New York

“Body Politic”

Tower Gallery

Fashion is no stranger to the domain of art, so it’s not surprising that the most serious and salient topics should enter the commercial market. Over the past year we’ve been told that political art is a “hot” subject, a “new” direction—in short, a trendy topic. Through a manifestation of historical amnesia, such consumerism serves to shelve a reputable political past behind the latest intellectual commodity. It also reduces issues to tissue, to wrapping paper for the packaging of products.

Contemporary discourse, however, has an important and expansive focus in the political investment of the body—the innumerable coercions, constraints, and repressions exerted through the subjection of the human form. Yet you’d never have recognized this theme in “Body Politic,” curated by Steven L. Kaplan. Basically the show was a big, brassy, figurative ensemble, tying together myriad bodies with the ribbon of a title. The exhibition announcement promised a shopper’s sampling of modish topics, outlined in capitals and bombastically phrased. “Media Manipulation of the Feminine,” read one slogan, while another offered “Alienation and the Confrontation of Identity.” “Obsessions of the American Libido,” in contrast, sounded promising indeed. But what about “High Corporate Capitalism and Its Discontents”? Or “Architecture as Institutionalized Body: Metaphors of Stone and Flesh”? Faced with some of these captions, with their rhetorical diction and intellectual pretensions, you really had to laugh.

The major question, though, concerns the critical perspective revealed by the curatorial inclusions. This group show, the press release told us, dealt with “political expression as a concern of contemporary figurative art.” Yet judging from the evidence, Kaplan’s sense of the political is remarkably pliable, while his notion of its expression hews to illustrative means. What, after all, is political about Richard Bosman’s agrarian mystery, its melodramatic mood and stereotyped characters enhanced by juicy paint? Consulting Kaplan’s caption index, I find an appropriate reference in “Murder,” a reading that reduces issues to iconography and discourse to depicted forms. Similarly, Richard Hambleton’s splashy pyrotechnics appear to fall within the compass of “Visions of Nuclear Holocaust.” Within this curatorial domain, there was lots of fancy footwork as figures raced over canvas and photographic paper. Some of the scenes were pointedly political, as in the lithe female bodies bounding across Nancy Spero’s scrolls (“The Voice of Feminism”?). Some showed a cogent use of stereotypes, as in Nancy Dwyer’s Censored: Boss Attack, 1983, or May Stevens’ Big Daddy thug. But others were purely narrative, as in Lady Pink’s and Jenny Holzer’s collaborative subway scene. And still others seemed chosen for shock rather than critical value, as with Jimmy de Sana’s sexy sights. At its worst, Kaplan’s show tried to manufacture political meanings, as with Tseng Kwong Chi’s silly and self-indulgent photographs of his person posed before Disneyland, the Tower of London, et al (“East Meets West: Touristic Iconography of National Monuments”?).

Throughout the show there was a confusion between a contemporary image and its political projection, the latter often lying in the beholder’s eye. Moreover, there was an all-encompassing urge that rendered interchangeable the salient and the small. Surely Kaplan relished the contradiction between this “political” show and its locus, the spacious, airy penthouse of one of New York’s 19th-century department stores. Yet what he produced was a consumer’s dream, a shopper’s paradise, a Bloomingdale’s of issues as shimmering signs.

Kate Linker