Monday, November 12, 2007

Those Galleries...

Power Art vs. Powerful Art

First, warm thanks to those who sent anniversary greetings! It was a joy to hear from you: we carried your thoughts around with us all day. Here's our greetings card to you from Central Park.

A perfect day to celebrate!

Well, I did promise an account of out tour of the Chelsea galleries on Saturday. Almost all the major New York galleries have either moved to this area, or at least have spaces in the few blocks roughly between Ninth and Tenth Avenues and 19th Street to the south and 27th Street to the north--the epicenter (at least in the minds of the New York art world) of the contemporary art universe. We spent about five hours there, and tried to catch the highlights, starting at the south end with David Zwirner, where our main purpose was to get a preview of the Jason Rhoads installation due to open after our departure. Thanks in part to our daughter, Sarah, who worked in Jason's studio, we managed to persuade the gallery to allow us in while the work was still in progress.

Jason Rhoads, who died at the sadly young age of forty-one--I think of heart failure, but more broadly of an excessive appetite for the temptations life has to offer--was considered one of the rising stars of the global art world. The installations and performances that made him famous were certainly over-the-top, scatalogical, obscene, offensive, outrageous, out-of-control... The series of performances on which he was engaged at the time of his death--"Black Pussy"--attracted the creme de la creme of L.A.'s social and cultural elite to his studio, where he regaled them with an orgy of of every kind of excess. Not being of the creme de la creme, I did not make it to one of these performances, but heard first-hand descriptions from Saragm whose band (she's a drummer) actually participated in the general chaos.

The Zwirner exhibit is a piece-for-piece reconstruction of what had been the Rhoads studio in Los Angeles. I don't, regrettably, have a very good picture, but this will give you some idea of what it looked like.

Rhoads was a pack-rat, and his work was in part about the sheer plethora of STUFF the surrounds us in our lives--mostly the cheap, disposable stuff that seems to characterize who we are as a culture. His studio was, as you see, a chaos of the stuff that he collected, often in large quantities, to be included, eventually, in his work. During his life, his galleries would sell whole display shelves of stuff--for increasingly larger sums of money. Now it's the whole studio, as here exhibited, that is for sale as a single art piece, hopefully to some museum that would set it up as a permanent exhibit.

Make what you will of this. There is bound to be a great deal of revulsion. There is a part of me that shares in that response. But there's also the part of me that sees this work, in all its dis-order and purposeful disorientation, as an uncomfortably true reflection of the society we have created and its dreadfully degraded values. Rhoads delighted in shoving our noses in the often less-than-pleasant aspects of who we are.

That's a long prelude to what I had planned to write about the Chelsea galleries, where power art is often indistinguishable from powerful art, and where the whiff of big money is evident in huge spaces that seem to invite ambitious excess on the part of big-name artists whose work commands astronomical prices. Take Cy Twombley, for example, or Georg Baselitz (he of the upside-down, expressionistic figures,) each at a separate Gagosian space. Our friend, Keith, an artist of somewhat cynical bent, remarked of the vast Twombley canvases that the gallery space "sucked the air out of them." An astute comment. People were wandering around the cavernous space looking at the highly polished cement floor--presumably for some kind of anchor. Or take the immense Pat Steir abstractions at Cheim & Read. Or Ross Bleckner at Mary Boone:

The word "imposing" seems inadequate. The poor viewer doesn't stand a chance against these things: they overpower. And the spaces in which they are displayed seem calculated to intimidate. They are the cathedrals of the modern era, designed with the intention of bringing the faithful in line with the dogma of the high priests and their acolytes.

This is what I mean by "power art." There's plenty of it on view, and the strategy has the unfortunate effect of having artists work for exhibition in such spaces: their work expands beyond all reasonable boundaries--of intention as well as of scale. They cater, I would guess, to the egos of those wealthy enough to invest in them and, in today's "market," investment is an apt term to describe the activity of many of the buyers. The rest of us are required, perhaps, to stand in awe...

But there is also powerful art, and it's sometimes hard to make the disctinction. Powerful, for example, is the work of Do Ho Suh, a Korean artist at Lehmann Maupin, whose huge yellow and orange tornado at the center of the gallery...

...turns out to be constructed of thousands of small, cast-resin human figures, a vast engine of energy spiralling out from that one, single, tiny figure at the base. The power of humanity, we understand, has its source in a single human being, and each one of us stands inseparably on the shoulders of others. The one is many, the many one. Another work, an elegant, curving spine created, aslo, out of squatting figures acting as separate vertebrae, forms a tiny monument to the backbone of humanity. I found this work to be powerful.

As, too, the video work of Isaac Julien at Metro Pictures, installed on several giant screens, the beautifully filmed, episodic "story" of African immigrants and the dangers they face in making the trek to Europe and the jobs it offers. There is, in fact, no coherent, sequential story, only a flow of compelling images that evoke the spirit of human beings involved in a kind of tragic necessity, caught in an historical moment between empire and undertain future, between the old symbols and institutions of power and their own vulnerable humanity. "Western Union: Small Boats" engages us in the desires and perils of all those in the world today who are trapped in the same place between an ancient heritage and the often coldly indifferent flux of a contemporary world whose values have to do with commerce and success.

Big pieces, both of these, but powerful and engaging beyond the level of pure asthetics. They are powerful in that they appeal to our humanity rather than our pocket-books, to our heart as well as to our intellect.

But enough for today. I have more to say, but it will need to wait until tomorrow. And then there's Sunday... It's going to take me weeks to catch up with this brief stay in New York. Be patient, please!


robin andrea said...

I like your description of Do Ho Such's art. It makes me want to see it. The other work you describe reminds me why I shy away from today's art world. Homage to disorder and chaos, or to deep pockets of money leave me cold and sad about the state of the world.

Richard said...

I have to admit, the two quotes below regarding Jason Rhoads's work stuck in mind for me:

Firstly, "mostly the cheap, disposable stuff that seems to characterize who we are as a culture" and also "But there's also the part of me that sees this work, in all its dis-order and purposeful disorientation, as an uncomfortably true reflection of the society we have created and its dreadfully degraded values."

I have to admit, I feel a distinct sadness about our disposable society. I too also feel that the disposability goes a lot further than just consumer goods and extends into the personal and spiritual and moral areas, to our great loss.