New York

“A Distanced View”

New Museum

The fall season gave rise to a range of acts of retribution. The most coherent and illuminating of the many exhibitions that aimed at redressing errors supposedly perpetuated by the recent blitz of German and Italian neoExpressionist art was “A Distanced View,” organized by Lynn Gumpert. “The hype of German and Italian neoExpressionism,” writes Gumpert in her catalogue essay, “has obscured our awareness of the current state of affairs in the other European countries and of artists working outside the dominant modes of painting and sculpture.” For this reason Gumpert focused on art employing mixed and reproducible media and restricted her exhibition to four countries (Belgium, France, Germany, and Holland), “a geographic concentration,” she notes, “that presents a representative, if limited sampling of the range of contemporary art practices abroad.” It is to her credit that her choice of 14 artists (including two collaborative teams, Fortuyn/O'Brien and BazileBustamante) is not representative, that it doesn't delineate a “current state of affairs.” “A Distanced View” picks up on a single clear, very insistent strain in contemporary practice that piqued Gumpert's sensibility.

Many works in this exhibition were made by artists who, though influenced by Minimalism and Conceptualism, are of a less analytic cast than their predecessors. Instead, there's a somewhat quizzical, whimsical and, not infrequently, fey element to their art. As the title suggests, much of this art manifests a detached stance that is resistant to personal subjectivity; it also tends toward the use of mechanical means of reproduction: hence the prevalence of photography, video, and slide installations, and the general recourse to mass media references. Underlying it seems to be an attempt to secure for art a broader cultural location, whether through strategies such as “domestic” allusions (Fortuyn/O'Brien) or the esthetic reworking of press photographs (Gea Kalksma, Astrid Klein). Evading dominant modes, it produces hybrids of media (slides and sound; wood, lacquer, and photographs); hybrids of categories (Katherina Fritsch's tables, chairs, and bookcases straddling sculpture and furniture, or Fortuyn/O'Brien's scrim-covered architectural walls); and hybrids of verbal and visual modes, for the overwhelming influence here is Marcel Broodthaers. Much of this work is, at its core, installation art and, as such, focuses on its own conditions of exhibition. Yet it more obviously manifests a search to produce the kind of object that is oddly unsettling.

Although Gumpert's essay makes much of these artists' attempt to redefine their function in society (or, more precisely, the relation of the artist to society), these works seem most motivated by the notion of the poetic assemblage. This conceit, which has a lengthy European history, is updated here to its contemporary version, the assembled form that is both evocative and provocative, actively engaging the viewer, but that eludes the hold of analysis. At its best this results in dazzling ersatz objects: witness BazileBustamante's bizarre conjunctions of wood, iron, plastic, and paint and their “coffin” for Francis Ford Coppola (La Coppola, 1985). At its worst, it ends in lumbering whales of works, like Niek Kemps' Mouches Volantes (Flying flies, 1984), which precariously balances two pieces of reflective plate glass over flowered-wallpaper-covered standards. Somewhere in the middle lies art that seems to circulate on its esthetic treadmill, such as Marie Bourget's plays with a frame, wall plaque, and pedestal (, 1985), Lili Dujourie's constructions employing neo-Baroque velvet swathes (La Tosca, 1984), or Jan Vercruysse's Artschwagerish arrangements of mahogany mantelpiece elements (Atopies [IV], 1985). Such practices seem less about issues of representation than about art, and about the presentational devices that circumscribe it. The recourse to influences here is undeniable: even Gerard Collin-Thiebault's installations, which juxtapose minute projected drawings after film images to disjunctive soundtracks, betray a debt to Giovanni Anselmo's extremely sensitive slide-projected examinations of their context.

Yet the larger problem with work claiming to be metaphoric, multifaceted, or, more elusively, “undescribable” is that all you can ever do is describe it: it avoids making points or treating issues, preferring to titillate the spectator with obliquities. Masquerading under an impression of quiet charm, the kind that you can't quite pin down but sense all the same, this work is at once arresting and evasive, combative and playful. Hence its fey quality, and its doubly “distanced” character. I wouldn't call it “the New European art,” but it represents a clear, persistent strain in current continental practice that we are now seeing in one of its first expositions.

Kate Linker