“The Americans: New Art”

Barbican Art Gallery

Do we need a survey of new American art in London? That’s the question one asked before venturing to “The Americans: New Art” at the Barbican. The title suggested “Move over YBAs,” a sentiment addressed to a London media for whom contemporary art is still wholly synonymous with the late Britpack phenomenon. The reality is that over the last few years we’ve had plenty of opportunities in London to see the work of young artists from the US in galleries such as Corvi-Mora, greengrassi, Sadie Coles HQ, and White Cube, not to mention Charles Saatchi’s two-part 1998 show “Young Americans” (though the adjective was sometimes applied generously and the selection was restricted to Saatchi's own collection). For as many as two-thirds of the thirty artists featured in “The Americans: New Art,” this was not a UK debut.

Still, at the turn of the century American art—or art in general for that matter—resists easy classification, which made the prospect of an exhibition that tried to make sense of it all exciting. In the early ’90s we could still talk somewhat definitively of identity politics, of bad girls and boys, of the abject and pathetic, and so on. in comparison, recent art is a more diffuse and slippery affair, being “post” just about everything—not least variants of postmodern practice overly reliant on the armature of theory.

Perhaps in view of this elusiveness, the curatorial spotlight so far has been on the Los Angeles boom (P.S. 1’s recent “Greater New York” being the rejoinder). One of the virtues of “The Americans: New Art” was that it neatly sidestepped the East Coast–West Coast feud with a seamless selection drawn equally from both art hubs. This seamlessness was helped along by the decision to omit the two city-specific tendencies that have dominated American painting of late: neo-rococo portraiture from New York, as practiced by John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Elizabeth Peyton, Kurt Kauper, et al., and the askew formalism that's been emanating from LA in works by Laura Owens, Monique Prieto, Kevin Appel, and Ingrid Calame, many of whom had their first significant solo shows after 1995, the starting point curator Mark Sladen set for the Barbican’s selection.

These omissions also ensured an even spread of media: Painting, sculpture, video, and photography were present in equal measure. There was in fact little painting proper in the show—Brian Calvin’s oddly tender, cartoonish depictions of slacker artists and musicians being the exception—but allusions to its conventions were profuse. Paintinglike pieces took the impure forms of paper cutouts (Kara Walker), wall paintings (Arturo Herrera and Ricci Albenda), resin-coated collages (Ellen Gallagher and Fred Tomaselli), canvases in enamel paint and black glitter (Rob Pruitt), and so on. Generally, though, it was the sculpture in the show that revealed new vistas for painting: Liz Craft’s and Rachel Feinstein's glossy, saturated colors gave their sculptures the immaterial, imagelike quality of mirages. Of these sculptures-cum-paintings the most memorable was Evan Holloway’s Gray Scale, 2000, a small tree whose every branch had been cut and reassembled at right angles, like an organic television aerial. The branches and slim trunk were painted over in a sliding scale of grays, creating the vertiginous illusion that the piece was a sculpture of a photograph of itself. On the other hand, videos took up some of what sculpture ceded to painting: Gravity was the star of Martin Kersels’s, Dara Friedman’s, and John Pilson’s looped narratives, in the form of rotating, climbing, diving, free-falling, and dropping stuff—slapstick, quotidian updates of post-Minimalist concerns. It was perhaps in identifying this sense of meltdown between the different formal and representational idioms—which has supplanted an earlier generation’s reliance on incongruous juxtapositions of ready-made elements—that the show was most useful.

In other respects “The Americans” was a relatively safe selection conventionally installed. There was little sense that the artists had accompanied their works to London (you could almost smell the crates), an impression admittedly not helped by the boothlike architecture of the upper galleries, reminiscent of an art fair—or a gallery complex on Wilshire Boulevard. The only signs of spillage between works, or between a work and the space, were Piotr Uklanski’s Untitled (Wet Water), 2001, which created the refreshingly unsettling impression that the Barbican’s roof was leaking, and the shimmering yellow reflections that bathed the ceiling above Pae White’s Andre-esque Perspex floor piece. Further on, Jonathan Horowitz’s poignant (and warped) Soul of Tammi Terrell, 2001, on two monitors, duetted well with Ellen Gallagher’s nearby Warholian reworking of ’60s African American hair-product ads, in what was otherwise an orderly, one-at-a-time procession of more or less familiar gallery fare that might have been selected from secondary source material alone.

Undoubtedly “The Americans” included a relatively high quota of worthwhile artists, but the exhibition suffered from, its narrow range. At first its effervescence and lack of didacticism were energizing, but after a while its persistent saccharine playfulness, rainbow palette, and generally solipsistic outlook left one feeling a little queasy, as if one had watched a music-video channel too long. Missing were whole physical, intellectual, and emotional registers whose contrasting tones might have given the experience more substance; one left in need of something a little more engaged, ambitious, discordant, or visionary—or all of those things. Still, despite these limitations, with this show Sladen, who joined the Barbican from London’s Entwistle gallery a couple of years back, has put a venue not known for its contemporary programming firmly on the map.

Alex Farquharson is a London-based writer.