New York

Henry Darger, Sacred Heart, date unknown, watercolor on paper, 19 x 49“. Henry Darger, Battle of Marcocino, date unknown, watercolor on paper, 19 x 49”. From “Disasters of War.”

Henry Darger, Sacred Heart, date unknown, watercolor on paper, 19 x 49“. Henry Darger, Battle of Marcocino, date unknown, watercolor on paper, 19 x 49”. From “Disasters of War.”

“Almost Warm and Fuzzy” and “Disasters of War”

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Child’s play or warfare? Among the recent offerings at MoMA’s Long Island City affiliate for contemporary art was a pair of exhibitions that queried familiar models for understanding where art comes from, what it can represent, and where it might be headed. Despite their very different subjects—childhood and war—the shows shared features emblematic of recent trends in curatorial practice. Avoid historicism, the new supposedly unconventional wisdom goes, eschew difficulty, and steer clear of critical theory; promote jarring visual oppositions, encourage outreach to a wider audience, and tear down boundaries between a museum and its “outside.” Problem is, what’s left after such avoidances and promotions tend to be baggy productions whose organizing principles are so diffuse they verge on dissolution.

“Almost Warm and Fuzzy: Childhood and Contemporary Art,” a traveling exhibition organized by the Des Moines Art Center, where it debuted in fall 1999, explored what its curators called the “world of childhood” through the work of more than thirty contemporary artists. The show’s aims were to “intrigue, delight, and educate children” and “renew the sense of wonder in us all”—not ignoble goals, particularly when articulated in a museum that used to be a public school. During the opening, the galleries were full of kids standing or crouching, sometimes a little impatiently, in front of work that in a variety of ways emulated some aspect of youth: through exaggerated scale, a fascination with bodily sensations and functions, cartoons and video-game culture, and the like. Yet it was never really clear that the exhibition’s delightful rationale had much to do with anything beyond the most superficial “childlike” qualities of works by artists as otherwise diverse as Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Kim Dingle, Tom Friedman, Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, Charles Long, Tim Rollins and K.O.S., and Meyer Vaisman. Of course, many of these artists use materials associated with childhood (dolls, stuffed animals, modeling clay) or involve the participation of children or adolescents, but whether they may fairly be said to produce work concerned in any fundamental way with the “world of childhood” is a question the show never seemed comfortable confronting head-on.

Friedman’s early and excellent Untitled (Snow Angel), 1991, was a case in point. The piece consists solely of laundry detergent crystals poured on the gallery floor and then (apparently) leapt into, creating a delicate little cherubic indentation. An everyday commodity was thereby transformed into a flaky angelus novus. Does it reflect a child’s “sense of wonder” or inspire that wonder in “us all”? Perhaps; but it also suggests a sense of danger, of something unclean that gnaws at the edges of that wonder. (If a child actually jumped into dry laundry detergent, the result would likely be not a snow angel but a nasty rash.) Kelley’s Arena #11 (Book Bunny), 1990, presents a toy rabbit, a book, and cans of insecticide on an afghan rug, while Dingle’s Priss, 1994–95, features two cribbed porcelain dolls that appear haunted by neglect and aware of the incipient cruelty of others: Both works seemed to suggest a tension quite opposed to the show’s wide-eyed take on childhood. Maybe the “almost” in the exhibition’s title was meant to complicate the notion that one’s early years—not to mention the works on view—are actually warm and fuzzy, but if so, it was insufficient. The curators, who in the organization of the show avoided allusion to either psychoanalytic theories of subject formation or the more recent work by such critics as Foucault that blasts psychoanalysis’s fetishization of childhood, acknowledged simply that “childhood can also be a time of transition and uncertainty”—a crushingly banal observation at best. This is not to suggest that there aren’t important connections to be explored between childhood and contemporary art, rather that this show, uncertain of its mission—celebration? critique?—and unwilling to take a stand, didn’t go far enough.

“Disasters of War” was a decidedly more egregious disaster. Organized by P.S. 1 senior curator Klaus Biesenbach, the exhibition made an unlikely grouping of Francisco de Goya, Jake and Dinos Chapman, and self-taught artist Henry Darger. Goya’s “Desastres de la Guerra” cycle (etchings created between 1810 and 1816 and printed in 1892) is a stunning achievement; acknowledged as one of the first nonheroic representations of battle, it captures the terror, cruelty, and pathos of war—in this case Napoleon’s occupation of Spain—with extraordinary formal sophistication and without a trace of facile sentimentality. There is probably no way to bring Goya’s images into a contemporary gallery without making whatever is placed next to them look bungled. But juxtaposing them with the bloatedly self-important Chapman brothers and the viscerally affecting yet artless Darger was a striking case of adding insult to injury. The Chapmans presented “Gigantic Fun,” eighty-three corpse-saturated etchings “inspired” by the Goyas, as well as a series of enormous photographs, “What the Hell I–IX,” renderings (by Norbert Schörner) of the Chapmans’ 1999 sculpture Hell, which features more than 10,000 hand-modeled and -painted “dead” toy figurines assembled into a chaotic conflagration and placed on an inverted swastika. All these works refer to a single mass execution of Soviet soldiers by the German army during World War II. (Many were in fact first shown in Berlin, evincing a kind of “gotcha” swagger.) Strangely, it never seems to occur to the Chapmans that war may be different from the theme of self-loathing, or the drag of bodiliness, or imagined incest, or whatever their sensationally overvalued ’90s sculptural installations were supposedly about. In the images shown here, there appears to have been no engagement with the ethics of suffering’s representability—which the chaps seem to think they can thumb their noses at, cool-Britannia style—and their “show me the bodies” sense of historicity, of the way war’s traumatic temporality might revise our sense of past and present, is about as radically transgressive as Alexander McQueen’s.

While you can almost see the Chapmans smirking the insider’s knowing smirk, Henry Darger is the outsiders’ outsider. His popularity owes in no small part to his bizarre biography: A Chicago-born recluse whose childhood was anything but warm and fuzzy, Darger became a janitor, attended Mass every day, and died unknown in 1973, leaving behind an apartment packed full of junk, several thousand pages of writing on his life and the weather, and a 15,000-page manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. His renderings of scenes from an imaginary war, with its heroes, the penis-bearing Vivian Girls, and their enemies, the butchering Glandelinians, were the flimsy rationale for including Darger here. The collaged watercolors on view (many being shown for the first time) reminded me of a line from Beckett’s prose piece “Lessness”: “Little body little block genitals overrun arse a single block grey crack overrun.” If you substitute “vivid yellow” for Beckett’s “grey,” you might get some sense of what these strangely fastidious works look like. In fact, the difference between Beckett (whose writing might initially seem outsiderish) and Darger is instructive: Beckett, painfully aware of both the history of his form and the historicity of history, places his own writing in a dialectical relation to that of his precursors, exposing their consoling half-truths. Darger, perhaps through no fault of his own, can do no such thing. Despite the obsessive nature of his production and the wackily earnest force of his executions, his figurative yet biologically incorrect illustrations do not intervene in any kind of formal dialectic, nor do they emerge out of any particular engagement with (art) history. Unhinged from these generative connections—connections that cannot be simply provided retrospectively by the viewer but are imbricated in the process of art creation itself—Darger’s works expose little but the war within his own possibly sociopathological mind; it’s a decidedly different struggle from the kind so passionately evoked by Goya, and one that does little to expand our understanding of what the art of war (or the war of art) might be. In this case, “outsider art” seems little more than the supposedly outmoded Romantic notion of “genius” kitted out in curatorially cutting-edge garb.

It is tellingly ironic that if the artwork in these two exhibitions had been swapped, the result might have been more felicitous. The Chapman brothers’ puerile toy-soldier fantasies and Darger’s nigh-pedophiliac perversions could have made a genuinely interesting intervention under the sign “Almost Warm and Fuzzy,” while Friedman, Kelley, Dingle, et al., could frame childhood as a “disaster” akin to war. But until the inside/outside binary and its ramifications for art and exhibition—including the increasingly invoked “institutional critique” and the facile desire to wish away the art-historical canon—are more effectively thought through, we will likely see more of this “moreness” and less genuinely transgressive art.

“Almost Warm and Fuzzy” is on view at Fundacío “la Caixa,” Barcelona, Spain, through July 8. It travels to the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Canada, and various other venues.

Nico Israel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.