New York

Group Material

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

One aspect of recent painting that has not yet been much discussed is its obsession with collecting, and with the display of such activity. It is not simply that the work is collectible, but that in its very structure it is concerned with collecting, with amassing a fortune of detail and information with which to dazzle us. Images and styles, materials and methods, clichés and quotations are piled dazzlingly on top of piles. These great collections are then spread across a great deal of space, and in as many galleries as can be arranged at once, so that we may admire their accumulated power. On the face of it the results are impressive, as all such shows of force are meant to be. But the impression soon sours, resistance builds, and discerning viewers begin to notice a certain hollowness to it all.

Group Material has been addressing this empty rhetoric of property relations over the past few years, coordinating large group shows that purposefully downplay the value of individual contributions in favor of an interplay of ideas between theme and context. Their contribution to this winter’s broad-based action “Artists Call against US Intervention in Central America” was a display of collectibles, a display of power and ownership. Some of the commodities that were on show have directly enriched a few landowners and enslaved everyone else in the region—coffee, bananas, copper, cotton, tobacco. Others were more indirect, but equally devastating—the commodities of cultural exchange; art work of all kinds. There were satires from Honoré Daumier to George Grosz to Barbara Kruger, paintings of all kinds, up-to-the-minute contemporary art and dopey agitprop, documentary photographs and more arty ones, even appearances by Tina Modotti and Diego Rivera. Some of the art could be seen as liberating, some clearly was not. Some of it came through clean, some looked compromised. This unsettling contradiction was the point of the show; no answers were posited, the authority of any solution was shunned. Instead, Group Material took a variety of objects, ideas, and representations and placed them together in such a way that they might begin a discourse on power as it has developed in a particular place. This context was provided by a red line that encircled the room at eye level, a line marked with dates when U.S. domination of the area reached a crisis and military action was taken, from Uruguay in 1868 to Grenada in 1983. Festooned with its commodities, the line was an image of the continuity of power, an enveloping image that was broken only intermittently.

Those seeking exact correspondences between dates and display items would have been disappointed, for the evidence was put to a different use. A point-by-point demonstration would simply have been another accretion of power, another construction of influence. Group Material attempted something else, attempted to bring the viewer to an understanding that any accumulation of assets, be they dollars, arms, objects, or images, is necessarily accompanied by a need to dominate those with less; and that the politics on West Broadway are little different from those on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Thomas Lawson