PRINT December 2003

Pamela M. Lee


1 Marine Hugonnier, Ariana (Venice Biennale) In the hothouse laboratory that was “Utopia Station,” French-born, London-based artist Marine Hugonnier’s 2003 film Ariana, a spare, poetic meditation on a trip to Kabul, might now be read as a fitting riposte to the blague and bombast of the “embedded” reporting of America’s other unfinished war. In attempting—and failing—to film a panoramic view of the city, Hugonnier assembled footage that was quotidian where mainstream media images of Kabul were traumatic, and reflective where others were reactive. Ariana represents a frustrated geography less of the non-Western other than of Hugonnier’s own perspective and culture.

2 Philip Guston (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) As myth would have it, Philip Guston abandoned abstraction because, as the artist himself once wrote, he was “sick and tired of all that Purity.” But what could be more “pure”—at least to this Gustonphile—than the outsize eyeballs, immobilized limbs, and nervous fingers that populate his late work? As Michael Auping’s traveling retrospective (originally organized for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth) so persuasively demonstrated, Guston could endow a shade pull with as much affective purity as graced the skittish, anxious pinks of his abstract canvases.

3 “Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure” (Art Institute of Chicago) The title of this exhibition of devotional art from India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet (organized by visiting curator Pratapaditya Pal and the AIC’s exhibition coordinator, Betty Seid) makes me wonder if some museum bureaucrat was hoping to capitalize on the Discovery Channel’s recent penchant for everything Everest. Cheesy name notwithstanding, this show’s lucid presentation of the densely layered, even obsessive worlds of Hindu and Buddhist art from the sixth through the nineteenth century was a transformative museum experience.

4 Chris Ware, Quimby the Mouse (Fantagraphics Books) Following on his triumph with Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 2000) comes cartoonist Chris Ware’s latest graphic novel, Quimby the Mouse, his anxiously awaited collection of . . . student efforts. If that makes you think Ware (one of the only bright notes to a rather dismal 2002 Whitney Biennial) might be coasting (or capitalizing) on his relative celebrity, think again: His hapless tales of a bipolar Mickey-like character are resplendently baroque—far more complex, structured, and spacious than your average multichannel digital-video installation. Neo-McLuhanites sounding the death knell of print culture take note: Chris Ware has revitalized the space of the page in the postmedium era.

5 The Weather Underground Bill Siegel and Sam Green’s terrific documentary on the Weathermen, the ultraradical splinter faction of the Students for a Democratic Society, perfectly illustrates the truism that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Some would call this a lesson in moral relativism, but the sickness of recent foreign and domestic policy may bring us closer to an understanding of the Weathermen’s rage than we might ultimately like.

6 Jocelyn Robert, The State of the Union Robert, a Canadian new-media artist and musician who divides his time between Quebec and the Bay Area, won the New Image award at the 2002 Transmediale festival in Berlin with his video installation L’Invention des Animaux, 2001, in which an airplane is made to sound and behave like a bird that has just flown the nest. With 2003’s State of the Union, Robert takes inspiration from a passage in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, playing war-film footage in reverse. While some of Robert’s work is an uncanny digest of postwar experimental cinema—one thinks of Michael Snow, with whom he has collaborated, or Ernie Gehr—his crossed taxonomies and inverted worlds suggest a peculiar brand of contemporary neorealism.

7 Adobe Books (The Mission, San Francisco) Adobe Books is your typical shambling mess of an independent bookstore—the anti- Borders—that also happens to put on some of the most provocative shows of art in the city. But the real attraction here may be the artlessness of the space itself: The gulf between literary and visual pursuits isn’t bridged in a gesture of faux rapprochement; rather, the two are allowed to coexist as distinctly autonomous entities. At a time when museums and galleries are often more aesthetic and spectacular than the objects they showcase, Adobe Books’ Back Room takes an aggressively nonaesthetic stance that respects art by granting it the space to be different.

8 Richard Prince My favorite rhetorical question of the last two years may be more of a whine than an interrogative: “Why do they hate us?” many of our American brothers and sisters have been heard to exclaim. Perhaps the reason why “they” hate “us” is precisely because “we” ask such questions in the first place. Enter Richard Prince, whose canonical Marlboro Man images are seductive demonstrations of the pathologies of American consumption. At last summer’s Venice Biennale, where Francesco Bonami and Daniel Birnbaum installed the series beautifully (in the Italian pavilion’s “Delays and Revolutions”), those cowboys looked more urgent and vital than they have in a very long time indeed.

9 Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (video by Mark Romanek) I could easily extol the Bay Area’s outpouring of diverse non-garage-revival music in 2003: The art damage noise of Deerhoof or Erase Errata; the minimalist techno of Kit Clayton; and the lachrymose twang of the Court and Spark. But it’s sadly fitting to pay tribute to the Man in Black this year, and all the more so because Mark Romanek’s video for “Hurt”—an improbably moving cover of the Nine Inch Nails song—was so rich in its southern-gothic-by-way-of-Netherlandish-vanitas imagery. Very MTV of me, perhaps, but few cinematic images of 2003 had the staying power of that video’s last frames, when Cash closed his piano’s keylid with a quiet and fatal decisiveness.

10 Burning Man (Black Rock Desert, Nevada) Because San Francisco empties out that weekend and you can find a parking space.

Pamela M. Lee is associate professor of art history at Stanford University. She is currently completing Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, forthcoming from MIT Press early next year