Washington, DC

“Directions, 1983”

The overwhelming impression left by “Directions, 1983” was of good intentions. Not only was it a relief to come across a nonpolemical group show that attempted to be “honorable” (a stance that has perversely come to sound almost reactionary), but there were unexpected illuminations as a result of its good intentions—good intentions that included representation of more women than men (by one), a good number of relatively unknown artists, and as many unfashionable as fashionable trends.

Of the four directions in the show, the two most clearly isolated were limpest. Curatorially, “Melodrama” and “Expressionism” present a dilemma: they’ve already been done to death, but it’s impossible to ignore them in an exhibition that exists to document what’s been happening since 1981. Despite the fact that these two sections were freighted with a few more artists, they felt oddly noncommittal, less comprehensive than the other two. It was as if curator Phyllis Rosenzweig felt both obligation and ennui in the face of the irreducible fact of these “isms,” of their being so much with us. This may account for a certain economizing aspect to her survey. “Melodrama,” for instance, was made to do double duty: since all the melodramatists’ images were media-cloned, the section covered the tendency toward “appropriation” as well. One can sympathize with this thrifty telescoping. Surely by now, after truly definitive investigations, the mere mention of appropriation reminds us that Freud connected the death instinct with the compulsion to repeat. But an interesting if subtle genealogy was set up in this section: Alexis Smith and Ida Applebroog were seen as unacknowledged precursors of the “scavenging” tactics of Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and David Salle.

Not revision but expansion seemed to be the aim of “Expressionism”: the newcomers (Mary Jones and Pierre Picot) and the formerly excluded (Elizabeth Murray) comprised the majority, leaving the “epics” of Julian Schnabel and Jonathan Borofsky looking bowdlerized. Borofsky in particular is so absolutely an installation artist that to abstract two of his paintings from the context that makes sense of them did damage, even though Borofsky’s iconoclasm remained impervious to glamorization. With one canvas left in its plastic wrapping and both sitting on the floor, one was startled into the momentary if illusory triumph of having caught a museum in dishabille.

It may have been wishful thinking to put forward the architectural sculpture of “From the Model” (even Judith Shea’s clothing pieces are sheds for the body) and the environmental installations of “Real Space/Illusion” as “directions.” They’re more like prevailing winds trying to cool down the current lava flow of expressionism, new realism, and graffiti art. Even the trickle of neo-naturalist abstraction is more beforehand. But to have included all of these developments (or more accurately reemergences) would certainly have bowed the show under the weight of the times. Instead there was a bracing modulation about these sections that allowed at the very least for the pleasures of rereading a minor classic (Siah Armajani), of making a new acquaintance (Robert Wilhite), or of meeting old friends whom one still admires but already knows well (Shea, Scott Burton). At its best it gave us Elyn Zimmerman’s installation, which can only be described as a showstopper—an at once grandiose and muted spectacular of vectors of natural and artificial light, of shadows, stone walls, and gravel pits. Richard Lippold visits Merzbau. At its most provocative “Real Space/Illusion” even managed to suggest a connection between women and installation art that could be the subject of an exploratory exhibition of its own.

The Sensurround art, the environments, were left for last, perhaps as a kind of climax carefully prepared for by the architectural fragments and furniture—first the contents of the room, then the room itself. The viewer was led from the smallest work, Smith’s, to the last and largest, Zimmerman’s; in other words one went from being on the outside looking in (particularly with the keyhole perspective on Smith’s pieces provided by their heavy and eccentric frames) to being inside, from voyeurism to participation. Spying, watching through windows is an overt theme for Applebroog and Kendall Buster, a covert one for Armajani. If voyeurism is the characteristic action of an audience, the stages set by Zimmerman and Buster (with props by Burton and Wilhite, scenery by Armajani, and costumes by Shea) are the domain of the actor. In this sense the “Melodrama” section became more than a nod to the scene; it was the encircling principle of “Directions,” claiming primary position in the show’s layout and subordinating the entire film program under its aegis. There was an overriding reference to the stage, to performance, even among the expressionists whose program might be expected to be less rehearsed. As Rosenzweig noted, Mary Jones’ work reiterates “stagelike settings.” Borofsky forewent his usual stagecraft but critiqued the staginess of the museum, taking us behind the scenes. Both Burton and Wilhite are performers who have used their objects in performance. Longo’s and Sherman’s use of film stills is well known, and Sherman’s work here not only presents the stock character of the “femme fatale,” both as seducer and as punished scarlet woman, but also reveals the social function of that role, the price paid by the actress: the femme fatale is shown as scapegoat, empathic shock absorber for violent emotions, wrapping herself in the sodden comfort of masochism. And Salle, in A Number of My Subjects, 1981, literally specifies woman as proscenium in sketches of stages, one of which involves a trapdoor, superimposed on a prone female nude. Sex as the base for presentation of the self and possible cause of its disappearance.

The progression was circular: leaving the Zimmerman room and reentering the melodrama area one had walked in a 360-degree rotation. Not an about-face but a continuity was suggested between the sex and violence of the first wave and the cool authority of the last. Zimmerman’s shafts of light and massive graystones, despite their purity, have much in common with the luridness of Piranesi’s prisons. This melodramatic circuit—exaggerated emotion combined with stage presence—may be the ultimate unstated but incisive appraisal of the past two years that “Directions” had to offer us.

Jeanne Silverthorne