New York

“The Last Decade”

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

What counts in a group exhibition, especially one in which each artist is represented by a single piece, is not so much the particular works—it will always be the case that some objects will seem more representative of an artist’s oeuvre than others—but the overarching idea that brings them all together. From the perspective of art history, “The Last Decade: American Artists of the 80’s” presents a crude cross section of the immediate past at the moment when it is about to pass into history, to lose contemporary significance and enter that tackiest and suavest of limbos where it retains living interest exclusively for economic and academic reasons. The selection of work exhibited here suggests that ’80s post-Modernist art was largely a response to Modernist avant-garde art, and that the character of the response was essentially perverse. Kitschified, either ironically or otherwise, earlier heroic styles were given an infusion of new life and meaning. (e.g., Ashley Bickerton’s use of constructivism, Mike Bidlo’s of Giorgio De Chirico, George Condo’s of Henri Matisse, Peter Halley’s of Formalism). Or else—and the effect is equally perverse—their forms and strategies were used to convey a message or serve a cause that defies their original purpose (e.g., Annette Lemieux’s deployment of the grid, Barbara Kruger’s involvement with fragmentation, and Meyer Vaisman’s reinvestment of ornament).

The major mode of perversity—it includes the aforementioned—involves the use of known styles in a calculatedly idiosyncratic manner. The ultimate purpose of this is not always clear—idiosyncrasy for its own sake does not seem the end, since it frequently generates a side effect of uncanniness—but its immediate effect is to create a sense of deviance, or difference beyond the return to the stylistic norm of departure. There is no attempt to create the sameness of true alikeness, but rather to gain distance from what has become conventional and acceptable—even canonical—without forgoing the resonance of the source material entirely. The effort is to create seemingly “invalid,” “illegitimate” art that depends on a prior sense of legitimacy. Examples abound, especially in works that bounce off high abstraction, as in the cases of Ross Bleckner, James Brown, Mark Innerst, Jonathan Lasker, Allan McCollum, Julian Schnabel, Gary Stephan, Haim Steinbach, Philip Taaffe, Meg Webster, and Terry Winters. Similarly, Doug and Mike Starn abstract and conceptualize Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and Mark Tansey does the same to the work of Michelangelo.

All the artists, in their various ways, work over past styles and their meanings in a manner that does not so much undo them as use them to make a difference that implies simultaneously identification with, and distancing from, their original meanings.This general phenomenon bespeaks separation anxiety—uncertainty that the new works can stand on their own or have anything to say that is really theirs. Such manufactured separation anxiety is the ultimate perversity, in that, while insisting upon difference—indeed, using it to poison the well of the selfsame—the larger point seems obscure. Modernist avant-garde art is still sometimes accused of stylistic arbitrariness; here the arbitrary has, I think, become a conscious end in itself, and the magical, involuted purpose of its perversity has become transparent: in the words of Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, “to make a mockery of the law by turning it ‘upside down.’” In this exhibition, the “law” is the avant-garde style that has become legitimate.

I want to suggest that post-Modernist perversity would like to renew the original purpose of Modernist perversity—to have its art-historical and psychosocial disruptiveness function critically—but cannot do so. The new perversity has no strong art-historical and psychosocial purpose, which is why, when a cause arises, it eagerly latches onto and assimilates it. David Wojnarowicz’s elegant integration of the current censorship issue into his work is a case in point. I am not saying that this peculiar sense of being at a loss issues in objects that are not perceptually resonant, but rather that they have a decadent, postheroic flavor.

This exhibition occurred in a gallery that feels more like a museum, which underscores post-Modernism’s newly institutionalized status. Thus, the works in the show wink out at us from under the self-conscious historical patina that their presentation here gives them. They instantly age, which doesn’t mean they mature into greater meaningfulness. Certainly their contemporaneity is compromised, if not canceled. They often seem more like wax than real fruit, and not just because they’re in a grand space, but also because of their inherently historicist character.

Donald Kuspit