“The Analytical Theatre: New Art from Britain”

“The Analytical Theatre: New Art from Britain,” a traveling exhibition organized by Independent Curators Incorporated, offers a strong and interesting selection of works, marred, however, by the overall concept by which curators Milena Kalinovska and Michael Newman have tried to link together a broad variety of approaches in recent British art. Newman, in his catalogue essay, proposes a shorthand way of reading post-Modem art and then strains to fit these 24 works by ten British artists into that framework.

Here, “analytical theatre” does not derive from Freud’s theatrum analyticum (mentioned by Newman in passing); only Helen Chadwick’s Ego Geometria Sum, 1983, addresses psychoanalytic themes. Rather, “analytical” refers to the Conceptual/Minimalist model, and “theatre” revives the “theatricality” that Diderot first condemned—the assumption that the beholder’s imagined presence informed a work of art. Although it is true that much post-Modem art erects a series of frames through which the viewer must pass in order to read the work’s references, the notion is therefore not particularly new, and the way the curators have elucidated it does not apply systematically to all the art presented here. Nevertheless, hidden within the frequently obscure prose are several nuggets, insightful ideas that point in too many directions and thus remain undeveloped, such as art as “writing” or “speech,” the staging of representation, and the viewer-interpreter’s role in an open-ended process of signification.

Edward Allington’s rhapsodic The Groan as a Wound Weeps, 1984, is a literal utterance. He has created a static flow of image-systems, in the form of a curving wave of plastic tomatoes that spill from an iridescent comucopia of imitation Baroque rocaille, an orifice seemingly suspended in midair. Aligning the menstrual blood (the womb’s weeping) that Jews deem an abomination with Jesus’ blood that angels caught in cups, Groan criticizes the misogyny of our culture’s idea of the sacred. The orthodoxy that would deny women control of their bodies or admission to the ministry is emblemized by the academy, an institution deconstructed by all of these artists, but especially by Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, John Murphy, and John Wilkins. (In fact, “The Analytical Academy” would have been a more effective title for this show.) Art & Language’s painting Index: Incident in a Museum (3), 1985, is part of a series that shows the Whitney Museum of American Art as a Chinese box the walls of which are stenciled with “surf”—short for “waves” of surfeit, a jab at the Whitney’s policy of excluding all but American art (which, as the recent Guerilla Girls’ critique of the Biennial makes clear, is almost exclusively art by American white men). The academy/salon/museum that codifies in order to confine and then exclude is the subject, too, of Chadwick’s Ego Geometria Sum.

The contentious yet contemplative spirit of James Coleman’s slide projection Connemara Landscape, 1980, and Avis Newman’s monumental mixed-media drawings from the series Figure Who No One Is . . . , 1983–84, is also present in Olivier Richon’s “Academy,” 1985. In this series of six color photographs of staged tableaux (of which four were shown here), each one accompanied by a photographically reproduced text in white on black and framed like the photograph, Richon transforms the literary into the literal. Each tableau features an anomalous juxtaposition of a stuffed animal and apparently unrelated objects (e.g., a monkey posed next to a book and a framed text displayed on an easel, a peacock next to a hammer and a sculptural reproduction of a polyhedron from a Diner print). In addition, there is a text that refers to the Academy, the garden where Plato taught his students, and to a 17th-century essay that describes Plato’s garden/school in teens of emblematic elements. Richon calls into question how we interpret what we see, and demonstrates that this process of attribution is arbitrary and thus continually subject to revision. Richon’s point is particularly cogent here, as the show’s title is itself an act of attribution, erecting a frame that is theoretical and imagistic.

The box—so prominent an image in the academy/camera of Richon, in the studio/casket of Chadwick, and in the museum/Chinese box of Art & Language—symbolizes the melancholy orderliness and the sense of constriction imposed by a social theater that, in response to waves of immigration, has “closed in,” maintaining an institutionalized class system in spite of Britain’s increasingly moribund economy. Perhaps the strategy of this show’s title and catalogue essay is to distract us from examining these works in light of their place of origin, as if the curators feared that the works would be read as coming from the provinces of Great Britain—and the exhibition as coming from the provinces of America—and thus dismissed as lying “outside the frame.”

Maureen Bloomfield