April 16, 2000
A Roll Call of Fresh Names and Faces
Related ArticleART REVIEW: New York Contemporary, Defined 150 Ways
By DEBORAH SOLOMON
If you keep up with contemporary art and have spoken to anyone besides your dentist in recent weeks, you've probably been asked your opinion on the P.S. 1 vs. the Biennial question. No, that's not a landmark court case concerning the First Amendment, but rather an unofficial face-off between two much-mooted museum exhibitions. The question is this: which is the better show?
"Greater New York," at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, the newly annexed Queens outpost of the Museum of Modern Art, is a spirited affair that rounds up enough youngish artists (146 in all) to start a day camp. The 2000 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, despite its broader, cross-the-country sweep, is similarly well-stocked with unfamiliar names; its 97 artists do not include Jasper Johns, Brice Marden or any other sacred cows. The latest art-world trend is untrendy artists.
On the surface, the P.S. 1 show feels more rambunctious and alive, which may simply be a function of context. The works on view pick up reflected energy from their "Grease"-like setting, a big, meandering former public school with institutional-green walls, linoleum floors and a lunchroom. The Whitney, by contrast, has a Madison Avenue stiffness, and meals must be taken in staid Sarabeth's. But the Biennial does offer at least one advantage over the P.S. 1 show. By mingling new names with a handful of post-adolescent veterans (Richard Tuttle, Robert Gober and John Currin, among them), it reminds us that art is a long-haul deal and that the winners are the ones who sustain their vision over time.
All in all, the two exhibitions have more in common than the curators of either might care to acknowledge. Each show abounds with inspired moments, but has no center or defining direction. Perhaps that's because each was organized by a team of six curators. Call it the new sextuple approach; it offers the illusion of egalitarianism and suggests that museums are seeking to break up the reign of the New York galleries, or at least to prove that museums, too, can discover new names.
The two shows share some artists, but surprisingly few. Six artists overlap: E. V. Day, Paul Pfeiffer, Shirin Neshat, Chakaia Booker, Ghada Amer and Lisa Yuskavage, only one of whom works in oil-on-canvas and all of whom live in New York. In an age enamored of blurred boundaries, they seem destined to be known as the Cross-Exhibitors.
E. V. DAY proves it is possible to study critical theory in graduate school and emerge with your sense of humor intact. Her blown-up party dresses, floor-to-ceiling installations in which silky tatters appear to be caught in midblast, invest deconstruction with wit and panache. At first, her work might strike you as the irate gesture of a fashion slave-turned-terrorist, but Donna Karan and other couture queens need not worry. In the end, Ms. Day lets pleasure win out over rage. Her not-to-be-missed installation in the Whitney's lobby, "Bombshell" (1999) -- a detonated replica of the dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven-Year Itch" -- puts you in mind of things flying, female and climactic, including those Renaissance ascension scenes in which the Virgin hovers in midair, her robes swirling, her face pure rapture.
"I'm not a shopper," said Ms. Day, a 32-year-old New York native who studied at Yale and whose first solo show opens at Henry Urbach Architecture in Chelsea on April 28. "I've been in Bergdorf's only once, and it reminded me of my great-grandmother's. I prefer Niketown, where the manipulation is incredible. You don't go to Niketown to buy sneakers. You go there because it's an event."
PAUL PFEIFFER harbors an odd twin obsession with basketball and the Bible. While plenty of American men treat hoops as if it were a major world religion, Mr. Pfeiffer is in no danger of being confused with your average jock. His high-concept, high-anxiety videos are shrunk down to the size of snapshots, and they have a mesmerizing interiority, like visions glimpsed in the space behind one's eyes. His "John 3:16" (1999), at P.S. 1, is a never-ending video loop assembled from more than 5,000 digitized images of a basketball as it floats through the air. What should we make of this blurry ball? It suggests a throbbing orange migraine (especially if you don't love sports), as well as an eternal light, centered, radiant and harking back to the New Testament passage of the work's title.
"I'm not the biggest sports fan myself," said Mr. Pfeiffer, a 34-year-old native of Hawaii who was raised in the Philippines. "I do go to Knicks games, which are among the great spectacles of our time. Stadiums are often referred to as domes, a direct relation to religious architecture."
It's a drag to watch movies standing up, but we'll do it for SHIRIN NESHAT, an Iranian-born artist with a substantial reputation. She makes photographs and 16-millimeter films in which women dressed in flowing black chadors evoke the behind-the-veil strictures of Islamic life. Although Ms. Neshat tends to get treated as the art world's resident expert on Iranian affairs, her work contains a large quotient of entertainment value, extracting a lush cinematic glamour from the mosques, narrow streets and thronged bazaars of the Muslim landscape. Her pearly toned "Rapture" (1999), a two-screen, black-and-white film now at P.S. 1, is a desert spectacular with a cast of hundreds, the art-house version of "Lawrence of Arabia."
"When you make films, the world is your studio," said Ms. Neshat, who is 43 and has lived in this country since her college days in Berkeley. "I don't really like the art world. Instead of being in my studio in Chinatown and thinking about what some collector wants, I prefer looking at a map and saying I want to go to Egypt and hiring a cast of 500 people."'
CHAKAIA BOOKER brings new life to old rubber tires, recycling their shredded remains into twisty sculptures and wall reliefs. She belongs to the junk-into-art tradition conceived by Kurt Schwitters, an art scavenger who discerned a pathos in discarded things. But that's an old European story, and Ms. Booker manages to update it in her tire-specific, American-style assemblages. Tires conjure visions of motion, and no one would ever want to puncture one, except for teenage delinquents -- and Ms. Booker, whose work strips the tire of its getaway potential. In the place of manly autonomy and flight, her sliced and woven-together wheels variously suggest innards, crazily overgrown house plants and a fleshy tangle of limbs. Don't drive off, they seem to say. The best action is right here.
"There are at least 300 tires in my Whitney piece," said Ms. Booker, a 47-year-old native of Newark. "I get most of my tires from automotive repair shops in New York City, usually for free, though I have to be selective. I wouldn't want a tire that is too hard to cut. I prefer the ones that are super-worn and where all the tread is gone."
GHADA AMER extracts cutting-edge elegance from the unlikely tradition of the sewing bee. Born in Egypt, she is best known for hand-embroidered paintings in which delicate threads are set against bright, Popsicle-color grounds. At first her pictures look abstract, a stitched version of Cy Twombly's deluxe doodling, but step up close and their linear traceries reveal a sorority of female nudes. You can see her work as a parody of Abstract Expressionism, offering dainty needling in the place of macho angst and paint-flinging, though, in the end, Ms. Amer seems amusingly conflicted about men. A proper postfemininst, she resents male domination but knows in her heart that she cannot escape it, blithely accepting the submissive role of the patient, painstaking seamstress.
"I don't particularly like sewing," said Ms. Amer, 36, whose solo show at Deitch Projects in SoHo opened yesterday. "It's very relaxing for about 30 minutes but then it becomes incredibly boring, and I just have to go on and on. I would use a sewing machine, but you can't get the same detail from machines. They can't do eyes and other fine curves."
LISA YUSKAVAGE earned her first fame with paintings of bimbos stepping out of velvety fogs. Viewers weren't sure whether the work was intended as a wry critique of Penthouse readers, or rather as a sincere tribute to the ditsier members of the female sex. But now we know. To judge from "True Blonde at Home" (1999), an arresting portrait on view at the Whitney, bimbos do have inner lives and deserve our respect. Here we see a twentyish woman from the shoulders up, her eyes rolled heavenward in the buggy, exaggerated style of an El Greco saint. She is caught in a moment of fervent prayer, though it isn't clear whether she is praying for the salvation of her soul or just for the telephone to ring.
The painting, by the way, has been chosen by the Whitney for the Biennial banner hanging above the museum's entrance. "That's probably because it's a figurative painting," said Ms. Yuskavage, a 37-year-old native of Philadelphia. "You can't put an abstract painting on a banner. It's less readable when you're flying by in a cab."
Deborah Solomon is the author of "Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell" and a forthcoming biography of Norman Rockwell.