“Uncertain States of America”

The aim of this exceedingly ambitious exhibition is to furnish some sense of what is the best American art currently produced by its youngest emerging artists. The director of the Astrup Fearnley Museum, Gunnar B. Kvaran, in collaboration with two widely esteemed European curators (and Artforum contributing editors)—Daniel Birnbaum and Hans-Ulrich Obrist—made several trips to visit studios in the United States, choosing pieces by artists who are little known abroad, though many are represented by enterprising galleries in New York and elsewhere. It would reveal, I imagine, more about the curators’ taste than about the overall profile of the art of America’s uncertain states to learn what was rejected according to the show’s ostensible criteria, if I am right in believing that what might be called Early Third Millennial Art [ETMA] is infused with much the same spirit wherever and by whomever it is made. I conjecture that parallel exhibitions like “Uncertain Provinces of the Netherlands” or “Uncertain Departments of France” would resemble, in point of style and medium, the art selected here: installations, performances, video, photography, lectures, and factitious posters, with sculpture, broadly conceived, greatly outweighing painting. In brief, the work exemplifies a certain post-postmodern facture familiar to contemporary art audiences the world over. There is accordingly very little distinctively American about the art, and, as an indicator of the state of American culture in the post-9/11 era, the message of the show is, well—uncertain. It tells us less than one would have anticipated, given the political realities of the Bush era. But that may be telling us a lot about art in America at this moment.

Art-historically speaking, there is a predilection for Surrealism—or at least a taste for umbrella/sewing machine/operating table incongruities—that has been absent from cutting-edge art for a long time. Consider as a paradigm Matthew Ronay’s installation Mummyhands Bagpipe Psyops (We Don’t Need No Oxygen!), 2004. In it a pair of arms is joined by yellow beams of light to a pair of evergreens in a landscape of three felled trees and a bagpipe, all set against a wall painting’s arch-shaped, star-spangled night sky in which a hand holds an orange disk on a stick of the same color. Ronay also shows a sculpture consisting of a plastic banana atop an inflated raft on a blue dropcloth crisscrossed with white lines—which, perhaps inadvertently, evokes David Hockney (if we leave out the mockbrick panel with a flaming sconce on an adjacent wall). A surrealisto-pop installation by Guyton\Walker juxtaposes a profusion of ornamented paint cans with variations of Ketel One posters featuring Swiss Army knives, the duo freely acknowledging Fischli & Weiss and, somewhat more remotely, Andy Warhol. Another installation, by Kori Newkirk, has a white plastic shark together with a large plastic bubble afloat on a floor deep with fake snow under a white neon icicle. A photograph shows a black man, presumably the artist, ankle deep in snow. The work makes a point about race—the conspicuousness of a black person in a white world—but this is muted by a general complaint about snow in the artist’s statement for the catalogue accompanying the show. I mention these works to help make salient the ETMA profile, but different examples would serve as well. The surrealist touch is widely diffused.

Top Cruise, 2005, by Mike Bouchet, is an aggregation of Tom Cruise heads, all alike and strewn about the floor. Like nearly everything else here, it refers more to icons from the present cultural moment than to even recent art-historical paradigms. Consider as an example a remarkable display of perhaps two thousand rave flyers in a work by Mario Ybarra Jr., Dance to the Beat of a Different Drum Machine, 2005. My sense is that the rave, with its pounding music, drugs, and dance, as well as the boilerplate on its flyers, defines the world of most of the artists on view—one writes in the catalogue of having been a “door girl” at a club—and the degree to which one can respond to the work is in some measure a function of one’s distance from the rave world. Commenting on the flyers here is a video of the rave veteran responsible for collecting them, Haven Perez, who was arrested dealing drugs but is now pursuing an advanced degree in philosophy.

On the evidence of the catalogue, there is a certain philosophical literacy throughout. Paul Chan juxtaposes a passage from Theodor Adorno with one from Kathy Acker that could be an epigraph to the show as a whole: “In such a world which was nonreality terrorism made a lot of sense.” Chan’s digital animation, projected onto the floor, shows vehicles—cars, bikes, trams—ascending in a bird-swept sky crossed by telephone wires. Then flailing bodies begin hurtling down, perhaps from burning towers, perhaps not. It is an impressive work, responsive to world-historical events that have perhaps most defined culture in these artists’ young lives, comprised of wheels and falling bodies, nonreality and terrorism. This is not a specifically American world, which may explain why its uncertain state is largely universal. But the curators have done their job, capturing a collective mood that is more fascinating than individual works taken alone.

“Uncertain States of America: American Art in the 3rd Millennium” is on view at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, Norway, through Dec. 11. Travels to Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, May–June, 2006; and other venues.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University, New York, and art critic for The Nation.