Santa Fe

Left to right: View of the Fifth International SITE Santa Fe Biennial,“Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque,” 2004. From left: Maria Lassnig, Sensenmann (The Grim Reaper), 1991. Thomas Schütte, Grosse Geister No. 1 (Big Spirits No. 1), 2004. Jörg Immendorf, Pinselgespräch (Brush Conversation), 2000. Thomas Schütte, Grosse Geister No. 2 (Big Spirits No. 2), 2004. Neo Rauch, Scheune (Barn), 2003. Photo: Herbert Lotz. Right: Paul McCarthy, Penis Hat, 2001, charcoal, graphite, oil pastels, and mixed media on paper, 13' 11 1/4“ x 8' 4”.

Left to right: View of the Fifth International SITE Santa Fe Biennial,“Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque,” 2004. From left: Maria Lassnig, Sensenmann (The Grim Reaper), 1991. Thomas Schütte, Grosse Geister No. 1 (Big Spirits No. 1), 2004. Jörg Immendorf, Pinselgespräch (Brush Conversation), 2000. Thomas Schütte, Grosse Geister No. 2 (Big Spirits No. 2), 2004. Neo Rauch, Scheune (Barn), 2003. Photo: Herbert Lotz. Right: Paul McCarthy, Penis Hat, 2001, charcoal, graphite, oil pastels, and mixed media on paper, 13' 11 1/4“ x 8' 4”.

SITE Sante Fe

Curator Robert Storr’s title for the Fifth International SITE Santa Fe Biennial— “Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque”—has promise. The grotesque belongs to quotidian life no less than to the history of art (more so, I believe), and Storr’s exhibition potentially revives the now antique avant-gardist position that the territorial borders between lived and aesthetic experience might, even for an instant, be erased; that the flux and reflux of grotesquerie could circulate freely between discrete art objects and the Lebenswelt of those who regard them. Could art attain a measure of relevance beyond hair-splitting head games and financial speculation? Storr dives headlong into the pop-cultural grotesque at the very outset of his catalogue essay, describing in detail an advertisement for a popular HBO series: “Half tableau-vivant, half tableau-dead, it is the emblem of the new season of The Sopranos.” He goes on to evoke art-historical precedents for this ad campaign’s style and composition, citing Jeff Wall, Géricault, and Delacroix, concluding his initial salvo with Tony Soprano as the mainstream avatar of the grotesque, a sociopathic killer you can’t help but love: “Tony is the Devil and these are his works. Everybody feels a twinge and everybody gets the joke. Grotesque? You bet!” With a swift sleight of hand, Storr stakes out a position between the art of the Louvre and the finer fruits of contemporary mass-media culture. He’s an intellectual populist. “Our Grotesque” ranges freely through numerous streams of contemporary art and makes no distinction between the art of galleries and museums and that of the comics; the art of the latter, in fact, proves to be a veritable Arethusa for that of the former, at least as Storr presents it.

Some would cynically characterize Storr as a master politician in his curatorial gambits, returning without question to his artistic “family”; others would commend him for his “loyalty,” a form of praise not so different from the criticism that he’s the don of his own Mafia. He remains steadfast in his support of the artists who have become mainstays of his critical and curatorial work, and “Our Grotesque” has its fair share of usual suspects, including Louise Bourgeois, Francesco Clemente, R. Crumb, Tom Friedman, Jörg Immendorff, Mike Kelley, Elizabeth Murray, Bruce Nauman, Jim Nutt, Raymond Pettibon, Sigmar Polke, Susan Rothenberg, Peter Saul, and Franz West. An eclectic group: Storr happily covers the waterfront, subscribing to no Procrustean aesthetic or intellectual program. This vantage should proffer manifest benefits in a show dedicated to the grotesque, a dense nebula of forms and attitudes skirting the grand narratives of art history—especially those of modernism and, unsurprisingly, the theoretical tergiversations surrounding postmodernism. Ideally, what Storr advances in this show is the grotesque—our grotesque, no less, whoever “we” are—as a liberated zone, one promising freedom from the Iron Maiden constraints of relentlessly regurgitated histories and the straitjackets of theory.

Would that the exhibition Storr has assembled out in the desert of the Southwest lived up to these expectations. “Our Grotesque” feels awfully familiar. That the roster isn’t exactly studded with surprises is perfectly in keeping with the curator’s right-thinking (or right-feeling) loyalties. But shows of this sort suspire contemporaneity largely through the dissemination of fresh young talents. True, this is its own trap, the ceaseless discovery of the new (ergo, the instantly, helplessly retardataire), but by my count Storr’s lineup includes only two surprises—the video artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, and Lamar Peterson, whose paintings of affluent blacks smiling in the face of perverted upward mobility sparkle as the sharpest “find” here. Overall, “Our Grotesque” doesn’t deliver on its promise of the weird, wild, and wonderful. It’s a bore.

The show is well curated, in the narrow sense that for the most part the layout of artworks makes sense and there’s plenty of good art (enough at least to offset the bad)—even a few excellent works: for example, two paintings from 2003 by Peter Saul that could probably cover for at least a third of what else is on view; a splendid animation by Pettibon, Repeater Pencil, 2004; and Kara Walker’s film-and-video animation Testimony: Narrative of a Negress, Burdened by Good Fortune, also 2004. But it’s hardly surprising that a curator of Storr’s reputation can garner high-quality works; and, of course, lots of good stuff doesn’t guarantee a good show. More encouraging, Storr departs from the almost complete abdication of intellectual premises that depressingly characterizes so many recent exhibitions of the “festivalist” ilk: Unlike so many lumbering theme shows without actual themes, Storr delivers his thesis clearly and persistently rather than merely wheat-pasting some catchy, faux-smart slogan over a predictable selection of overly familiar, trendy artists who make the international-exhibition rounds from Venice to São Paulo to Pittsburgh to Seoul, ad nauseam.

The problem is his thesis. The conception of the grotesque that Storr advances looks pretty tame, almost decorative. (And his citation in the catalogue essay of Adolf Loos’s famous ornament-is-crime formulation lacks force. If only ornament were crime.) There’s nothing, and I mean nothing, in this show that could possibly induce a wince or a shudder, disquiet or anger, much less revulsion and nausea. You could drive over Miss Daisy and she still wouldn’t flinch at the Fifth International SITE Santa Fe Biennial. Storr’s notion is the grotesque without . . . the grotesque. Do goony-eyed, fat-tongued comic-strip characters terrify you? If so, I recommend watching Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS as an exploitation-flick voyage into unknown pleasures. Do weird-ass transmutations of abstraction and representation into kitschy-crazy hybrids cause you to lose sleep? Get a prescription for Ambien and start boning up on Miró, Tanguy, maybe Picasso. I do recall reading something about “biomorphic abstraction” in an art history course I took in college.

Storr ignores the intractable, scary-for-real aspect of the grotesque; he gazes into no harrowing crevasses; he dispenses with the sublime. And in so doing, he offers a tired, surrealist-y vision, embalmed in wackiness. A pity, as the grotesque does seem like an apt topic nowadays. Quite probably Storr’s curatorial decisions had already been made when the “documentation” of the real-life, freak performance-art atrocities at Abu Ghraib came to public attention. Nonetheless, it is curious that in a period when political art, however defined, has returned to the center of art discourse, none of the work in “Our Grotesque” is explicitly political. That doesn’t mean that much if not all the works betray their own politics, but in an era when terrorism, war, torture, and mass murder consume public and private consciousness—and exert an extreme power of fascination, and aesthetic fascination—the exceedingly muted sense of, if not outrage, then at least some shock and awe, is glaring. All of which goes to demonstrate further that his idea of the grotesque is one conceived of as excessively predisposed to private experience and imagination. But this is yet another truncation of the concept. In our time—in every time—the grotesque explodes not only within febrile minds and surreptitious rituals, but in the bright clear light of day, as blunt as the tabloids and as relentless as CNN.

When I first saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib, I had an inappropriate—a grotesque—reaction: I laughed. They just looked so incredibly arty, like outtakes from a Paul McCarthy performance/video. But the samples of McCarthy’s work that Storr chose are pallid reflections of the relentless, inexorable art of abasement and violent travesty that the artist has mined for nearly thirty years. If you’re going to include McCarthy in a show called “Our Grotesque,” you show Bossy Burger, 1991, or any of his hideous and genius videos. You don’t show an extremely weak, large-scale work on paper entitled—naughty, naughty—Penis Hat, 2001, let alone the insipid sculpture Santa Long Neck, 2004, which wouldn’t raise eyebrows in a kiddie park, much less a museum. And if you want to show cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs Hermann Nitsch, you don’t promote the artist with elegant abstract drawings, as Storr does. This is educational, I suppose: Who knew that the magus of the Orgies and Mysteries Theater was such an accomplished draftsman? Nitsch may have made these handsome drawings, but this is not Hermann Nitsch; what is might take the form of a wrenchingly gross videotape of one of the rituals he has staged for decades at his Schloss/commune in Austria, where the “orgiastic” participants adorn themselves with the entrails of disemboweled cows and bathe in the blood of slaughtered pigs. Storr merely does a disservice to McCarthy in his selection of artworks, but in Nitsch’s case he actually perpetrates a falsification of the artist’s real, and for the most part exceedingly unpalatable, work. Let’s imagine a hypothetical collegiate philosophy class (for nonmajors) in order to fathom Storr’s absurd curatorial decision: “Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre.” Borrowing willy-nilly from the latter—and why not? Storr’s “exegetical” passages in his catalogue text are no better—I’d accuse the curator of bad faith. Pretty Nitsch?

What is even more bizarre is the language Storr resorts to in the catalogue as he attempts to describe the wellsprings of the grotesque. My eyes stood out on stalks when I read the phrase “base materiality”; it might as well have been lit up in Bruce Nauman neons. Any hip-to-crit undergraduate art history major might recognize that this phrase inescapably calls to mind the writings of, if not Georges Bataille, then at least Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, curators of the Pompidou’s brilliant 1996 exhibition “L’Informe: Mode d’emploi.” Indeed, the very first section of the Informe catalogue is titled “Base Materialism.” It’s no secret that Storr has nourished a profound antipathy for the October crowd, and his usage of a critical vocabulary that Bois and Krauss introduced to art criticism without the slightest nod of attribution speaks volumes. Is “base materiality” really just common parlance, available to all comers, just one smart phrase among others and freely available to all? I don’t think so. But Storr’s elision of Krauss and Bois is hardly surprising, given his own avowed hostility to “theory,” not to mention “formalism,” which he asseverates on page after page of the catalogue. But omitting Krauss/Bois/Bataille is quite telling. “Our Grotesque” delineates a version of the subject that ignores the informe. Fair enough: It’s Storr’s show, right? But in passing over the informe utterly, he reveals the true nature of his grotesque. Where are murder, rape, suicide, betrayal, corruption, deceit, madness, hatred, cruelty, vilification, and real destruction in Storr’s account? What’s remarkable about “Our Grotesque” is how passionlessly agreeable it is. That is grotesque.

The Fifth International SITE Santa Fe Biennial, “Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque,” is on view through January 9, 2005.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.