PRINT December 2009

Martin Herbert


1 “Isa Genzken: Open, Sesame!” (Whitechapel Gallery, London) A double event: One of London’s best-loved institutions reopened, and this stellar retrospective—the renovated Whitechapel’s inaugural show—landed in the East End like a disheveled but highly advanced spacecraft. This was a public service to most of us, who had previously been unable to consider Genzken’s achievement at full historical stretch. Curated by the Whitechapel’s Andrea Tarsia and by Kasper König and Nina Gülicher of the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, the show connected the dots (and illuminated the leaps) within three decades of roving artistic activity, roping together sleek sculptural ellipsoids, frottage abstractions, gaudily framed mises en abymes, photographs, and more, then modulating confidently into an extensive showcase for the German artist’s recent assemblages. This sea of glittering wreckage suggested not only an artist in her prime but one fashioning more eloquent visual analogues for the temper of twenty-first-century life than any of her peers—or, indeed, her juniors.

2 “In-Finitum” (Palazzo Fortuny, Venice) Particularly when seen alongside the benign involutions of Daniel Birnbaum’s Venice Biennale, “In-Finitum”—a rambling, three-hundred-work treatise on visual culture’s historical relation to the infinite—seemed almost deliriously ambitious. Navigating this labyrinthine walk-through Wunderkammer meant encountering anything from a five-thousand-year-old Egyptian vase to a 2008 photograph of a perpetually pumping oil derrick, and artists from Eugène Delacroix to Yves Klein, M. C. Escher to Grazia Toderi. Most extraordinarily, this wasn’t a collective admission of representation’s limits. In mapping centuries of struggle to render the ineffable, the curators (Daniela Ferretti, Francesco Poli, Giandomenico Romanelli, and Axel Vervoordt) produced something legitimately magnificent.

3 “Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting” (Hayward Gallery, London) Oof, indeed. Ruscha’s spacious paintings-only retrospective, curated by Ralph Rugoff, tracked half a century of refined restlessness on the part of a slyly affable, gimlet-eyed cultural critic and (while we’re at it) brilliant alchemist of Pop impulses, existential LA angst, and Conceptualist discipline. Though peaking in the decade after 1966, the show was consistently—to quote a work from 1983—a particular kind of heaven.

4 “Roni Horn aka Roni Horn” (Tate Modern, London) Grace under pressure? That’s Hemingway. Pressure under grace? That’s Horn, whose supremely poised midcareer survey, curated by Mark Godfrey of Tate Modern and by Donna De Salvo and Carter E. Foster of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, allowed febrile indeterminacy to peek out of—and to be projected onto—implausible formal control in dozens of different ways.

5 Biennale de Lyon (Lyon Museum of Contemporary Art and various venues, Lyon, France) A manual of strategies for reengaging and reenchanting the quotidian, “The Spectacle of the Everyday” looked densely populated on paper (some seventy artists, mostly clustered into two primary venues) but came off as nimble, brimming with pungent sculptural bricolage and footage of inventive urban performances. Curator Hou Hanru didn’t explicitly connect his bundle of fleet-footed, cost-effective sanguinities with the recent economic (and, consequently, psychological) weather; he didn’t need to.

6 Glenn Brown (Tate Liverpool, UK) Man finds theme: painting’s demise, expressed through zombified remakes of works by Frank Auerbach, Salvador Dalí, and Karel Appel, and then through grandly geeky enlargements of sci-fi book covers. Man reconsiders theme after diminishing returns, commences sideline in sculpture. Man shreds postmodernist primers; messes with Photoshop; discovers deep, hazy pictorial space that suggests the afterlife; evolves boggling vocabulary of melting forms, gaseous flesh, and necromantic figures; upgrades the latent melancholy of his earlier art; and winds up as the most enthralling British painter of his generation. All true, as demonstrated by the fifty-nine works curators Laurence Sillars (then of Tate Liverpool, now of BALTIC) and Francesco Bonami (artistic director of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy, to which the show traveled) pulled together for Brown’s knockout two-decade retrospective.

7 “Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia?” (Office for Contemporary Art Norway, Oslo) Banish those thoughts. Marta Kuzma’s latest panhistorical curatorial project for the OCA was about sexual politics and sex as politics, exploring how—from nineteenth-century Scandinavia to, in recent decades, the whole world—sexual freedoms have underwritten cultural and political ones. Stacks of historical materials, plus artworks by practitioners ranging from Edvard Munch to Lee Lozano to Thomas Bayrle, redoubled the arguments; at its rhetorical height, the show managed to insinuate that the old in-out explains everything about modern times.

8 Athanasios Argianas (Max Wigram Gallery, London) The stock-in-trade of this Athens-born, London-based artist is translation (visualizing sound, painting memory), but it’s how his subjectivity meets the viewer’s that makes his art a whirlpool of congenial anxiety. Here, something resembling a modernist brass birdcage was fitted with cardboard strips: miniature screens for looping footage of three women singing one line at staggered intervals. The music, whose elements slipped into and out of sync, fell somewhere between canon and chance event; the object—finessed and scrappy, partly held together with paper clips—seemed at once a sculptural paraphrase and an elaborate projection screen. Response had been anticipated, toyed with; interpretative space remained. “I was swept . . .,” the voices trilled. So was I.

9 Liz Arnold (Camden Arts Centre, London) The year’s most bittersweet return. Liz Arnold was a singularly offbeat Scottish-born artist whose suggestive yet perplexing paintings of insects, animals, and women in antiseptic interiors or in glowing, irradiated landscapes displayed her prodigiously wizardly way with composite tones: bright despair, naive wisdom, cartoonish unease. Tragically, she died of cancer in 2001 at the age of thirty-six. This—a labor of love for which the curators (artists Richard Kirwan, Brighid Lowe, Bridget Smith, and Daniel Sturgis) traced her work’s far-flung owners—was the wonderful retrospective Arnold should have lived to see.

10 Michael Snow (BFI Southbank Gallery, London) In Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids), 2002, light diffuses through a brownish curtain covering an open window in Snow’s log cabin, and the wind intermittently billows the curtain out, then sucks it back with a loud smack (against the air itself and, in formal terms, against the wall that the film is projected on), freeze-framing it in changeable patterns of folds—instant, generative, backlit compositions, as easy as breathing. Here’s nature as narrator: an infinitely extensible metaphor on the one hand, pure materialism on the other, accidental beauty all over the place. This goes on for sixty-two minutes. I could have watched it all day.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK; a regular contributor to Artforum; and the author, most recently, of catalogue essays on Rebecca Warren (Serpentine Gallery, London), “Compass in Hand” (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and Subodh Gupta (Hauser & Wirth, London). His monograph on Mark Wallinger is slated for publication by Thames & Hudson in early 2011.