New York

Justin Lowe, On the Beach, 2005, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Justin Lowe, On the Beach, 2005, mixed media, dimensions variable.

“Greater New York 2005”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

Once upon a time in the West, circa 1992, Paul Schimmel organized an ambitious group show, “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition did more than trace the lineages of post-’60s LA art as a wellspring for a new generation of artists who would soon establish the city as a mecca for all in pursuit of the hot, hip, and fresh. “Helter Skelter,” in its juxtapositions of artists (and writers) of different generations, like Raymond Pettibon, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Dennis Cooper, Chris Burden, Charles Bukowski, Charles Ray, Jim Shaw, and Liz Larner, established an image of the scene—a freaky-pretty-haunted landscape—and a sensibility of “Sunshine and Noir” (the title of a later LA-themed exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark) that captured the perfervid attention of artists, critics, and dealers for the rest of the decade. Imagine that “Greater New York 2005” had strived for an analogous vision of New York’s art scene today and with it, in the manner of such bygone novels as Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County, John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8, Dawn Powell’s A Time to Be Born, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, had aimed to realize an entire psychological-aesthetic phantasmagoria of Gotham.

Instead, “GNY 2005” seldom coheres, in large part because it lacks the kind of polemical agenda offered by the P.S. 1 exhibition’s debut in 2000. The first “Greater New York” was explicitly staged to recuperate a notion of New York as a vital center of artistic production rather than just the art world’s premier commercial conduit. At the time, artistic creation that evinced “vitality, energy, and exciting promise” purportedly occurred elsewhere—in Los Angeles, London, Berlin. The sheer expense of New York presented an enormous barrier to young artists (true enough), and the “hot” academies, particularly the art schools of Los Angeles, were far away. For those of us who lived in New York, this picture was depressing and unrealistic. “We” knew that there was plenty of exciting or at least curious art being produced here, and it was endlessly irritating to be told that the scene was D-E-A-D.

Circa 2005, the rest of the world presumably concurs. Months before the current show was unveiled, a prominent New York dealer queried, “What real stars came out of the first ‘Greater New York?’” and then answered her own question: Paul Pfeiffer and Julie Mehretu. Yet there is no shortage of others who appeared in “GNY 2000” who have continued to exhibit extensively in New York and around the globe: Rachel Harrison, Piotr Uklanski, Elizabeth Peyton, T. J. Wilcox, Rob Pruitt, the late Mark Lombardi (forty-eight years old at the time), Ellen Gallagher, Ricci Albenda, Lisa Ruyter, Lucky DeBellevue, Rachel Feinstein, Erik Parker, Jeremy Blake, Do-Ho Suh, Steven Vitiello, Shahzia Sikander, Roxy Paine, Jennifer Bornstein, Julian Laverdiere, David Dupuis, Ruth Root, et al. Some of these artists had been exhibiting at least since the early 1990s.

So what does “GNY 2005” see as its raison d’être? The press release opines that the exhibition “presents artists who have emerged since 2000” whose work “explores both [sic] this specific time period, during which New York City has changed dramatically . . . ; and anticipates new artistic directions.” Given that “anticipation,” it’s surprising that painting rests secure as the dominant medium; too bad most of it is awful, strong on whimsy and weak on ideas. Certain stronger artists, e.g., Jules de Balincourt, are shown to so-so if not poor advantage. That de Balincourt is facile in multiple styles, as “proved” by the three small and stylistically disconnected works on view, isn’t the issue—wasn’t Gerhard Richter? This could be the conceit, but the individual works make a lame exposition for one of the most hyped artists in the show. As for Kristin Baker, a painter of substantial gifts and a driving concept (excuse the light riff on Baker’s ongoing exploration of NASCAR culture), the curators chose two agreeable, collector-friendly canvases. The selection appears bizarre when an institution seeking “new artistic directions” evidently privileges Baker’s easier work over some of the more fucked-up amalgams of painting and the distant sort of post-Minimalist sculptural vocabulary she has shown in museums in New York and Paris (the Whitney at Altria and the Centre Pompidou, respectively) and for that matter in her first solo exhibition at New York’s Deitch Projects, a commercial gallery. Her pictures are seductive here; how unfortunate that no one bothered to take advantage of the quasi-alternative P.S. 1 environment and let the artist cut loose.

But the curators certainly didn’t encumber already-an-Oscar-winner Dana Schutz, who exhibited a perfectly nice, rather modest easel-scale canvas and a mural-scale work, Presentation, 2005, made explicitly with this show in mind. I haven’t the faintest notion whether Schutz revels or quakes when she considers her relentless rise to postgrad (Columbia, natch) fame and fortune. But she is the Big Fat Star here. She’s emerged. In its subject matter, her epic is doubtless intended to stake its claims alongside some of the highest art produced in Europe and America, viz., Stefan Lochner’s Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, ca. 1430, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, and Eakins’s Gross Clinic, 1875, and Agnew Clinic, 1889. But what Presentation resembles far more vividly is the work of James Ensor, especially his Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1888. The masklike visages of her figures, the groupings around the central character of the cadaver (rather than Christ), the striated and scratched surfaces, all suggest the Belgian painter’s example. Given the extraordinary esteem I possess for Ensor, it comes as little surprise that Schutz’s painting annoyed the hell out of me. But her vast painting annoys me infinitely less than the boom-boom preeminence that the curators accord it as the exhibition’s grand set piece. I suppose Schutz is owed a certain chilly respect: At least she engaged Ensor and in passages effectively conjured the specters of the Nabis, Bonnard, the Fauves, and Guston. In the same room, I admired Andrzej Zielinski’s small paintings of mundane objects like laptops, each suspiring an unnamable, “existential” persona, all rendered in the absurdly dense impastos reminiscent of postwar European art informel and tachist artists like Soulages, Mathieu, and Fautrier. The pairing of Schutz and Zielinski proved one of the more inspired moves on the part of the curators, offering to the spectators all kinds of compare/contrast heuristic models for assessing the newest new painting.

The antipode of the Schutz phantasmagoria appears in the form of Robert Melee’s me/mommy/drag/horror/let’s-put-on-a-show video, photo, and, uh, memorabilia installations. Melee’s work has already made the gallery and museum rounds, but the jangled personal-theatrical pantomime of (gross) “identity” remains among the most memorable debuts of the last five years. Other work that looked good: Hope Atherton’s goth gargoyle bathed in an inexplicable, almost Whistlerian column of undifferentiated white light; Peter Coffin’s Untitled (Hollow Log with Model of the Universe), 2005; Justin Lowe’s perplexing yet seductive paean to “obscure Neil Young recordings” (the artist’s explanation to me); Mike Bouchet’s absurdist yet formally droll “celebrity” hot tubs, one for Kofi Annan, the other for Steffi Graf; Adam McEwen’s Mussolini-and-the-Missus, which has been seen in several different incarnations over the last few years but still punches hard (and oozes creepy sexuality). I sort of liked Mika Rottenberg’s video installation, although probably for the wrong reasons: I had been informed that Rottenberg’s intent was the investigation of “Fordist” modes of assembly and production; the noisome affect I derived had far more to do with the sheer hideousness of bodies: the copiously sweating black lady-bodybuilder, the bizarrely double-jointed, scrawny white girl, and the health-is-wealth jock boy. Kelley Walker also looked good, flirting outrageously with post-Pop allure while digging into the murky/obvious substratum of “postproduction” in a characteristic not-quite-a-Warhol race riot overlaid with screen-printed chocolate smears. I vastly preferred his decorative papillons to those featured in Wangechi Mutu’s pure kitsch butterflies-are-free (or in chains!) installation, a piece of rebarbitive vulgarity. Mutu’s installation struck me as uncharacteristic, as heretofore I had only seen her paintings of distorted black-diva types. I liked Mickalene Thomas’s quasi self-portraits in gangsta-bitch guise, especially the canvas in which Thomas implies an imaginative life for her subjects that may reside melancholically in the ever-dissolving system of welfare yet generously extends a glimpse of alternative destinies in the form and promise of Missy Elliot’s and Mary J. Blige’s hard-ass glamour. At least Thomas has a brash look and a giddy, fuck-off attitude that she carries with far more élan than the plethora of micromidget, wannabe-badass/“avant-garde” geeks, e.g., Matthew Brannon, Kate Gilmore, Jamie Isenstein, Allison Smith, and many others favored by the curators. Finally, given an entire room, erstwhile goth Banks Violette looks like the Donald Judd of this desert of boredom and mediocrity. His shiny, oily black sculptures are nothing if not produced, and in his case, precise facture works to an advantage: These gloom-and-finish-fetish monoliths and runes look far better than the typically transparent special effects to which we are subjected at the multiplex. They’re marvelously tactile, and, like the obese slugs one discovers in overturning rocks, grandiloquently repulsive yet fascinating.

Nate Lowman’s images of flaming oil rigs at sea, all found photographs he subsequently rephotographed and printed to large scale, are standouts. They looked great, too, at the Armory Fair prior to the opening of “GNY 2005,” where they were shown to extraordinary effect alongside Carol Bove’s sculpture of giant driftwood and storage units. (Bove is also on view here to good effect; love to love your bookshelf, baby.) But at P.S. 1, Lowman’s suite of bloody and sublime images is relegated to a dark, narrow corridor. It doesn’t matter, though, because in an exhibition devoted to traditional art mediums, his “stolen from nowhere special” photographs afforded so many of the aesthetic rushes that supposedly belong to painting, or even video.

The title “Helter Skelter” played fast and loose with the grisly antics of the Manson Family, proffering an idea of LA radically opposed to the received iconography and narratives of vacuous hedonism and industry shenanigans. “Greater New York 2005” delivers no collective fantasy around which an art scene can coalesce. Aaron Young’s projected video of a pit bull, Good boy, 2001, the dog’s jaws fiercely clenching a rope above, provides the exhibition with its appropriately hostile signature image: Swirling in space as he tenaciously bites down on the rope and egged on by a rowdy, ugly voice off-camera, the pit bull can’t let go (the video is looped) because he’s relentless, fearless, vicious, and . . . a lovable puppy, spinning, no doubt, with glee. The image is one of futility, tenacity, ferocity, and delight, perfect for our lived-imaginary experiences of the city. When will a curator give New York the image it still needs and deserves, a Brechtian/ Hollywood panorama or rise and fall and rise: in the Jungles of the City.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.