LA —> NY Part 1: Group Dynamics

Dawn Kasper, This Could Be Something If I Let It

The last time I went to New York, in April 2010, it was primarily to see the Marina Abramović retrospective at MOMA. Although there were other things to see—the Whitney Biennial, the big performance survey at P.S.1, Otto Dix at Neue Galerie, etc.—Marina and her relentless will toward canonization and institutionalization seemed to cast an enormous shadow over the entire art season.

My trip to New York last week could not have been more different in terms of the shows that were available to see and the overall vibe in the air. This time I was primarily drawn by the fact that some of my favorite LA–based artists are making significant appearances in a variety of New York venues. And instead of single-person retrospectives, the scene was dominated by provocative group shows and frenetic art fairs. A fertile pluralism, not solemn idol worship, was in the air.


The First Whitney Biennial I Didn’t Hate

Probably the biggest surprise of the trip was that the Whitney Biennial was actually, in my opinion, really good. It was my fourth WhiBi, and the first one that I didn’t hate. The previous incarnations that I saw were so flaccid—awkwardly conceived and organized, filled with choices that were either inexplicable or too obvious, and generally characterized by uninspiring work. It seems that the pressure of putting together a representative survey of current American art is just too much for most curators. But this year, Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders somehow managed to exert passion, vision, and good judgment in the midst of the WhiBi clusterfuck.

What really made the show work for me was, simply, a preponderance of excellent, well-chosen, and well-installed work. Individual artists would draw me in with their pieces which more often than not bloomed beautifully upon consideration. One standout was Nick Mauss’ untitled museological dérive (my term not his), for which he built a doorway and alcove modeled after the first Guerlain spa in Paris. Then, in the surrounding area, he installed a selection of artworks from the Whitney collection, including an early Ellsworth Kelly lithograph, a lovely Marsden Hartley painting, and photographs by Andy Warhol and Garry Winogrand, among other things, along with a wall-embedded reverse projection of his own slides. The juxtaposition of these sundry works was odd and jarring, and the installation succeeded nicely in shifting one’s viewing experience within the biennial.

Museum detour courtesy of Nick Mauss

Another great piece was Sam Lewitt’s Fluid Employment, a bizarre and clever science experiment that demonstrated the solid/liquid properties of ferrofluid, a mixture of magnetic particles suspended in liquid that is commonly found in computers and other electronic hardware. Lewitt made floor pieces out of this material that kept squishing and unfurling onto themselves in response to fans that were placed nearby. It was like watching H.R. Giger paintings come to life—creepy, cool, and retro-futuristic.

Sam Lewitt, Fluid Employment

I was happy to round a corner on the third floor and see a huge, two-wall display of 45 monotypes and one painting by Nicole Eisenman. Eisenman, who had a memorable show at Susanne Vielmetter last year, is such a fantastic artist that she deserves this much floor space and it was gratifying to see it, like getting a sign that all is well in the world.

45 monotypes and 1 painting by Nicole Eisenman

It was also good to see a room devoted to Robert Gober’s ongoing efforts at revisionist painting curation. A couple of years ago, he revived Charles Burchfield via a traveling exhibition, this time he pays loving tribute to the obscure Texas painter Forrest Bess. Truth be told I’m not that wild about these paintings, but I do love Gober’s passion and care in doing this. There was lots more good stuff—by Vincent Fecteau, K8 Hardy, Cameron Crawford, and Luther Price, among others, not to mention the many rotating films and performances I wasn’t able to catch.

Forrest Bess, Untitled No. 31, 1951

Local girl Dawn Kasper has of course been the toast of the biennial so far, getting prominent mentions in lots of top rags and on Martha Stewart’s Twitter feed, of all places. On top of being happy to see a friend in such exciting circumstances, I also genuinely thought her project worked well in the space, and as part of the biennial. The Whitney gave her a pretty generous sized gallery, into which she piled all of her shit (and that’s a lot), setting up a sort of performance elves’ workshop—a place where music is constantly played; interesting books, old sketches, random objects, and scribbled notes are lying around everywhere; fellow artists are hanging out in corners checking their iPhones; and visitors are drifting in and interacting with Kasper. It was a mellow and infectious scene when I was there, easily engaging. It was a space for a living artist to live and make art, to be her art, to create and continue a community, and as such it felt so natural there, so obvious. This could be something, if she lets it, and we let it.

Up in a corner of the fifth floor Georgia Sagri had also taken over a room and was using it to make a “book” via an ongoing series of performances, which were really discussions with anyone who cared to participate. The subject of the book was “working the no work,” and this brought in extended considerations of labor and capitalism. I was able to catch just about 30 minutes of one of the performances, and was impressed by the artist’s efforts to deflect performer/audience expectations and reshape the event into a group dialogue that produced an emergent text, which then formed the book that was her project. The Greek–born, New York–based Sagri, who has been credited with helping to birth the Occupy Wall Street movement, is an interesting artist who eschews the heroic gestures of 1970s performance art in favor of examining the complicated matrix of sociopolitical forces that influence and create behavior. Her efforts toward birthing a social text through her performances/discussions were intriguing, and a cool counterpoint to Kasper’s accumulation of internal energy and raw materials.

Georgia Sagri, Travailler Je ne travaille pas (working the no work)

Midtown: From 1% to 99%

Yes the Cindy Sherman show at MOMA is big news, and like all MOMA retrospectives (that I’ve seen, anyway), it is definitive and impeccably done. But really, who can get that knotted up over Cindy Sherman anymore? Her influence has been deeply embedded in the visual arts of the last 30 years, swallowed and well digested, so that a look through her career portfolio feels more like a nod of confirmation than a huge ceremony of any sort.

It doesn’t take long to whisk through her show, and then you are better off giving the majority of your attention to Print/Out, an unexpectedly inventive and charming exhibition that looks at the many creative ways contemporary artists have been utilizing the medium of print. “Print” tends to conjure tame expectations of serial 2D work, but this show was composed of anything but. I’m still thinking about Thomas Schütte’s Low Tide Wandering, journalistic etchings that he hung from strings criss-crossing a room, like laundry. You had to circulate through the room to look at all the intimate images, which revealed random scenes and thoughts, like debris washed up on a beach. The etchings were so good, and experiencing them somehow made you feel like you were outdoors, following the artist on his adventures.

Thomas Schütte, Low Tide Wandering (Wattwanderung), 2001. Photo: Thomas Griesel. From moma.org.

SUPERFLEX, whose recent show at 1301PE I reviewed for the current issue of Artillery, had a fantastic interactive project going called Copy/Light Factory. They took images of high-end, copyrighted design lamps, some of which were actually in the MOMA collection, and Xeroxed them to make material for new lamps, which visitors could design and assemble. I selected an image of a futuristic lamp and pink-toned paper; an attendant made four copies for me, and I then glued those four sheets of paper onto a readymade wooden frame, which had been assembled by other visitors. The resulting lamp, made out of illegal copies of a famous lamp, was actually quite lovely. There was already a big pile of them assembled when I was there—they will all be auctioned off eventually to support artist advocacy organizations.

I made this for SUPERFLEX

Another excellent project was Edition Jacob Samuel’s portable aquatint series. I sadly missed his 2010 show at the Hammer, but his efforts were well represented here by Marina Abramović’s Spirit Cooking, Chris Burden’s Coyote Stories, and untitled works by Gert and Uwe Tobias. Samuel’s small and humble aquatint box was on display, highlighting the extreme intimacy of the process he uses, and indeed, the editions by Abramović and Burden seemed to reveal something visceral and close to the bone about each of these iconic artists.

Marina Abramović, Untitled from Spirit Cooking, 1996. From moma.org.

Abramović’s book of recipes for spiritual growth was odd and funny, filled with absurd little nuggets that made you laugh. The accompanying imagery, scratched onto Samuel’s plates using her bare fingers and her own spit, was kind of cramped and ugly, yet beautifully earnest. Burden chose to relay stories of the many encounters he’s had with coyotes while living in his house in Topanga Canyon, writing the stories out by hand on lined paper. The stories are told in a simple, straightforward manner and are sometimes shockingly violent. I was particularly riveted by one climactic moment in which Burden and his wife Nancy Rubins are confronted by a rogue black coyote, and must kill it. Rubins first tries to drown the animal by sticking a garden hose down its throat. When that doesn’t work, Burden grabs a hammer and strikes its head until its eyeballs are falling out. Yeesh! Despite the dark brutishness of these narratives, however, the accompanying illustrations, made by pressing key story items like a wallet and a kitchen knife into the etching plate, are surprisingly delicate and lovely.

Chris Burden, Untitled from Coyote Stories, 2005. From moma.org.

Next: Hometown Boys and Eastside Wanderings

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