New York

Adam McEwen

Nicole Klagsbrun

“History is a Perpetual Virgin endlessly and repeatedly Deflowered by successive generations of Fucking Liars.” One hell of a title, so it’s doubly unfortunate that the exhibition it was appended to, British artist Adam McEwen’s New York solo debut, was neither as analytically incisive nor as bullishly confrontational as the hard-boiled moniker implied. Instead, McEwen served up a warmed-over selection of conceptual witticisms that, while slickly executed and superficially appealing, ultimately settled into a holding pattern of comfortable irony and self-satisfied gimmickry. It was the kind of rote exercise that a former colleague of mine liked to call “People Doing Art.”

This was particularly unfortunate given that, on the evidence of “Power, Corruption and Lies,” the group exhibition he cocurated with writer Neville Wakefield at Roth Horowitz last summer, McEwen has a comprehensive appreciation for his creative heritage and a sophisticated ability to marshal the work of others in a cause of his own. But in attempting to emulate the pointed combination of sociocultural critique and graphic punch successfully traced in that show—which included work by, among others, Christopher Wool, Douglas Gordon, and Jeremy Deller—his own output veers closer to sophomoric imitation than considered homage. The style is there in spades, but the heart is sadly lacking.

Nowhere was this shortfall clearer than in the exhibition’s centerpiece, a set of large framed C-prints depicting the obituaries—mostly researched, written, and produced by McEwen—of living public figures including Bill Clinton, Jeff Koons, and Macaulay Culkin. The New York Times–style page layout and prose are instantly recognizable, and the amount of time spent assembling the facts of each subject’s life to date is apparent and impressive, yet the cumulative effect is oddly numbing. Doubtless this is at least part of the point, but McEwen’s tributes fall short of making any useful comment on either the hierarchy of fame or the subjectivity of these supposedly detached biographies. The works are a source of some colorful details (Koons’s famed stint as a moma membership salesman, for example, reportedly saw him don a series of office-clown outfits including “paper bibs, two ties worn simultaneously, loud polkadot shirts, a sequined jacket and an inflatable flower which he would wrap around his neck”), yet it would be a stretch to claim that we learn much from McEwen’s efficient summaries other than who we’d be saddest (or most gratified) to see bite the dust.

The funereal tone persisted with Untitled (Grey Drain), 2004, a pointedly drab string of colorless plastic banners that recalls Fiona Banner’s Black Bunting, 2001, and Shoegazer (Bonus Version), 2004, which combines a pencil drawing of a limp indie rocker with an ankle-height mirror seemingly lifted from a footwear store, a blowup of the cover of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, in which the wayward musician’s white socks glow with an otherworldly light, and an inverted image of Mussolini and his girlfriend hanging by their ankles. Quasi-surrealist reworking of common objects? Check. Deadpan appropriation of charged extant imagery? Check. Obscure pop-cultural references? Check. And just in case we failed to appreciate its wit the first time around, McEwen also provides four separate renditions of the show’s title on variously colored sheets of newsprint. Knee-jerk “seriality”? Check.

McEwen is guilty of a certain formulism that frustrates through its very closeness to really smart art. A good student, he understands the importance of his influences but, in his own work, appears unable to transcend a merely efficient demonstration of this knowledge. Untitled, 2004, a conjoined set of white bedsheets hung across the outside of the gallery’s windows, is likable enough until you remember Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s infinitely more ravishing “Untitled” (Loverboy), 1989. Two canvases, one white, one hot pink, each titled Bad Guru, 2004, also lose a battle with their precursor, Christopher Wool’s terse stenciled panels. The only firm conclusion to be drawn from McEwen’s investigation into the subject of history seems to be, above all, that he has condemned himself to repeat it.

Michael Wilson