From certain angles right now, the options in contemporary art appear to be purity and impurity. On one side stands art that screams money and off-the-charts fabrication costs. On the other, art of physical modesty that whispers obscure ideas and above-it-all pretense. And yet in both directions you can find slickness and a certain paucity of content — or substance, sustenance or genuine pleasure. Sometimes it seems more like a case of choosing your poison.
At the moment two exhibitions in Chelsea define these extremes and their fuzzy dichotomy. On the shiny, happy, money side is the German artist Anselm Reyle’s first solo show at the Gagosian Gallery flagship space, on West 24th Street — by now the Fort Knox of contemporary-art galleries. Mr. Reyle’s array of metal sculptures and wall reliefs with bright chromed color and occasional LED lights qualify mostly as exceptional high-end lobby art.
The “no money, please, we’re-intellectuals” side of the spectrum is represented by the brainy art collective known as the Bernadette Corporation. Its latest efforts consist primarily of a long poem, in a typewriter font, displayed 10 sheets at a time under Plexiglas on 13 attenuated tables, and 38 photographs in black and white and color of wan young models in jeans. The display can be found at Greene Naftali — a purveyor as much of ideas as of artistic product — on West 26th Street.
Both exhibitions are, on the surface, attractive, impeccably presented destination shows, and I enjoyed both, up to a point. Gagosian especially, since light entertainment seems to be the aim. Even on a normally quiet Tuesday afternoon, the yawning spaces chez Gogo were surprisingly crowded with gallery regulars, tourists and student groups. The gallery is widely known as a reliable source of with-it art spectacle, whatever the level of quality.
In that regard Mr. Reyle does not disappoint. In an interview in Art Review last December, he said he got energy from being called cynical and having his work described as kitsch. So let’s just say that, compared with Mr. Reyle’s show, a large triptych by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (he of the Louis Vuitton handbags) that is on view in another part of the gallery looks unusually impassioned, profound and lovingly hand-worked.
Titled “Picture of Fate: I Am but a Fisherman Who Angles in the Darkness of His Mind,” the Murakami is dominated by the exotic karajishi, or “China-lion,” who guards the threshold of Japanese Buddhist temples and is a frequent subject of Chinese and Japanese artists. With waterfalls, and pours and drips of paint flowing here and there, this creature stands on a mountain of skulls with richly colored interiors. The painting is a marvel.
Mr. Reyle’s show is titled “Monochrome Age” and forms an extended parody of, and homage to, abstract art, which he has said he wants to make popular. Over all his pieces suggest a combination of the gleaming physical perfection of Jeff Koons and the perceptual tricks of Olafur Eliasson, but there are asides to Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and others.
Just inside the door a gorgeous double loop of bronze surfaced in highly reflective purple (via a process called chrome optics) stands nearly eight feet tall. It wears its title, “Eternity,” lightly and almost seems pliant, like a lasso of grape-flavored gum. It belongs to the lava-lamp school of art, and the light-dark grain of its makassa-veneer base adds an Art Deco note. Nearby, “Philosophy,” a huge, chromed, double-sided grid, ripples with biomorphic bulges. But it also has flat portions, as if the entire piece were squeezed between two enormous planes while still molten. It resembles a midcentury Modernist screen on steroids.
The show is up and down. Kitsch may be the only word for a sculpture consisting of several tall, vertical chrome pylons punctuated with drippy, woundlike gashes that glow with changing LED colors.
Neo-Geo Redux seems the proper label for silver-chrome bales of straw (make hay while the sun shines?). Reliefs of a crumpled, Mylar-like material evoke exaggerated disco versions of Piero Manzoni’s autochrome reliefs, which were exhibited in this space last year. Heavier numbers involving trash cast into brightly chromed aluminum wall reliefs are tarted-up examples of the oldest assemblage trick in the book.
The show’s final gallery, devoted to smaller works, brings back an earlier version of Mr. Reyle, before he was blessed with a seemingly unlimited budget. Especially wonderful is a smallish sculpture in electric blue bronze. It suggests, as if on purpose, a large pile of what inspired the term “filthy lucre.”
At Greene Naftali, the Bernadette Corporation is proving that the only thing more uncomfortable than reading small type while standing up, as so much early Conceptual Art required, is reading it while leaning over tables. The poem, “A Billion and Change,” has a title that resonates with just about everything these days, and runs to 130 manuscript pages, divided among 13 slim, plain wood tables. (These may or may not be a comment on the tables featured in the ebullient, excess-prone Guyton/Walker show at this gallery last summer.)
“A Billion and Change” shifts from one poetic format to another — free verse, four-line stanzas and so on. It is entertaining line for line, vivid in language and chock-full of references to recent world and art-world events. It also includes some childhood memories that sound real. Little of it sticks, but the totality is extremely polished.
Occasionally Jenny Holzer’s aphorisms came to mind (“Driving is not really liberating”). But in the main the consistency of tone is extremely impressive, given the collective nature of the process.
The poem is definitely an achievement, but it is “The Complete Poem” that matters. This consists of the manuscript as well as the tables, which are being sold individually, a clever attempt at commodifying something that is usually widely available in book form. As yet there are no plans for publication.
The poem’s shifting genres, coupled with the beautiful young people standing, lolling and flinging their hair about in the photographs, bring the phrase “exquisite corpse” to mind, and with that the idea of the randomness of talent and good looks. But the show’s news release set me straight. Bernadette is contrasting two forms of work, writing and modeling. The group commissioned the images from the fashion photographer David Vasiljevic, asking him to organize a shoot similar to one he recently shot for Levi’s.
Perhaps the collective is also contrasting work done using one’s personal appearance and work done using something more internal and personal. I hope so, but as these two chic exhibitions battle to a draw, I wonder.
By Roberta Smith
The New York Times
A west wind has been blowing through ICA lately, carrying with it art and artists from California. A recent program “Pictures and Props” (occasioned by ICA’s current exhibition of the work of Jennifer Bolande,) explored the work of West Coast artists working on the fringes of Hollywood. I suppose that’s no more surprising than artists in Alaska making art about snow, but it does seem slipperier, if only because Hollywood is such a slippery place. Questions of masquerade and authenticity, of surface and illusion, come with the territory.
Curator Bennett Simpson, who started his career at ICA and is now at MOCA, talked about the artist William Leavitt whose first museum retrospective, William Leavitt: Theater Objects, Bennett curated last summer. Leavitt grew up in the Midwest and went to L.A. to finish his National Guard service, which turned out to be conducted on the back lot of a Hollywood studio. In the year of the Watts riots, combat training was done using the studio’s props and sets. Leavitt stayed on in Hollywood, building sets and making props, and also making paintings and writing plays. Many of his paintings were made to serve as props on the sets of those plays.
There is a weird, quiet menace sometimes, and other times a human poignancy, in Leavitt’s art. You don’t see people, but the animals, plants, and objects you do see often seem human, for instance the pair of lawn recliners at dusk which seem almost to be communicating. And there are curtains—especially red velvet ones—about which Bennett says, “There’s never anything behind the curtain, it’s our imagination that allows us to think there is.”
Leavitt also makes installations: fake palm trees stuck in cement with a boom box twittering birdsong; a recreation of a California patio. Nothing’s happening in these places, but Leavitt creates a haunting sense that something might happen soon. The play is always about to begin, or maybe it has always just ended, as in a dream where we are always arriving too late and everyone has gone.
Kathryn Andrews, an artist whose work will be part of ICA’s upcoming exhibition First Among Equals, also makes art that explores what it means for something to be real. “After art school I spent seven years making and destroying objects,” she says. “At the end of the day, I was always left with a pile of debris.”
After that, she gave up making art for a while. To try something new, she organized a show of other artists. But then, something unexpected happened. Kathryn found herself making works for that show, works which inhabited a kind of liminal territory, visibly part of the exhibition, yet unsigned and unattributed. Functionally, they enhanced the other work in the show—for instance, a kind of sculptural line separating two works on a wall.
As Kathryn moved back into making art, this interest in responding to the work of others remained with her. She started renting props from L.A.’s copious prop shops, first making work in response to them, and later incorporating the props into her sculptures and installations. “Gift Cart,” for example, consists of a shiny stainless steel cart holding bright but battered wrapped gifts that Kathryn rented (these days she goes for 99-year leases). Why rent wrapped gifts, she wondered, when it would be faster and cheaper to wrap empty boxes yourself? It was a Hollywood puzzle.
Paradox interests both Kathryn Andrews and William Leavitt. As Bennett Simpson says, “The prop is like the rematerialization of conceptual art’s idea.” The prop is an object—but it’s also the idea of the object: a stand-in.
“In L.A. I’ve started calling it the new medium,” Kathryn jokes. “Like, Oh, I’m a sculptor. Oh, I’m a prop artist!” She says, “One of the things I’m trying to do is remove the sign of my hand from the work.”
In Leavitt’s work, by contrast, the hand of the artist is very present. “It’s old-fashioned work in some ways,” Bennett says. “It’s about creating an atmosphere, a mood.”
Still, if you make paintings that you think of as props, certain old-fashioned art values—for instance the value of conservation—may not apply. Toward the end of the evening, Bennett tells a story about installing Leavitt’s show at MOCA. One day the registrar came over to Bennett, very concerned. They had found a hole in the painting “Jaguar (from The Tropics).”
Bennett called Leavitt to break the news.
Leavitt was blasé. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I made that hole a long time ago. It doesn’t make any difference.”
February 10, 2012