PRINT May 2004

Jack Bankowsky

David Hockney, Interior with Lamp, 2003; Saturday Rain II, 2003; and View from Terrace III, 2003. Elizabeth Peyton, Walt, 2003; Julian, 2003; and Lady with Ermine 1480–90 (after Leonardo  da Vinci), 2003. Photo: Kate Lacey.

Writing on the heels of the show’s opening, New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl proclaimed Elizabeth Peyton, court painter to the postgrunge imperium, the “moral center” of the current installment of the Whitney Biennial. At first I thought my favorite art-critical stylist daft: One had better be possessed of like gifts, I mulled, even to contemplate a counterintuitive flourish of such breathtaking magnitude. What could possibly land this celebrity-doting miniaturist at the center of anything, let alone a “moral” center? Then it hit me: The answer is everything!

I will confess up front that I heartily disagree with Schjeldahl’s celebration both of Peyton’s work and of painting in this Biennial more generally, which to me feels tepid across the board. (I’m excepting Richard Prince—I don’t count him a painter here, though one just as easily might; and I reserve a word of praise for James Siena, whose manic inventiveness coupled with the modesty of his art makes him easy to love.) But back to Peyton and to my point: Like them or not, her pretty portraits can be seen to register a number of pressures central not only to the current moment in art but to painting’s status in this show.

Los Super Elegantes, The Falling Leaves of St. Pierre, 2003. Performance view,  Press Projects, Los Angeles, 2003.

In her catalogue essay, cocurator Chrissie Iles (she is joined in the exhibition’s organization by Debra Singer and Shamim M. Momin) means to place painting at the thick of things: Pointedly separating the painterly plenty she sees out there in the galleries and studios from, say, that earlier ’80s return (a “reactionary assertion of bombastic image-making over conceptual/perceptual practices”), Iles wants us to consider painting—and its “center stage” status today—as a “rejoinder to the photographic homogeneity of mass media surface and image, and its impact on individual and collective identity.”

I’m with her on fundamentals: Each efflorescence of painting needn’t signal a reactionary rappel à l’ordre; if painting is to speak to us today, it will speak (if not always in immediately discernible ways) out of or against our condition under mass media; and (this last point is implicit) a part of telling the present to ourselves necessarily entails a retelling of the past. That said, I yearn to know two things: How does it all boil down to Robert Mangold and Alex Hay (on one end of the seniority spectrum), and how (on the other end)—you’ll think me obsessed—does Elizabeth Peyton get to be more than a footnote to Karen Kilimnik (who is not included in this show)?

Iles makes a good case for Peyton, if a case is to be made: Exhibited in a gallery presided over by David Hockney (more on the senior moments in this show later), Peyton’s au courant idols (including herself) take their place at the center of a “cross-generational dialogue,” one of a handful meant to animate the exhibition. The torch is passed thus: “That Hockney is both the subject of fame and a participant in its subversion, and that he is one of Peyton’s adored subjects, demonstrates another way in which . . . the publicity machinery of mass culture has been internalized in painting.” To cut to the chase, I go along with the “internalized” but not the “subversion.” When it comes to our celebrity culture and its discontents, both painters remain gentle salonists. Kilimnik’s savagely obsessive exhumations of bedroom-bunker fandom and its eventual transmutation in her loving but tellingly stunted painterly idylls may draw from the same mass-cultural substrate as Peyton’s romantic makeovers, but Kilimnik turns the allure of the glossies inside out, whereas Peyton ties it up with a Kate Spade bow.

I guess it’s clear that I’m unimpressed with the painting in this show. I am similarly disappointed, even exasperated, by the selection of late-career artists. It’s not that I don’t think there’s a place for the old steadies in the do-everything Biennial ideal, but in this installment the curators seem to have made a decision: When it comes to all but the most recent art, they have opted to beg off attempting anything like a general survey of the best and most vital work done in the last two years. Rather, as with Hockney, they have cast a line back from the thematics governing their notion of what is afoot today and thus guided their senior selections. Fine in principle, but at least where the painting is concerned the backward nods seem, more often than not, either perplexing (Mangold), a little gratuitous (Hay), or willful (Mel Bochner). I get the feeling some of the choices here are driven by a determined set of expectations as to what art “should” be (studious, conceptual—academic) instead of simply made on the merits of work that by guts or will or happenstance somehow gets underneath our condition and delivers up its contingencies. In Bochner’s case, young artists and scholars may have lately revisited the artist’s photographic experiments of the ’60s, but to single out his current work for this reason comes with an ahistorical undertow. Let’s face it, Bochner is a critic’s artist and as such a valuable minder of a certain learned flame within the art world, but the man is deep into a three-decade slow patch, and the paintings on offer here would not seem to point the way out.

Andrea Bowers, Diabloblockade, Diablo Nuclear Power Plant,  Abalone Alliance, 1981, 2003, graphite on paper, 8 x 10".

The Biennial looks up when it gets around to the business of surveying tendencies in the newest art. As I settled into the show and particularly the time-based work, glimmers of light (even heat!) began to issue, not just from individual works, but from the friction between works—which is to say that I respect the curators for venturing frames and syntheses in a show whose do-it-all nature can make such a prospect fraught, if not thankless.

I appreciated, especially, the nostalgia conceit, which lends a (timely) affective gloss to that contemporary cultural staple, sampling. Moving, in this light, was Mary Kelly’s composite image based on several press shots of the student uprisings of ’68 studiously reconstructed of dryer lint; so, too, were Sam Durant’s penciled protests, their casual, hand-rendered quality slowing down our processing of these literally seen-to-death shots—including mass-media imagery of the student rebellion at Columbia University in 1968—so that we might pause to measure our thrall to these disembodied half memories and their role in the everyday processes of wresting present from past. Richard Prince offered a self-reflexive spin on the nostalgia problem, sampling himself in a new installation that reprises his ’80s car hoods (based on ’70s car designs). In his hyperclever conflation of auto styling and high-art finish fetish, Prince, who is not a painter, or not just a painter—or if, as he insists, he is a painter, then he’s a meta-painter of a very particular sort—admits to those new hybrids the signs of painterly “process.” Where the paint jobs of the ’80s works were seamless, the new hoods are patchy and sanded, offering added “art” value but also recalling auto-body work in progress.

But the most topical “image” of pastness in the show was the nod back to the eclectic affect associated with the proto-Pop imaginings of the Independent Group in the ’50s. In the ecstatic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sprawls by the likes of assume vivid astro focus and Christian Holstad, high- and mass-cult yearnings collapse: One feels the tug not only of British proto-Pop but also, at least in assume vivid astro focus’s case, of that perennial magnet for decadist longing: Swinging London of the ’60s. In their voracious embrace of all things Pop—as well as things high and in between—these artists plot a point at the opposite end of the post-Pop continuum from Peyton’s tidy packages.

My own favorite moments of double voicing and determined nostalgia were both to be found in the basement bookstore: Two works, both documentaries, employ that most prosaic of forms to tap into something like the (political?) unconscious of the proceedings upstairs. Isaac Julien’s BaadAsssss Cinema (2002) looks back on the ’70s blaxploitation film. Taped interviews with film critics, social commentators, actors, producers, and directors, including Quentin Tarantino, who has often tapped this contradiction-rich mother lode, suggestively complicated the “exploitation” factor in the equation, by unpacking a dense network of cultural dependencies and contradictions. For Tarantino the genre affords a refreshing (and productive) dip into the subcultural well from which emerges a vital new art-house hybrid; for Melvin Van Peebles it would ultimately represent the vicious cycle of recuperation whereby a subversive new art is devoured in the maw of the movie industry; and yet for numerous actors, agents, and producers, it represented, more often than not, an empowering foot in the door, an opportunity to seize a piece of the pie and be counted. Key to Julien’s take is this ambivalence—reflected in the views of those who played a firsthand part in the short life of the genre—which in this work lends the nostalgia a bittersweet cast: It reflects the tug of a culture on the verge, a vital efflorescence that, however fraught or compromised, remains a resonant episode in the larger narrative of empowerment. For me, BaadAsssss Cinema is one of the show’s exhilarations.

Andrea Bowers’s Vieja Gloria, 2003, knits together our two upstairs mainstays: the exigencies of the tabloid culture and the will to wrest (or at least to understand how such a process is mediated) from the accelerated flux and flow of mass-generated information an image of resistance. What began in this video as a sappy-seeming look at tree sitter John Quigley’s seventy-one-day vigil aimed at saving an ancient oak from the encroaching suburban sprawl (poor tree!) quickly revealed itself to be a richly creepy meditation on the machinations of celebrity (defamilarized in this low-grade variety), as the news media tracked the protester’s tribulations with the local authorities—and his concomitant assumption to public voice (yikes!). By turns hokey and puffed up, pathetic and self-congratulatory, and finally, alas, all too human, the protagonist occasions a disarmingly complex musing on self-determination (and political action) in our late-day spectacle culture. Quigley’s distinctive speech patterns alone were worth the forty-five minutes of hard time at a video monitor.

No Biennial review would be complete without the honorable mentions that celebrate the ultimately happy impossibility of doing justice to the exhibition’s unmasterable plenty. I thought Banks Violette’s partially buried drum kit impossibly glamorous, and I rather fancied the notion of Kurt Cobain incarnated in the starry glints of stage light rendered here in shimmering graphite-heavy drawings. Mark Handforth’s initially relaxed-looking installation reveals a fresh and disarmingly articulate command of materials and scale. From catalogue essayist Wayne Koestenbaum’s “fag limbo,” that sexual/ sartorial/artistic terrain vague more prosaically described elsewhere as the “new gay art,” I single out David Altmejd for an exemplary feat of double voicing. Altmejd’s perfectly over-the-top room-size assemblage of hair and costume jewelry (presented on a mirrored medley of platforms recalling simultaneously boutique displays and Sol LeWitt “Open Cubes”) makes of Surrealist style an absolute camp (not that it needs much help) but also, by redoubling the manner’s shopworn lunacy, restores its subterranean uncanniness. Finally, Jeremy Blake’s psychedelic portrait of a day in the life of ’60s designer Ossie Clark as he moves through the fashion and music demimondes of Swinging London makes me eager to take another look at an artist I had been too quick to dismiss as a poster boy for digital art’s seemingly forever-deferred promise of producing anything replete enough to make a difference. Clark’s diaries, read to vivid effect by all-tomorrow’s-parties personification Clarissa Dalrymple, further the beautifully sustained curatorial riff on self-styled art celebrities that ripples out from Hockney’s Swinging London swells (Hockney muse Celia Birtwell married Clark) through Peyton’s trite but true imaginings and crescendos on the psychedelic soundstage-cum-discotheque of assume vivid astro focus’s glorious spectacle of cronyism. An homage to avaf compeers and fellow Biennial artists Los Super Elegantes, this mod, mad, room-size installation serves as both collagist tribute and literal performance set for the fabulous, forever-up-and-coming, Hollywood-via-south-of-the-border, global-popist, self-promotional machine.

If, as Iles proposes, today’s art necessarily constitutes a “rejoinder” to the pop firmament, then the question isn’t whether but how the artist negotiates our inevitable place at popdom’s noisy vortex. In this respect, one can be grateful to the Whitney for a capacious view of the possibilities. It is my fondest hope—perhaps against hope?—that Peyton’s stylish star turns won’t come to stand for our times, but that doesn’t mean I’m throwing in my lot with the voracious pop love of an assume vivid astro focus either. I do glimpse potential tomorrows in the happy return of the open-armed futurism I associate with Pop before it crossed the ocean and hardened into a great art movement—but also in those more purposeful pop archaeologies (Julien, Bowers) and in lifestyle acts that ironize and perform today (Los Super Elegantes).

Repeat after me: Just what is it that makes today’s art so different, so appealing?

Jack Bankowsky is Artforum’s editor at large.

Dave Muller, . . . That Hollywood Adage: be nice to the people on the way up, because they’re the same people on the way down (detail), 2004, and Aleksandra Mir, No Smoking (detail), 2004, 1 of 16 signs installed throughout the galleries.

Banks Violette, burnout (fadeaway)/vol. 1, 2003 (center), and Judas Priest (Suicide Anthem), 2003 (wall painting). Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2004. Photo: Kate Lacey.

Virgil Marti, Grow Room 3, 2004. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2004. Photo: Jerry L. Thompson.

Thomas Burr, Blackout Bar, 2004. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2004. Photo: Kate Lacey.

Catherine Sullivan, Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land, 2003. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2004. Photo: Kate Lacey.

Barnaby Furnas, Martyr, 2003, and Suicide I, 2002. Photo: Jerry L. Thompson.

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