New York

“The New Capital”

White Columns

This show seemed to promise more than it delivered, though not from problems in structure or conception. Instead, its difficulties appeared intrinsic to the task of mapping an interesting but indefinable region in the relations between esthetics and culture.

Organized by Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo, “The New Capital” drew together the very diverse work of some 16 artists. Its thesis concerned the role of photography (or, rather, of photomechanical reproduction) in this last fifth of the 20th century; rather than aping Walter Benjamin, it transmuted his theory into the contemporary vernacular, dealing with the reification of visual forms. Underlying it was a discourse on the progressive abstraction marking late capitalist society, an abstraction by which the characteristics of reproduction—most notably, its surfaces—acquire the force of values in and of themselves. Opaque, shimmering, and, paradoxically, dense, such superficial forms circulate according to the law of exchange that directs the commodity; as visual signifiers, they testify to a loss of meaning or content, since their referents (the forms reproduced) are absorbed into the hallucinating power of the impacted surface. This process, of course, mimes the arbitrary structure of language whose radical consequences were glimpsed at our century’s turn. Yet in “The New Capital” it is updated according to a commercial dynamic: logos, corporate slogans, and decontextualized language comprise a contemporary landscape, the environment of reified life.

The most impressive works here—those by Sarah Charlesworth, Vicky Alexander, Meyer Vaisman, and Peter Nagy—allude to this derooting of reference, and to the accompanying valorization of surface qualities. Figures, faces, and logos float free from sources, to live a subliminal afterlife as objectified sheen; in some cases (like Vaisman’s clock) they become functional objects, while elsewhere (in Nagy’s work) structures of meaning are transmuted into pattern. Yet these works also testify to other forces operative in material transformations, for their images are refashioned into icons. And, as the curators suggest, the fascination exerted by the emanations of these processes has a near-dictatorial role. It points to the product’s power in commercialized society, and it impels suspicion about the moving efficacy of effects. We are subservient to the image, swayed by the spectacle, mindless of the hollowness of its forms.

As I imply, such suggestive speculation inspires yearning for a more definitive statement. However, it should not be subsumed under the rubrics of categories or movements (as Collins and Milazzo tend to do, through references to “pictorial optimalism”). For the moment, such tentative exhibitions provide “valuable” indications of what emerges on the cultural edge.

Kate Linker