Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Here is a post from our NYC correspondent, Stuart Shepherd

Symptoms of Now.

Whitney Biennial
Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim
Courbet at the Met
It occurs to me (as probably occurred to everyone else years ago) that the best and the worst of contemporary art is, in overview (from the perspective of a circling satellite) all merely symptoms of the economies of the states and countries wherein the work is made. This is regardless of the individual cleverness, the pop wit, the degree of social consciousness, the media, the craft, or the art historical relevance of any one work.

My particular satellite vision has been inspired by the current confluence of big shows here in N.Y. (probably fueled too by the nearing end of a long winter of media coverage surrounding the race between Clinton and Obama, and the daily foregrounding of issues)

The first of these big shows is the Whitney Biennial. Here the mood transcending individual works is sober and downbeat, and the mode is grunge. There is a pervasive and familiar kind of documentary anti-glam: a this-is-it / here-we-are / deal-with-it / morning-after reality; cocaine in the 80s, party pills in the 90s.

America has fucked up now, and earnest art school grads, with fresh M.F.A.s, have rubbed their eyes and noticed. There is a peeling back of surfaces at the Whitney, an exposure of insides: a scratching around for truth? But the result is all a bit vacuous.

These days America is full of bad news, and the bad news has been building over the past couple of years. George Bush’s war with its endless list of high level insider trade offs, and public deceptions has taken its toll. The spirit of the times is dispirited. And so is the Biennial.

No-one talks about Bush any more, let alone the awful, numbing fact that he will be in the top job for another 12 months. The American eagle has taken a sucker punch. The dollar is sinking, oil is at historic highs and it hurts. The U.S. has always believed in and loved its reflection in the new chrome trim of the latest big car. Now all over the country people cannot pay their mortgages, health care is only for the rich, the U.S. scores poorly on rates for child mortality and longevity, literacy rates are low, and now the residue of popular pills is turning up in the nation’s water supply: Viagra, Aspirin, birth-control pills, party pills. urgh! And last week a survey showed that 25 % of American girls carry some kind of a sexually transmitted disease. The Republican abstinence approach to sex ed has failed. Believing and teaching the creation myth of the Christian right, as does 40% of this country, has proven to be bad for foreign policy, health and education.

The second show seen from my satellite is on at the Guggenheim. It is titled ‘I want to believe.” A solo show by Cai Guo-Qiang, it features suspended cars and neon, lots of stuffed tigers, and the singed record of fireworks on paper. At first glance that stuff didn’t wow me. I’ve worked in the display industry, I grew up in Hamilton, and I understand cheesy symbolism and the aesthetics of a mediocre window display. What is not mediocre is the spirit of the work. Cai’s mission is to create art events that galvanize myth and ritual out of recent historic moments, to make work that thrills and creates meaningful adventure stories for local people. His work with explosives does all that. As well he claims to be offering up messages to extra-terrestrials. In his spectacular events Cio channels the fantastic spiritual element of Chinese tradition (and Chinese movies), and the idealism and zeal of socialist art. He well deserves the gig to design a snazzy Vegas fireworks display for the 2008 Olympics.

Chinese art seems to be everything American art is not; it has a yabba dabba do-optimism. Party time. Post-socialist-party time. Boy, if I was twenty five I would be off to Beijing, making performances with sound and light and fashion models, and stacks of old Soviet era tanks painted with day glow pink willow patterns, and with MacDonald’s signs attached to the rocket launchers. I’d be getting sponsored by my twenty eight year old billionaire buddies, (in joint deals with Saatchis for new shows in Dubai).
Any messages; runaway capitalism; consumerism; over-whelmed nature, pale behind a new dazzling, liberating, gush of belief.

But N.Y. thankfully still has the chops of a great city, and a great art center, and it still has great depth and diversity. And it has another show, which beams up a flickering signal of life from the past. It is the Courbet show at the Met. A rare collection of rich painting... rich by any the measure of contemporary punchiness, and by yesteryear’s measures of craft and social propriety. Courbet, after 150 years is still hot.

How many contemporary shows require the building of a special wall to protect sensitive viewers? It requires a little “skirting” detour in order to be exposed to the infamous “The Origin of the World”. At chest height, in fleshy paint, close-up in true -to- life scale, bulls-eye! You get stared down by a young woman’s vulva. Her skirt is raised and her thighs parted for your delectation and challenge. In the 1990s when Jeff Koons exhibited his large, staged, explicit, photos of himself and his porn-star wife, those images elicited a similar viewer caution, (There was a notice and an R18 advisory at the gallery entrance) and that show similarly messed with conventions by mixing outer hi-brow viewer with inner lo-brow voyeur. Vanessa Beecroft’s use of staged nudity maybe confounds art consumers in a similar way.

As a work of art ‘The Origin” has had a great provenance. Looted by the Russians in WW2, bought at auction by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in 1955, banned from bookshop displays in Paris in 1994 when it appeared as a book jacket, and now closeted at the Met.

Courbet was politically motivated and at odds with the academe of the day. He wanted to “be in a position to translate the customs, ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation” (1) It was interesting for me to note that his most powerful and enduring images, those that address sex and death head-on; were all commissioned by a Turkish collector Kahlil-Bay. It would seem that despite Courbet’s personal mission to expose the realities of the day, it took an outsider’s taste and budget to enable him to really break from entrenched codes.

As well as the skin of girls, Courbet painted deep forest-shaded rivers and crazily breaking beach surf, powder snow and dying animals. What this show offers is that old and particular pleasure of paint, of being in the place in front of the canvas where the painter stood when he was working, breathing, engaged with his subject; looking and thinking, and risking the sacrifice of trained virtuosity in the application of paint. It is risky when you put down your brush and start slapping away with a palette knife. You sacrifice your control of blending tones and tracing edges, the surface gets messed up, but urgency and energy get trapped. This is no small thing to witness. It can be compared to the experience of seeing 12 glossy, suspended tons of steel and neon at the Guggenheim. Intimacy, energy, human touch, and risk, versus grandiose, metaphoric and costly. It is something when a painting takes you under the skin of an experience by revealing the process of its creation.

Art critic Robert Hughes talks about what he responds to in the work of Lucien Freud, it is a similar experience, an experience by which he measures other kinds of art experience and the kind of experiences offered by other media.

And the art writer Peter Schjeldahl in his lavish review for this weeks New Yorker mag, hits on the power and significance of feeling generated by Courbet’s painting and its tonic relevance for the spirit of these times.

“Vision is addressed but vicarious touch and smell take delivery. Courbet's drenching seascapes should come with towels and his steaming nudes with towelettes.
He revels in the quiddity of paint: moist dirt. His art isn’t about life; it is life precipitated, with raucous panache. Nothing could be better therapy for a bodiless society of cybernetic narcissicisms than the mad wallow of this show”.

An actual mad wallow? Who can disagree? What we all really need right now is to walk away from our laptop screens and go wallow...madly, and with raucous panache. The message comes from Courbet, via Schjeldahl, to today; We need to re-humanize.

Footnote: The day I visited the Whitney show a crane collapsed at a nearby building site in midtown Manhattan. I walked down to ogle. This 20 story high crane had come adrift from the steel stack of cards it was servicing, and toppled like a giant toy across the block, tipping cars on the street and 18 floors up, clipping a classic 50s apt building and scalping 2 or 3 corner ones so that their wallpapered inner rooms, closets, pajamas, were suddenly exposed to the sky and ground. The crane had come to rest at a casual diagonal and was being spot lit by emergency services in the mild evening air. But that brutal, thrilling, rupture of structural stuff and the revelation of private interiors is exactly the kind of thing much of the Biennial seemed to be aiming for. Especially given that this scene was being attended to and framed by troops of handsome, professional, newsmen and women (all wired up to the antiseptic sanctity of the fancy vans with the satellite dishes on top). The reality and consequences of a major structural failure gets mediated (medicated) into evening news and entertainment. I didn’t know until later that several people died in this accident. (I don’t mean to harp on about infra-structural problems in the U.S. but this crane collapse seems awfully symbolic of the moment, and in fact is just the latest in a series of recent mishaps, coming in the middle of an ongoing inquiry into building industry safety and the old payola building consent process in N.Y. The inquiry into national road safety after a big bridge collapsed in Minneapolis was last year.)

In a satellite conclusion then; Chinese art now is John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. It is disco giddy. Hip hugging polyester swagger, smooth hair and confidence to burn.

American art is aging Sylvester Stallone, in the ring, on the ropes, in Rocky 3 before his implausible, miracle, slo-mo comeback. But get this, if Rocky’s America does make a miracle comeback, maybe this time, for the first time, it won’t come back as a clan of billionaire white guys over 65, it will be back as a bright young black guy, or the voices of millions of Hispanic voters, or as a strong white woman - and these new champs may not even need to be Christians.

America is really changing. and this new year’s class of an expected 30,000 M.F.A. grads, (N.Y.Times statistics) will be challenged to dig deep, and like Courbet, to draw back some curtains around the status quo. At least they finally get away from their colleges and find themselves to be merely symptoms of an old regime...symptoms of then.

(1) Quote from Courbet taken from the exhibition wall text at the Met.

No comments: