Looking Good and Meaning Well

It's impossible not to walk into Greater New York determined to sense the zeitgeist. But with over 160 artists represented, hardly a sliver of the emerging artist population of the five boroughs but still plenty to confound any amateur trendspotting, the more one tries to understand the rules the more everyone looks like an exception.

Part III of 'Greater New York' in Five Parts

It’s impossible not to walk into Greater New York determined to sense the zeitgeist. But with over 160 artists represented, hardly a sliver of the emerging artist population of the five boroughs but still plenty to confound any amateur trendspotting, the more one tries to understand the rules the more everyone looks like an exception. The exhausting tendency of shows at PS1 to have art in every cubic foot of the place-bathrooms included-means that a viewer wanting to make accurate statements about the show is reduced to speaking in statistical terms or hiding behind the incorrigibility of sense-impressions. The show didn’t put me in a rigorous enough mood for the former, so:

Greater New York is more boyish than girlish. There is carving, hunting, and barbecuing involved-all requiring countless hours of skillful construction. Minimalism, both as an historical model for art production and as a sensibility, is definitely out: most artworks operate on a logic of accumulation and collage, combining materials, techniques, and signifiers into visually and semiotically dense accretions. Many artists are infatuated with various outsiders, like rednecks and disturbed teenagers or the insane in general, who figure in said artists’ value systems as near-mythological sources of authentic expression.

For all the supposed inscrutable, elitist difficulty of contemporary art, there is very little work in the show that the proverbial man on the street wouldn’t be able to accept as art, and even if he missed some of the art-historical riffs and pop-cultural nods that run though the show, he would at least be engaged by the straightforward visuality of most of the work here. Greater New York is a generous show with lots to look at, and its best quality is that what the art is about is right there in the open, on the surface of the painting or in the object, rather than embedded in a press release or an explanatory wall text.

It’s a Small World After All

The biggest impression one gets is the feeling, both comforting and disturbing, that Greater New York is actually a pretty small place, where everyone knows friends of friends and everyone speaks the same language. One can pin this on the central role of graduate art education in this show and in contemporary art in general. MFA programs have had a paradoxical effect on the size of the art world over the past few decades: the artist population has skyrocketed and diversified, but the culture has gotten smaller and more homogenous. The intensive socialization process of graduate school means that those artists who make it through can deftly phrase what they want to say in a form that everyone professionally involved-peers, critics, curators, dealers, collectors-comprehends.

The upside of this phenomenon is that drawing from a population of smart, professionally minded emerging artists eliminates a lot of embarrassing mistakes. The downside is that it often eliminates the possibility of embarrassing mistakes, a capacity without which art, for all of its intelligence and mastery, gets very boring. Reflecting on this at Greater New York, I started looking for points where the discourse of contemporary art looked the most iffy, and where artists seemed at risk of falling out of the eminently respectable and self-aware mode of expression that marked the show into something potentially weirder and more disquieting, less guaranteed to be worth the trouble to look at but offering a bigger payoff.

Straight to Video

These points cropped up most often in the video wing of the Greater New York assembly. With some notable exceptions like the Hollywood-inflected works of Christian Jankowski and Sue De Beer, most of the film and video recalled the early days of the medium and its ethos of low-tech experimentalism. Video art in the show seemed to propose an alternative to the artist/viewer relationship enacted by the paintings and sculptures. It had less to do with the appreciation of technique and the decoding of signs and more to do with confrontation, doubt, and emotion.

In looking at the paintings, drawings, and sculptures one sometimes felt that the artists’ investment of time and effort was there as a guarantee of value; video offered less reassurance for people who worry about whether or not artists work hard enough. If Tobias Putrih’s immaculately constructed cardboard sculptures and painstaking, obsessive drawing represented one end of the labor scale, Brock Enright’s two micro-videos defined the other extreme. Capitulation and Carpet Touch consisted of about two to five seconds of appropriated horror movie footage, showing some kind of mangled body falling to the floor in one piece and twitching slightly in the other. Even with a century of appropriation art as precedent, it’s still unsettling, annoying, and thrilling to come across something so close to nothing, and be forced to decide whether or not it’s art.

Aaron Young’s Good Boy is a short, blunt, projected video showing a pit bull biting on to the end of a leash in a dark, red-walled room. The leash is being hoisted over a beam, suspending the dog off the ground by its teeth. Someone off-screen, presumably the leash-holder, is encouraging the dog in this behavior with a litany of dumb dog-speak lines: good boy, that’s a good boy. The speaker is occasionally laughing too hard to talk, and the combination of the dog’s low, persistent growl and the speaker’s taunts makes for a vivid, disquieting soundtrack. The piece reminded me of shows on Spike: The First Network for Men, like Maximum Exposure or The World’s Most Amazing Videos, sensationalist collections of amateur videos showing anything from bizarre animal attacks to religious riots in foreign countries, enhanced with condescending voiceovers. Good Boy operates similarly: there is really nothing in it except for the spectacle of this dog at the mercy of its instincts and the director’s commentary track. The best and worst thing about Good Boy is the impossibility of locating the author in it.

This isn’t the case in Robert Melee’s High Life, a freestanding room built within one of the more out-of-the-way galleries of PS1. It has aggressively ugly day-glo walls and contains shelves with bottle caps, trophies, various abject knick-knacks, framed family photographs, and some slick, painting-like sculptures with bright enamel finishes. The centerpiece of this living room is the High Life Unit: four crappy television sets showing looped videos of Robert Melee and his mother, both born performers, engaged in various hi-jinks. One loop features a young man, naked save a Spiderman mask worn backwards, lounging around the house and occasionally hanging from a doorframe. Another follows the artist and his mother, in campy makeup and Vaudevillian garb, cavorting around Times Square. The third shows the artist’s mother in a ratty black wig talking about an incident of sexual abuse. Melee has played with the speed of the audio, so the speaker repeats key phrases of the account in slowed-down, tortured bass and manic falsetto. The last shows Melee, in a work suit and respirator, intently pouring thick, brightly colored paint all over Mom’s naked body.

Where Aaron Young is somehow conceptually absent from his work, Melee is unavoidably present and fully displayed. His installation is probably the only thing in the show that would have raised eyebrows in the Giuliani Administration, and it’s also the point in Greater New York where art viewing and making comes closest to trauma. It’s not that the pervy momsploitation isn’t studied-the aspect of self-aware, gleeful performance is always palpable in the videos-it’s that for all the bourgeoisie-baiting involved, Robert Melee’s High Life is an installation that deals with real fucked-upness, latent dread behind the campy shocks, and art as a way to process pain into something that’s at least horrifying rather than horrible. In the context of Greater New York, that level of unmodulated, unstable content was bracing.

Laurel Nakadate’s contribution to Greater New York is an untitled, five-minute video montage of short vignettes featuring the artist in one or another banal performance: dancing with a walkman on a bed, lying on the ground gazing at a dead bird, cavorting with an older male friend, lover, relative. The soundtrack is All I Have To Do Is Dream followed by some Neil Diamond song, and the music goes a long way toward lending consistency and flow to the disparate clips. The scenes with Nakadate and her seedy costar are very cute and endearing, really human, despite the contrivance of a young, attractive, female artist making a video of herself flirting with a louche father-figure. Like Melee, Nakadate is clearly performing rather than documenting, and her awareness of the camera is so intense that one feels like an intruder rather than a voyeur. Nakadate’s work is narcissistic, or about narcissism as they say in contemporary art, but it also aims for an emotional directness that not many artists in the show are interested in attempting.

There is one amazing part of Laurel Nakadate’s video, and it says something about the problem with Greater New York, but maybe also about its potential. The shot is a kind of video-portrait of the artist on September 11th, 2001 that gets replayed at different points in the montage. It shows Nakadate in front of a clear blue sky broken by the unforgettable column of smoke and ash from the collapsed World Trade Towers. She’s dressed as Girl Scout and staring intently into the camera lens with a fixed and unreadable expression, and she looks like a member of some emergency artistic response squad. What do we make of this?

With contemporary art, the contract between artist and observer can be very flexible, sometimes absurdly so. We don’t always expect that the artist is fully in command of the content of the work, or that he or she is going to tell us exactly what to feel about it. Often the most exciting moments in art are those where the meaning and value of a gesture are uncertain, and both artist and viewer are trying to make sense of something that’s being articulated for the first time. There is an expectation of good faith for both parties concerned. An artist will take risks provided that the viewer is actually going to take the time required to understand the work, and as viewers we’ll do the work to experience something if we think the artist means it. There were parts of Greater New York that made me glad to hold up my part of the contract, and other parts where I felt like it was time to renegotiate the terms, to start asking for some real answers about what all this is for. Whether it’s deep, antagonistic, or simply bullshit to make a video self-portrait on September 11th, 2001 is a question we should be ready to address by now.

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