New York

“The Hybrid State”

Exit Art

A fun-house rite de passage serves as introduction to “The Hybrid State.” The door to the gallery opens onto a small black-lit vestibule. Written in white on a door to a second chamber is the word “COLONIAL.” Banging your head on the “colonial,” which turns out to be a trick door (the upper half doesn’t open), you become wary. A door to the left is locked. A door to the right won’t open. In front of you the word “POST-COLONIAL” is written on Door Number Three—another booby trap—but by this time you are savvy enough not to hit your head. On a final door is the name of the exhibition. No tricks this time. Welcome to “The Hybrid State.”

The working premise of the exhibition is a twist on the idea of collaboration. The artists involved—Ida Applebroog, Luis Camnitzer, Juan Downey, Jimmie Durham, Ming Fay, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Nancy Grossman, David Hammons, Jerry Kearns, Juan Sánchez, Anton van Dalen, Cecilia Vicuña, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Martin Wong—did no more than consent to the show’s impresario and curator Papo Colo, who (along with Exit Art cofounder Jeanette Ingberman) created “portrait homages” of the artists’ work. Using the materials and iconography peculiar to each artist in various ways—Wodiczko’s The Homeless Vehicle, 1989, is presented in a virtually unaltered form, augmented only by a slide projector housed in its interior that shows images of Juan Downey’s video work on the wall, while another piece is fabricated from von Rydingsvard’s standard cedar four-by-fours, though the final form deviates from her characteristic efforts—Colo orchestrated a group of “simulacra” into a tightly woven curatorial web. This is emphasized by the loopy broad-sheet that dictates a connect the dots path from object to object. To this end, the fun house entrance is a just introduction to the show: it not only creates a liminal space between the life world and the art world, it also prefigures the totalizing process of curation to which visitor and artist are both subjected.

The Hybrid State is that no-man’s-land where Colo’s fabrications coalesce with the artists’ “essences” (his term). It is also an expressly multicultural state. Colo’s work has long seemed a reproach to the sort of mentality embodied by the Museum of Modern Art’s infamous “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition of 1984. Here, by bringing into play the ideas of artists like Durham, whose work directly addresses his Native American heritage, and Wodiczko, whose well-known Homeless Vehicle addresses a culture delineated not by ethnicity so much as by poverty, Colo seems to be trying to realize in nuce “a future utopia of cultural possibilities” that would unite disparate constituencies. Yet what exactly is the difference between the appropriations of primitivism and those of hybridism? Why is Picasso an evil imperialist while Colo is p.c. through and through? It is precisely a question of the difference between coercion and consent. The door to colonialism clobbers you on the head; the door to the Hybrid State allows you to enter with head held high.

Still, there is a dangerous ambiguity in Colo’s exhibition/utopia. The use that he makes of a body of eminently political art threatens, ironically, to neutralize it. It is not a matter of whether Colo’s fabrications live up to the originals: you could say that his rendition of Applebroog is less powerful, less cruel than the Applebroogs recently shown at Ronald Feldman, but to make such judgments would be to miss the point altogether. No single work matters in and of itself. This is not just because the works lack aura or commercial value (at least relatively speaking), but because their arguments are subsumed in the total orchestration of an idea: curation as fiction. It is a quintessentially po-mo idea, an ad lib on Roland Barthes’ reading as writing. Consequently, if political art attempts to move from theory to praxis, then Colo’s exhibition has the odd effect of nudging all of these works back in the other direction. Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle addresses a social issue; Colo’s Wodiczko addresses a theoretical issue. Thus Colo’s utopian enterprise ends up pertaining less to our own troubled polis than to that castle-in-the-air theoria and its post-Modern vassalage. Perhaps the problem is embodied by a rabbit named Free: ostensibly a part of Colo’s rendition of the work of Vicuña, his presence turns the whole gallery into a sort of Wonderland (Free is white). But how free is Free? Perhaps as much as a lab rat in a maze. He wanders freely around the show, but the gallery itself is a cage.

Keith Seward