Los Angeles

Chris Ofili, Open, 1993, oil, acrylic, polyester resin, and elephant dung on canvas, 72 x 48".

Chris Ofili, Open, 1993, oil, acrylic, polyester resin, and elephant dung on canvas, 72 x 48".

“Public Offerings”

Like other hard c and r wordsculture, curator, critic—career, to my ears, has an ugly ring to it. This seems especially the case when the word is conjoined with such adjectives as artistic or academic, which ideally would resist career’s implication of relentless, purposive momentum. There is solace to be had in the knowledge that, in its verb form at least, career is synonymous with its etymological cousin, careen—“to hurtle with an unsteady motion, to sway from side to side, to lurch.” Careering can be perilous, not least of all to careerists.

“Public Offerings,” an exhibition of “breakthrough works” by twenty-five artists, almost all of whom were born in the ’60s, explicitly posed the question of the contemporary art career. Curator Paul Schimmel asked us to consider how our ideas of what an artist is and does are shaped by such factors as art schools, galleries and gallerists, collectors, art and fashion magazines, and, far from incidentally, museums. In an act of instant genealogy, Schimmel restaged the early shows of well-known artists—exhibitions that occurred for the most part between ’87 and ’95, way back when the figures in question were still art students (ambitious and in some cases strikingly well-funded ones) or near-virginal art-school graduates. We were invited, though inadequately directed, to make connections between there and then and here and now, to ask how art and the artist got where they are today—through careering and/or careening.

Much of the art on view was precisely what you’d expect from a survey of art in the ’90s. Matthew Barney’s sexy acrobat/prosthesis videos and cast–petroleum jelly exercise equipment disjecta still look great (and make you feel queasy) while suggestively pointing forward to the artist’s late-’90s preoccupations. Rachel Whiteread’s casts of negative spaces—under a table, inside a fireplace—offer a domestic glimpse of the bigger, more formidable ghosts she would soon be chasing. Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts, 1994, Jason Rhoades’s cluttered installation of various readymade objects and crudely fabricated geometric shapes, most of them linked by their yellow color—here reassembled from a variety of different collections, since the installation was broken up into sellable pieces—alerts us to the painterly as well as sculptural foundations of his work. Thomas Demand’s concocted, decontextualized architectural and interior spaces animate the old tension between photographic documentation and historical truth in savvy ways.

Other artists, in their early exhibitions, offered but a hint of things to come. Damien Hirst’s pseudo-Nabokovian presentations of butterflies on canvas raise his signature questions about decay, organic or otherwise, with surprising delicacy. Jorge Pardo makes small interventions involving everyday household items (ladders, tools, etc.), replacing their cheap machine-made parts with expensive handmade ones—no Gesamtkunstwerk tendencies here. In their playful 1995 video Normapaths, Jane and Louise Wilson show their twin fascinations with espionage and cop shows on ’60s and ’70s television—not just The Avengers but The Bionic Woman and Starsky and Hutch as well.

It might be premature to suggest that some of the artists have not (yet) lived up to the promise of their early work—but the show encouraged us to think in precisely such terms. Janine Antoni and Rirkrit Tiravanija share this problem. On the other hand, the curatorial framework allowed quirkier choices to stand out: Renée Green’s Import/Export Funk Office, 1992–93, a browsable bookshop replete with listening booths, casually but incisively explored the commodification and liberative potential of subcultural expression; Steve McQueen’s 1993 film Bear, a staged wrestling match between two naked black men, was, well, gripping; and Chris Ofili’s lush early elephant-dung pieces were quietly “sensational.” These artists made evident their nuanced ways of thinking about minority identity in relation to traumatic tradition—and to a horizon of possibility.

Surely in undertaking this high-concept show, with its trendy, noisily designed catalogue, Schimmel did not seek merely to assign the recently passed decade a single descriptor—say, “careerist.” His wider ambition was nothing short of a thoroughgoing historicization of recent contemporary art—an important if slippery task. But is focusing on the early work of star artists really the best way to accomplish that goal, and to help the “public” visualize that history, invisible precisely because it is so recent? The almost inevitable effect is akin to that of a K-tel compilation album of early-’90s “hits,” in which some pieces still seem remarkably fresh, some (one-hit wonders?) annoying, and others oddly unfamiliar. Ultimately, despite rigorous catalogue essays (by Howard Singerman, Lane Relyea, Katy Siegel, and others), the show’s conceptual apparatus seemed like an elaborate foundation for an insubstantial edifice.

The original title for the exhibition was “The Global Academy,” a rubric emphasizing distinctions and links between “global” art and art-school hubs—Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, London, and Tokyo. Its newer name and retooled curatorial direction arose during a period in which initial public offerings of stocks seemed like a sure thing. This was a time when, according to one catalogue essay, some young artists, like stockbrokers and dot-commers, expected to make it big before they hit thirty or not at all. Those of us with other careers can’t help feeling a bit grateful that the era this show celebrates may already be verging on obsolescence. For any curator or critic of contemporary art, this is, of course, the booby trap of historicizing the (careening) contemporary. But now that some of the hype over IPOs has waned, tech stocks have tanked, and, perhaps consequently, the exploding art market has been reined in, the offerings the exhibition explored—and the offering it made—seem strangely noncommittal, neither bull nor bear.

Nico Israel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.