New York

“Greater New York”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

“Greater New York” sprawls. With two museums, thirty curators, one hundred and forty-nine artists, and neither catalogue nor stated mission, the show obviates usual questions of cohesion and taste. P.S.1 director Alanna Heiss dodges the bullet in the press release: Referring to the show as a “laboratory,” she offers, somewhat vaguely, “The artists reveal what it is to be a New Yorker at the beginning of a new era.” Capturing the contemporary is a paradoxical task complicated here by the fact that P.S.1 is now an affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art (which, as anyone who has visited Fifty-third Street lately knows, is having a tough time with the past, never mind the present). Balancing the young, unknown stars of tomorrow (P.S.1’s arena) with well-established artists (moma territory) raises the stakes, with no clear outcome.

As a result, “Greater New York” resists reviewing. Perhaps the only thing that emerges with any decisiveness is that new New Yorkers seem to inhabit very small studios: Much of the work is modest in scale, either in its overall dimension or in the size of the bits and pieces that compose it. Rob de Mar’s tiny oases perch atop tall pedestals; Clara Williams’s quiet pastoral is desktop-size; and Michael Ashkin’s diorama reprieves his signature minimal miniaturism. Mick O’Shea’s Artworld, 1999, a model train set, is a little too cute to function as an effective critique of its semi-serious subject. Taking on the still deeper issues of progress and technology, Paul Etienne Lincoln’s brass-and-aluminum New York–New York (model), 1999, and Julian LaVerdiere’s ghostly installation of a ship model fare better with a straight-faced approach. The collective BIG ROOM’s deceptively recessive representation of an airport tunnel and Roxy Paine’s faux fungi win you over with sheer technical bravado. Admiring the intensity of the illusions, it’s hard not to ooh and aah.

The best painting and drawing tends toward the small as well, most notably Ruth Root’s oils on paper, which keep playfulness on the right side of whimsy; James Siena’s more geometric paintings; Tim Gardner’s watercolors of young men; and David Dupuis’s wonderful biomorphic drawings. Also in evidence is the funny subgenre of “chart art.” Its best-known practitioner is the late Mark Lombardi, who details political conspiracies in antiseptically clean flowcharts. Erik Parker does the same for the art world—albeit as a fan, not a critic—detailing a family tree of influences from high to low. My favorite charts are by Elizabeth Campbell, who mixes free association and free-floating anxiety to map out various choices in love, career, and diet and to detail their consequences, which range from stardom to extreme weight gain.

The multimedia work offers more diversity in form and content. The flickering quality of 16 mm film, together with a voice-over, infuses Matthew Buckingham’s collection of old movies with nostalgic beauty. Balancing this backward glance, Paul Pfeiffer’s digital video of a bouncing basketball is frenetically, futuristically dense. I also liked Alex Ku, Steve Choo, and Kelly Chang’s animated video The Tree, 1999, in which spare drawings jerk merrily along, illustrating a couple’s singsong romance gone seriously awry. Javier Tellez gives us a similarly cheery/dark polarization with his birdhouse-madhouse video installation, appropriately scored with the song “Volare.” Tellez isn’t the only one with a sound track: Jude Tallichet and Stephen Vitiello in particular demonstrate how new art increasingly incorporates sound.

No matter how panoramic its view, “Greater New York” inevitably omits large segments of the art being made in New York today, particularly that operating within stricter theoretical frameworks. So the objects that made it into the show formulate but one of many possible statements about “new New Yorkers.” Just as the large-scale painting of the late ’40s said something about art and society, maybe the scaled-down artistic density that characterizes “Greater New York” is a reaction against Chelsea’s cavernous spaces and go-go star system, against the current grain of extreme professionalism. Just like the real world, the art world appears to be both a rigid class structure based on privilege and provenance (where you show, where you went to school, who your parents are) and an utterly capricious lottery. Working small, making maps and models, using pipe cleaners and toy trains, offers a degree of control that young artists may not experience elsewhere in their lives. It also implies an attitude of wonder toward art, rather than jaded acceptance or abjection (which are just aspects of the sophisticated). For the visitor, the sense of intimacy and the absence of an overarching curatorial idea allows for personal discovery, balancing the collective social experience that P.S.1 offers—and, one hopes, will continue to offer. On the other hand, maybe once these artists win fame and fortune, they’ll just move to bigger studios.

Katy Siegel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.