New York


Kent Fine Art

Picture an alternative art history that begins in the late 18th century, bypasses Modernism but includes Modernist-influenced imagery from film and advertising, and winds up in 1987 with eccentrics like Mark Tansey, Mark Innerst, and Troy Brauntuch. This was the apparent premise behind “Fictions,” a two-gallery exhibition of 46 works curated by Douglas Blau, and the catalogue that accompanied it. I say “apparent premise” because everything about this event—from its title (a reference to Ficciones, a book of stories by Jorge Luis Borges) to the way the compulsively uniform installation made the pictures look like reproductions of themselves—suggested that Blau had more in mind than the provincial museum show that greeted the eye.

Most of the independently curated exhibitions that seem to dominate gallery programming of late sport titles that function cosmetically, not unlike the French article Le did in relation to cars and restaurants of the early ’80s. By conferring membership in a trend, curators give group shows a beautiful coat of fog. In the company of such blurs, “Fictions” made a strong first impression by virtue of its quirky, eclectic roster of artists, and a theme that was actually carried out by the artworks and not just decorated with them.

The works looked slightly more ominous in Kent’s space uptown, which had partly to do with how much white wall was left exposed by generally tiny pictures, and partly to do with the preponderence of sci-fi imagery (mostly movie stills) whose tone seemed to rub off on cooler neighbors like Cindy Sherman’s black-and-white photograph Untitled Film Still, 1979, and David Deutsch’s ink drawing Untitled, 1982. At Curt Marcus’ space downtown, the show looked more conventional, and, as a result, a few pictures stood out: Charles Stephens’ 1879 oil on cardboard An Anatomical Lecture by Dr. William Williams Keen seemed a minor piece of perfection, and an oft-reproduced 1950 landscape by Maxfield Parrish was weirdly sumptuous and erotic in the flesh.

In the catalogue, Blau reproduced the works from the show—plus almost 60 additional works—in a steely blue monochrome that forced all of them into a relationship by trying to disguise the ways in which the different media and periods clashed. Because he’d limited his choices to representational imagery (predominantly landscapes, group portraits, and movie stills), the blue tone gave them the appearance of tinted historical photographs, an impression reinforced by their simple, regular layout on the pages of the catalogue, like snapshots pressed into a family album.

Blau’s catalogue essay, an evocative Borgesian story in which a 1930s essayist’s two pseudonyms spring magically to life only to find that they disagree violently, functioned with the rest of the catalogue and the show as a kind of third rail, empowering but not overwhelming everything. The whole was intricate and polished, and certainly Blau set his sights higher than many curators have dared to this season. Despite its ambitions, however, “Fictions” still seemed intellectually stalled, one of the class acts among recent group shows but a placebo nonetheless.

Dennis Cooper