ways in which a piece of work might be approved as “art.” The first type of recognition relies upon “influential institutions.” Through institutional approval, an uncured canvas cloaked seamlessly in white house-paint and a shark preserved in formaldehyde have entered the canon of art. This type of approval epitomizes what those outside the scene despise about the scene. A painting hung near Envoy Enterprises’s entrance, visible only from inside the gallery, is a prime representative: a white crook of a question mark drawn on a brown background is missing its dot—it has been absorbed by the white walls, and the symbol is incomprehensible beyond the comfort of its predictable reference to the white cube. GDA1 has forgotten, however, that institutional approval still requires the merits of context to remain relevant and valuable. This exhibition is curation for curation’s sake, rather than a clever use of one’s resources to provide dynamic engagement. It is a stunt to ripen low-lying fruit. This collage of visual placeholders might be more comfortable at an art fair than in a thematic exhibition. And appropriately so—a quick Google search will reveal this exhibition is a glorified group show, stocking many artists from the gallery’s stable with one mind-blowing exception (more on that in a moment). If you feel like dropping cash on something you know nothing about but looks cool, this is the exhibition for you.
Therein lies another issue—the exhibition actually works at a disadvantage to the viewer looking to learn. Harris addresses the audience in his second form of approval he refers to as ideocentric, shifting “absolute priority to the judgment of the individual.” At Envoy, the audience’s affinity for the work is reduced to the instinctual yay-or-nay strategy of focus groups. Like a tiger in a cage, one paces in circles searching for guidance, for connection. Each work is denied the capacity for deeper interpretation or surprises. It is a game that degrades into irrational dribble based solely on the viewer’s half-baked associations. If you are one for hypothetical speculation, cursory themes such as “flesh” or “immersion” may reveal themselves. A face made up of 10 unfurled intestines appears in a heap of pink lava in the wet, trippy painting by Gerald Collings. A canvas painted with red and blue commas, inverted 90 degrees from their usual direction, is a reminder of breath, or maybe of incoherence at every turn, or maybe they’re actually quotation marks. The audience fabricates their own stories instead of contemplating the artist’s aims, challenges, or practice. The art stands for nothing more or less than its formal qualities. From this angle, it forces the work to do exactly the opposite of what one hopes successful art does—allow us to see outside of ourselves and consider larger questions.
Harris addresses this confusion in the last form of approval—conceptual, where an idea may count more than an artwork’s physical execution. This criterion is omitted from the exhibition entirely. One inclusion, hidden near the desolate gallery desk, is particularly demeaned by this oversight: a diptych from Chris Ofili’s Afro Muses series (1995 – 2005). This solitary work is actually part of an inspired series of nearly 200 watercolors on paper. Ofili’s output, featured in a retrospective that recently closed at the New Museum a few blocks away, is defined by his mutated iconography and a tactful volley of materials and textures. We get none of that from this lonely piece. Hanging nearby is a double portrait by Kelsey Henderson, a shirtless, pasty man, rendered twice in painterly, fleshy detail. The dialogue between the two is at best superficial, at worst nonexistent. It is a sad implosion, where the works are accessories to the mystery curator’s vacuous definition of art.
“Art for art’s sake” can have subliminal messages, too. The press release claims the lack of context allows the viewer to “judge the work by its artistic value,” a conclusion more destructive than rampant International Art English. GDA1 is a cheap social experiment, questioning the development of taste by promoting knee-jerk reactions. Harris, in his 40 years as a linguist and semiotics scholar, also considered the evolution of meaning over time. He was a proponent of Integrationism, which argued the “context of operation” could transform language by creating new words or altering definitions entirely. This “context of operation” is connective tissue, synapses that facilitate new ways of looking at words as well as images. GDA1–anonymous actively dumbs down the viewing experience by negating the importance of context. The artists’ dialects are suffocated, limited to one word or phrase; the creative process is enfeebled. This is problematic because it seems the curator of GDA1 is trading a revelatory interaction for one geared toward easy consumption. Instead of being a generous proponent of dialogue, s/he is a middleman, scamming the viewer and fundamentally wasting their time.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from Roy Harris’s text describing the book The Great Debate of Art.
Lynn Maliszewski is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY.