Saturday, October 11, 2008

Subprime Art?

When I started this blog, I intended it to focus on my own writing and scholarship. Instead, art seems to have taken over. Well, I guess that is okay, since Goethe, after all, initially dreamed of being an artist. It was only when he was in his mid-30s, ten years after the success of The Sorrows of Young Werther, that he finally realized that he would have to give up that dream. This occurred during his years in Rome (see picture at head of this blog), when his closest acquaintances were German artists. He remained all his life an Augenmensch, which I think probably describes me, too. I notice everything. The above pictures show one of the reasons I go to the galleries: to see the interesting people, including "King of Fashion" Prince William III. But I am also interested in the ethos of our time, in what engages people. Some of it is represented in the Chelsea art scene, or what passes these days for art.

To my eyes there is little that I would describe with that ancient, hallowed word, though you occasionally come across a painter who possesses a high degree of craftsmanship. When you see such work, you think, "Yes, there is real artistry there." For the most part, however, the mediocrity of the works, the level of which doesn't even reach to that of art school, is what most strikes me, and I can only wonder what the galleries are getting out of the arrangement. What are the economies of scale here? Is anything actually being sold? I have yet to see an article, say, in the Village Voice (well, I haven't read it since the Dinkins administration) or The New Republic that addresses this issue. And even in the case of works that show craftsmanship, they are often tendentious and lack any aspiration toward beauty (I know that beauty is hopelessly outmoded these days) or any personal compelling vision. (My husband's cooking combines both beauty and craft.)

There is, however, one exception to the compelling vision thing, and it expresses itself politically. We saw two shows last night that were overtly political. One was hackneyed, which most such displays are;  a lot of work had gone into the other -- and it exhibited craft as well.

Let me start with the second, at the Robert Steele Gallery on 511 West 25th Street. First off, it has to be said that the coolest people were at this gallery: good-looking girls, interesting types, and some nice clothes, too.


The gallery is brightly lit, and the walls were filled with almost identically sized drawings extending in a single row along the four walls. Right away I could see there was talent here, but I also sensed that something was being expressed here. But what? I couldn't put my finger on it, but I thought it might be political. Rick came up to me a few minutes later and said "Disaster, Republican landscapes." 

Yes, I replied, that is what it suggests. Later I discovered that such was indeed the name of the show! Well, Republicans and the president have been so demonized for the last eight years that this is obviously a trendy theme for an artist, one that the rather young crowd in Chelsea (not book readers for the most part, I would bet) can "get" quickly.

Ed Smith was present.  He looks like a manly man, in contrast to so many of the males one sees in the gallery scene. His work is good, too; it is above the level of pure agitprop. I didn't talk to him, however, for I really didn't want to know what compelled him to devote so much time to putting what appeared to be his rage on the walls. The rage is at odds with the good-looking people at the gallery. Rage, however, is part of the ethos of our time (but do people want to hang it on their walls?). It is an element of contemporary virtue.

The other political show, at the Charles Cowles Gallery, featured the most awful series of huge panels depicting (so the press release) "the leading administration officials and politicians involved in the various stages of justifying the invasion of Iraq to the world community." And there, when we entered, was Donald Rumsfeld getting ready for his date with the camera. Duh. The "artist," Xiaoze Xie, originally from China (the irony: he has left a country where he would go to jail if he exhibited such stuff), has traveled 8,000 miles to mount this colossal waste of effort. Who will be interested in this agitprop in 10 years? The current political "art" is simply an extension of the demonization of conservatism that occurs in the classroom. It is triumphalist and gives some people a sense of being in the know.

Thus, it was somewhat of a relief to turn to something whimsical, which was to be found at 
the P.P.O.W. Gallery, which, as usual, had a huge crowd, this time for Thomas Woodruff's "Solar System" series, based (believe it or not, on Gustav Holst's The Planet Suite). I don't think I could bear to have any of these paintings (again, much craftsmanship here) hanging in my house, but people were having a good time.  

 Ten minutes there, and it was time to go elsewhere.

Fredericks & Freiser Gallery also has lots of cool people, but not the well-dressed types you see at Robert Steele. It featured a show called "Midnight in the Empire" (would that be the Republican/George Bush Empire?), with works by an artist named Zak Smith. Below is one of Zak Smith's works. I didn't meet him, but I suspect he is the pissed-off guy in the small photo to the left, since the beautiful girl beside him looks so much like the figure on the right in the painting below:

Okay ... what is it with all these tattoos? Unlike at the Robert Steele Gallery, Zak Smith's show was attended by lots of folks with tattoos.

Finally, here is one of those cool mirrors that I love, by Yuichi Higashionna at Marianne Boesky Gallery. Is it art? The artist calls it "an exploration of domestic kitch." I don't know, but it made me happy to see it. There is a lot of playfulness here, similar to that in work by Martin Puryear, who was featured in a large show last year at the Museum of Modern Art. When I saw Puryear's work, I thought of Schiller's ideas concerning the absolutely "free" nature of art: it serves no purpose, and reminds us of our own freedom. The only thing it calls attention to is its own making, and, as with Puryear, I was charmed by what Higashionna has wrought.

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