March 6, 2000
ART REVIEW: New York Contemporary, Defined 150 Ways
By HOLLAND COTTER
Greater New York," the floor-to-ceiling survey at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, Queens, has a Manhattan skyline of cards stacked against it.
With nearly 150 artists, the show is ungainly in size. It has no theme, was selected by committee and, as the first official curatorial collaboration between P.S. 1 and the Museum of Modern Art, comes with the kind of institutional clout that makes the art world see red.
The model is virtually identical to that of the Whitney Biennial, which "Greater New York" precedes by a few weeks and to which it will inevitably be compared. It is one that has caused the Whitney headaches for years.
In this case, though, the formula works, or at least works as well as such a daft thing can. It ends up producing a good, solid exhibition, one with arid patches, moments of mere cleverness but also flashes of inspiration. Its tone is low-key, distinctly un-Sensational. The number of women is, for a change, high. With a third of the artists foreign born, there is a cosmopolitan undercurrent: subliminal, maybe, but there.
The show doesn't pretend to be more than a jumbo-size sampler. It leaves a million things out (New York has dozens of art worlds; only a few are represented here) and provides a gold mine of nits to pick. But as a highly selective recap of what's cooking in new art locally -- which, in this case, means the five boroughs, plus a fringe of Westchester -- it's invaluable.
The "new art" part is important. The curatorial team -- Brian O'Doherty, Klaus Biesenbach, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Russell Haswell from P.S. 1, and Paulo Herkenhoff, Laura Hoptman and Deborah Wye from the Modern -- set a base-line criterion that only artists who had not had a solo exhibition before 1995 were eligible for inclusion.
The result is a showcase of youngish artists and young careers, some of which are already in full gear. Several of the participants -- Chakaia Booker, E. V. Day, Shirin Neshat, Paul Pfeiffer, Lisa Yuskavage and Ghada Amer with an exceptionally beautiful sculptural piece -- will also be included the next Whitney Biennial.
Why doesn't "Greater New York" feel as fraught with thumbs-up, thumbs-down pressures as the Biennial? For one thing its focus is comparatively narrow (though still insanely huge). For another, it arrives with no burden of history either to live down or to live up to.
Perhaps most important, despite the evidence of the Modern's fastidious, patrician hand in the selection -- no messy installations, not much sex apart from a spectacular X-rated painting by Cecily Brown -- the show appears at a place known for its quirky, in-the-trenches, youth-friendly house style. P.S. 1, at 22-25 Jackson Avenue, is the kind of place where thousands of intensely art-literate people can show up for an opening, as they did for "Greater New York" last week, and the atmosphere will stay stoop-party casual.
Something of that mood is distilled in a text-based painting by Erik Parker that opens the show. Titled "What It Looks Like (Smart Art)," it's a big bouquet of thought balloons, jazzy and elegant to look at. But each is crammed with names of rap singers, artists and art world insiders, in a hero-worshiping litany as infectious as a hip-hop beat and as hermetic as the art world itself.
Painting, that evergreen medium, is the star of the show. Artists who have been on the scene for a while, like Ellen Gallagher, Udomsak Krisanamis, James Siena and Shazia Sikander, deliver fine work. Newcomers like Tim Gardner and Julie Mehretu take a place in the spotlight.
The formal range is, to say the least, eclectic, the way things are these days. A painting by Diana Cooper comes out from the wall to form a fragile 3-D cubicle festooned with pink pompoms. Jeremy Blake revisits the standard modernist painting vocabulary of color and geometry, but does so through a series of slide projections, which dissolve into snow in the end. Ruth Root makes organic painted paper collages the size and shape of pastries.
Organic abstraction is the theme of one of the more resolved gallery groupings. It brings together David Dupuis's drawings of spoorlike forms, the pattern-rich gouaches of Bruce Pearson and a rainbow-hued net made of pipe cleaners by Lucky DeBellevue. Lisa Ruyter's wiry narrative, "Sunset Boulevard," adds just the right astringent touch. The days when decorative was anathema are behind us once again.
Broader themes are spun out elsewhere, with varying success. One first-floor ensemble tries to get something going with the overlap of infantilism and glamour, a promising idea that some editing might have sharpened. A neat trio of Rob Pruitt's glitter-encrusted pandas, T. J. Wilcox's mesmerizing, noirish video fantasy of the Marlene Dietrich funeral that never was and Elizabeth Peyton's man-child portrait would have done the trick.
Childhood shading into adolescence has been a driving metaphor in contemporary work for years; recently it has taken the form of a hard-to-pinpoint blend of sweetness and scariness. So it makes sense that one of P.S. 1's second floor galleries seems to have reverted to the public school classroom it once was.
Much of it is given over to a Mick O'Shea installation "Artworld," a toy town with tulips for trees, houses made of folded-up gallery invitations and an electric train that transports gobs of paint out to the hall and back. Sharing the space are the sinister-looking (though actually quite poetic) contraptions of Paul Etienne Lincoln. They suggest the work of a brainy, off-center eighth grader who spends Saturdays in the basement with his chemistry set trying to conjure up alien life.
What could easily be the products of such experiments fill a gallery across the hall. Here one finds Keith Edmier's scalded-pink mutant waterlily, Rob de Mar's long-stemmed biospheres and a Seth Kelly sculpture that looks like a moon rock in meltdown. Similar rocks, which appear to be aquarium accessories, are on view in a fish tank installation by Michael Phelan, who enlivens the weird science around him by having real goldfish flitting through his work.
Science is about systematic thinking. And systems of all kinds, the more elaborate and labor-intensive the better, recur. Mark Lombardi draws dense fields of multidirectional arrows to explicate economic history. Elizabeth Campbell applies the same obsessive flow-chart analysis to her personal life.
A gorgeous, light-glinting painting by Sam Gordon looks like a data bank for esoteric spiritual matter. Olu Oguibe, in one of the few uses of interactive computing (yet another art world, and one that the Whitney Biennial will explore), offers a multimedia work station dedicated to the myths of ethnology. Dylan Stone, in the guise of urban archaeologist, is in the process of photographing every architectural facade in Manhattan; his archive-in-progress is here.
Architecture and, by extension, design have an important place. Mark Dean Veca, a kind of pop Tiepolo, has turned the interior of P.S. 1's cafe into a roiling vortex of cartoon clouds, while Ricci Albenda transforms a remote basement room into an immaculate, milky-white sculptural environment, illuminated through overhead sidewalk grates: sunshine by day, street-lamp light by night. Wonderful.
There are even some houses on hand. A many-layered installation by Javier Tellez, who is, like Oguibe, an interesting thinker and one of the show's finds, consists of a giant, walk-in birdhouse filled with real birdhouses made by psychiatric patients in London's infamous Bedlam hospital, where Tellez once worked.
And P.S. 1's vast third-floor gallery is dominated by a full-size house stitched from turquoise silk by Do-Ho Suh. Titled "Seoul Home/L.A. Home/New York Home," it is modeled on the one-room house in Korea that this artist grew up in and is named for the cities where she has lived since. It floats on high like the set for a fairy tale ballet about to descend from the flies.
Ms. Suh is one of 49 artists in "Greater New York" born outside the United States. Their presence gives a clear picture of how the demographics of art in New York are being reconfigured. (Institutions like the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Queens Museum of Art have of course been presenting and actively creating this picture for years.)
The show also reflects developments less easy to tabulate. The body, that endlessly scrutinized and dissected emblem of the 1990's, radically shaped, like the era itself, by AIDS, now has a subtler, less emphatic presence. It is back to being "the figure," but often as an actor in uneasy, dreamlike narratives of a kind seen in the photographs of Adam Baer and Justine Kurland and a rapid-fire, paranoidal video by Jordan Crandall.
Neither beauty nor style as subjects get much attention. Political ideas are muted and oblique; they have a tone of earnest, repressed worrying rather than protest. The insistent, extroverted glamour and aggression of British art recently seen in the city is little in evidence.
In place of Damien Hirst's dead shark there are Phelan's living goldfish. Instead of the Chapman brothers' naughty tableaux there is Lawrence Seward's little cabinet of sculptural wonders, ghastly but cute. The pretentious historical references of Sam Taylor-Wood's photographs have been replaced by far more modest homages. Near the fuse box powering his art-world Lilliput, O'Shea has hidden a tiny version of Giotto's Padua chapel, from whose murals, he implies, the energy of a grand art tradition flows.
Over all an air of grandeur, of the big, thrown-open gesture, is missing in the show itself, and when it comes it tends to be directed at the ear rather than the eye. Military marches blast from Nadine Robinson's room-size boombox, passionate Colombian folk songs soar through a lovely video piece by Adriana Arenas, and a throbbing, addictive technopulse (music by Wolfgang Voigt) emanates from Julian Laverdiere's dark, beetling installation, a romantic monument to failed ambition that is also, appropriately, one of the largest pieces on view.
Also appropriately, some of the physically most attenuated works come with expansive ideas. Nina Khatchadourian performs ambitious feats of restorative microsurgery on broken spider webs. Manuel Acevedo, in hand-altered photos, erects sculptures resembling Tatlin's utopian monument in desolate urban lots as perches for birds. And then there is Stone's project, a truly Sisyphean task given the rate at which things in this city rise and fall.
"Greater New York," on view until May 16, is in the category of "things that rise." It doesn't rise sky-high, but it forms a core of information to which stories, wings, even foundations can be added, as they will be, mentally, by every critically alert visitor to the show. As everybody knows, there is no "New York art." But there is a ton of art in New York, with distinctive looks and concerns shaping up at the beginning of the decade. However that message is delivered, and it is delivered with care and intelligence here, it's good news.