Essay: Navel-gazing in Chelsea

Posted on April 12, 2011

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Kehinde Wiley. “Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps.” 2005.

published on artcritical.com

An experiment. Walk around Chelsea, stopping into galleries to collect press releases. Once you have a fistful substantial enough to make a mathematically sound statistical analysis, read through them, separating them into two stacks, one for those which tout the work in question as a challenge to the established art world, and one for those which don’t. Key words and phrases to look for: “challenges our perception of,” “challenges notions of,” “questions ideas of,” “re-examines beliefs about,” etc. Chances are, the challenging, questioning, re-examining, anti-establishment stack will be as large, if not larger, than its party-line sibling.

The abundance of self-anointed anti-establishment shows reminds us that nothing in the art world is sacred, least of all art history. We’ve been served notice; taboos will be busted, idols smashed and sacred cows slaughtered. Sculptors will challenge our outdated notions of painting, installation artists our outdated notions of sculpture, and performance artists our outdated notions of installation. In the noisy crescendo of art that screams at us to rethink things on its terms, one message rings loud and clear; the canon is under fire!

So what are we to make of this curious industry in which the path to success seems so heavily greased by its practitioners’ insistence that they are a challenge to its authority? What is the meaning of a world in which the very rejection of its values seems as clear a path to acceptance as any? Is there a parallel world in our society that mirrors that of the contemporary art world as seen through the eyes of Chelsea? Imagine a law firm vying for your business by claiming a particularly irreverent attitude toward the law, or a politician cultivating votes on a platform of autocratic rule.

To be sure, questioning our value systems is one of the chief roles of an artist (if he or she, unbound by the directives of others, cannot speak the truth, who can?), but it seems that we’ve arrived at a point where the act of questioning has become the greatest currency of all. Cézanne’s re-examination of painterly perception was a game-changer with implications about how we see the world (as were the developments of the Impressionists, Fauves and Cubists), but much of contemporary art seems unconcerned with real world implications. Art that adopts a full-blown revisionist take on the art-historical canon invariably fails to resonate beyond gallery walls. Take for example the show of Fahamu Pecou’s paintings at Lyons Wier Gallery, which “questions the concepts of inclusion and exclusion within the historical constructs of fine art,” by “appropriating famous images from the twentieth century and reinterpreting them through his own self-portrait prism.” In a painting titled “The Treachery of (media) Images: After Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images,” the artist’s cursive phrase “Ceci n’est pas Fahamu,” accompanies his self-portrait. While the appropriation is obvious enough, the reinterpretation remains unclear.

It’s been a while since Duchamp displayed his urinal, Rauschenberg erased his de Kooning, Warhol made his ready-mades and John Baldessari commissioned sign painters to create work for him, sign their own names to it, and present it as his own. Kehinde Wiley’s reinterpretation of 18th- and 19th-century history painting has become so familiar that it is now more surprising to see Jacques Louis David’s white and sallow-cheeked Napoleon atop his war steed than Wiley’s African American stand-in.

These conceits all served in various ways to challenge notions of creativity, originality, and authenticity. Each was also interpreted, in its own way, as a sort of “joke on the art world,” the most recent iteration being the Banksy film, “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Here the street artist makes a documentary about his would-be documentarian Thierry Gueta, who in Banksy’s narrative is transformed from cameraman to street artist to art-world darling himself. The work produced by Gueta under his street name Mr. Brain Wash is pretty lousy by nearly everyone’s admission, but the fact that it sells well at a show in Los Angeles is presented in the film as the ultimate joke on the art world. But is it a joke? In a telling moment, Banksy’s dealer Steve Lazarides chuckles nervously, “I think the joke is on . . . I don’t know who the joke’s on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.”

right: Rachel Harrison. “Zombie Rothko,” at Greene Naftali. 2011.

If there is a joke it has little meaning. The film suffers from a sort of self-imposed impotence. The breadth of its meaning is a function of its scope, and in putting one over on the art world, it has few implications for the world beyond. The group show “Entertainment,” currently on view at Greene Naftali, offers a sort of litmus test of the resonance of art inspired solely by art world reference. Rachel Harrison’s piece, “Zombie Rothko,” is a free standing block of sculpture splattered with vaguely Ab-Ex paint and topped by a doll’s head. From the press release: it “suggests an embodied version of painting (a kind of “walking dead”).” Next to this is “ITEA (International Trade and Enrichment Association),” Michael Smith’s fake trade show booth “parodying the synergy of arts and business collaboration.” It works as parody, but nothing more. This is the affliction of the navel-gazing worldview: it’s a bite we’ve grown accustomed to.

Lynne Woods Turner. “Untitled.” 2008.

Thankfully, we still have that second stack of press releases, those that make no claims to historical revisionism. Instead, they correspond to a different kind of show, where the work on display feels altogether more comfortable with itself. Rather than trading in art-world reference, this work opens itself up to reference the world at large.

Take two sublime shows of painting currently on 24th street, those of Lynne Woods Turner at Danese and Rudolf Stingel at Gagosian. Each artist creates work imbued with an emotional maturity that allows it to stand autonomously and remain open to interpretation. Woods Turner’s paintings rely on their own narrowly defined formal parameters to present a luminous world that remains accessible at its core. Stingel takes the self-assuredness a step further. Employing silver and gold (and what could be better fodder for a revisionist re-evaluation of our cultural mores?) as the primary materials for minimal paintings of maximal visual appeal, the lasting question Stingel poses to us is one that artists have asked for centuries: can you imagine anything more beautiful?

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Posted in: Essays