New York

“Monumental Show”

Gowanus Memorial Artyard

The Gowanus Monumental Show received mixed recognition as this spring’s artist-organized “event,” and was claimed by some as the heir apparent to the Times Square Show of last summer. The latter was full of urban pop art, whose esthetic, generally speaking, derived from the more secretive, ultimately private side of city life—the scrawled threats and obscene, absurd endearments of bathroom graffiti, or the individual’s isolated and isolating encounters with violence, fear, and poverty on city streets. In the far more ambitious Monumental Show the work was more public, less aggressive (size notwithstanding), and less personal. There was little of the sex and violence that dominated the Times Square Show; those concerns seemed to have found more abstract, apocalyptic expression. Despite recurrent overtones of 1984 and Judgment Day, much of the work here exhibited a fanciful, if self-conscious playfulness that gave the show an air of rowdy pageantry.

Organized by Michael Keane, George Moore, and Frank Shifreen, and located in a desolate part of Brooklyn, the show had one major curatorial requirement: size. Artists’ works had to be able to fill a 20-by-20-foot space. Nevertheless, one was forced to puzzle over the issue of their “monumentality.” The great majority of works were physically and conceptually precarious and ephemeral. In the end their size was the only feature that brought them even close to the category of monumental art. Monumental works, be they presidential memorials or skyscrapers. are invariably products of officially sanctioned culture. They are the state’s attempt to stave off time, its bid for immortality—its adornment and its self-justification. Inherent in monumental art is a fundamental intolerance of the individual that is the opposite of the freedom of diversity whose praises are sung by Michael Keane in the catalogue’s opening statement. Monuments cannot tolerate the least intimation of fragility, obsolescence, or the ephemeral nature of political and cultural values—the very qualities that found their own paradoxical monument here.

The initial impact of the show was overwhelming. The visitor was bombarded by a motley of constructions, paintings, drawings, and installations, of the most varied styles, sizes, and degrees of accomplishment. The space was so thoroughly cluttered from floor to ceiling that the effect was not one of immensity or of monumentality, but of the vision being obscured. I kept wanting to push away the cobwebs, unveil the art, and locate the point from which perspective would reassert itself and the work could be seen clearly. But no such point existed; the eye was offered no respite. Works and styles impinged upon one another, vying for attention.

Some pieces may have suffered as a result, but this competition generated a tension and energy without which many works would have paled into details of sloppy technique, incoherent subject matter, or general wooziness of conception and execution. The chaos that confronted the viewer was, overall, challenging and productive, and though it certainly held court, it did not reign supreme. Upon scrutiny, the self-conscious, art-student, carnival atmosphere yielded tentative themes and curious accords. None had the hallmarks of deliberate curatorial direction—more akin to the influence of zodiacal houses, they were ideas in the air that found sympathetic vibrations in the most varied of works.

One of the most unexpected and intriguing of these “sympathetic vibrations” was the presence of so much work exhibiting a fascination with a complex of myth, ritual, science, and religion. A sincere engagement with current international (more than domestic) politics was also clearly in evidence. Some works combined all of the above.

Part of the impulse behind this seemed to be a desire to appeal to a common-sense denominator—to make art that would be “accessible.” Another was to make art that would confront the viewer and directly affect our perceptions of the issues of the day. Yet another major impetus to the “school or no school” (cf. catalogue) diversity of work in the show was the almost compulsive need on the part of the artists to break away from genre categories into a rough-and-ready, eccentric individualism. (That this individualism turned out to be deceptive does not lessen the authenticity of the need.)

The most obvious example of Christian/political metaphor was Paulette Nenner’s Crucified Coyote: He Died Because of Our Sins, the notorious environmental protest piece that was removed by the parks commissioner from Central Park’s “Animals in the Arsenal” show in the spring. A preserved coyote was nailed to an eleven-foot-high crucifix inscribed with “Mortus est peccatis nostris.” The cross cast a long “shadow” bearing the opening words of the First Amendment. It was accompanied by a written explanation of the work’s meaning and the circumstances of its censorship. Renamed Davis’ Coyote after Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, the coyote itself was shrouded in a black mortuary bag for the Monumental Show. Though the tone of the explanation was a bit heavy-handed (“. . . humanity’s dangerous alienation . . . manifest in [the] . . . brutality and sadism prevalent in such traditions as predator damage control . .”) and the metaphoric use of the crucifix not well thought out, the piece provided a strong visual focal point.

Near the entrance door lay Frank Shifreen’s torn and frayed papier-mâché and wire-mesh, expressionist man. This lone figure, a sort of modern, anonymous Christ just removed from the cross and left to rot on the floor seemed to be trying to pull himself on through the exhibition, almost in parody of the viewer. He possessed a pathos to which many works in the show aspired, but which few achieved. Nearby was another Shifreen installation of giant wire-mesh and wood robot men.

Adjacent to the Coyote piece, and complementing it quite effectively, was a large polyptych by George Moore. It was a mostly black, abstract-but-biomorphic, “new-expressionist” iconostasis entitled New York City 1981, lacking a bit in substance for such a loaded form. Opposite this was another iconostasis: a collaborative installation by Joe Lewis, Carmen Spera, and Jennifer Stein. The visitor could settle down in a decorated rocking chair placed before a three-panel door/altar. The glass panes in the left-hand door were painstakingly etched with illustrations of objects, mostly tools; the central section contained a clear arc-shaped window; the right-hand side was etched with animals. The wooden frames of each section were covered with Pollock and Miró-like drip decoration. Sharp-edged, hanging glass “maps” of poor and violent areas of the world (El Salvador, the South Bronx . . .) were visible through the glass of the main panel. Below the maps was a pile of sand on which the name “Bobby” had been written.

The jagged glass (danger and fragility) and sand (constantly shifting), were used to evoke the precariousness of life in such “trouble spots.” This altar to world revolution intended to threaten the complacency of rocking-chair revolutionaries and other passive observers: seated in the chair, one’s attention was drawn to a cut-out painting of a gun perched on the top of the door and aimed right at the viewer’s forehead. Perhaps because it was a collaboration, Domino Theory managed to avoid simplistic propagandizing.

Both the heavens and the lower depths were represented. Star Chamber by Mark Rowley offered a dim view of heaven. Gowanus Monument to the Last Survivor by Alan Stoltzfus required the viewer to climb up stairs only to descend more stairs into a graffiti-covered, black light-lit tomb containing morbid memorabilia. Resurfacing after this descent into Hades, the viewer was next confronted by Walter Sunday’s blue painted devil leering down from above.

The work of a collaborative group called TODT effectively transformed a whole corner of the show into a fetishistic, futuristic shrine. Neatly printed handouts entitled “Science and the Citizen” contained grammatically nonsensical manifestos; impersonal and threatening, they read as if they’d been punched out by a Dr. Strangelove computer. This New Wave-Joseph Beuys installation exhibited an equal fascination with “The Twilight Zone” and with science-fiction set design. Devoid of the primordial, macabre sense of human history that tinges Beuys’ work with tragedy, this work was disturbingly sterile. Its effect relied too heavily on “special effects” and on an almost voyeuristic desire to scare. The group’s name is as disturbing as their work—and a quick indication of their esthetic. (Fritz Todt was the founder of a paramilitary organization which employed slave labor under Hitler.)

At the political end of the monumental spectrum two pieces were of particular note. Tom Klem’s El Salvador I was a stark, powerful installation—a sheet of reflecting Mylar hung from the ceiling of the building’s dank, flooded basement. Even without its title, the formal elegance of the installation, contrasting with, and indeed almost overwhelming the stench and filth of the site, was impressive. Norman Tuck’s Monument to the Forth International (sic) was a wonderful, whimsical construction that compositionally and thematically played off Tatlin’s monument. As you turned the crank, the circular monument whirled, while its red and silver banners whirred. Flayed by the wind, they became more and more ragged—not boding well for a Fourth International.

The flirtations with good and evil in the Monumental Show became overt in Komar and Melamid’s installation: a life-size, full-length portrait of Hitler, installed on an easel and flanked by pots of flowers. Painted in the tradition of classical portraits of political leaders (such as Jean-Antoine Gros’ romanticized portrait of the young Napoleon, and Dmitrii Levitski’s portrait of Catherine the Great), it was clearly intended to provoke the morass of contradictory feelings, praise, outrage, and bewilderment that did in fact ensue. Given the current rise in anti-Semitism, the Moral Majority, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Nazi Party, in this country alone, this painting (by two Jews) is a brilliant, gutsy warning. The execution of this forbidden subject is completely straightforward. Though not idealized, it resembles many portraits done during Hitler’s lifetime.

During the show’s brief existence the painting was attacked—knocked down and trampled. People identifying themselves as members of the Jewish Defense League threatened the artists, their gallery, and the show’s organizers. Finally the painting was knifed. A large gash pierced the Führer’s heart. It was initially thought that the JDL was responsible, but the artists later received a call from a man claiming to belong to an extreme, left-wing group, who said that he had done it because he was tired of irony. Irony there is, of course.

Such collaborative, artist-organized extravaganzas as the Monumental Show have been awkward and unwieldy in many respects, and thus vulnerable to much criticism. However, they perform an invaluable service to both artist and viewer, providing at least as much food for thought, random and unfocused as it may be, as do the delicately prepared, directed esthetics of galleries and museums. Young artists have the opportunity to see their work next to that of their peers, and to become their own viewers and critics; the spectator is forced to expand his or her notions about art, and the circumstances under which it is shown. In this age of cutbacks in cultural funding, such artistic acts of “self-reliance and independence” are perhaps the only antidote to government- and market-induced stagnation.

Jamey Gambrell

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