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Sept. 1991

The Negligent Aesthetic

Kim Levin fights back the torpor of a New York Summer with some surprising "sleepers".

It's an odd moment in New York. Between the 80's and the 90's something changed irrevocably, and that realization is beginning to sink in. In one sense New York has, forgive the expression, painted itself into the umpteenth corner. There aren't any East Village galleries any more in the East Village. SoHo galleries have been dropping like flies--closing in the middle of the season, or moving to try their luck elsewhere (Paris, Madrid, Los Angeles). But it's not just the comatose market. It's more like post-war trauma, environment fatigue, sheer exhaustion. New World Order? Forget it. It's the spluttering collapse of the modern era. Even the latest revival of the Mary Boone rumors couldn't rouse any enthusiasm.

The major event of the spring season, the Whitney Biennial, was a big letdown. This is the show the New York art world loves to hate, but what the 1991 Biennial exposed all too well was the sense of sheer exhaustion. In an antidote to the Biennial boredom PS1 managed to rouse itself from financial despair to mount "New York Diary: Almost 25 Different Things". This was an eccentric show of 25 fresh installation works curated by PS1's two guest curators from Eastern Europe (Ryzsard Wasco from Lodz and Zdenka Gabalova from Prague). The show had a loose energy, alive with natural substances and processes. One work-in-progress was painted by the droppings of four live doves, another was attacked behind glass by a colony of ants. There were smells of incense, spices, shredded rubber and sounds--among them an operatic Artaud narrative emitted by a forest of hanging speakers and a shelf of screeching hearing aids imprisoned in goblets.

Uptown at the Museo del Barrio, Puerto Rican artist Pepon Osorio's unexpected five-year retrospective was the sleeper of the summer. His fabulous transformed objects and installations--a sofa, a bicycle, a bedroom, a chandelier, each embellished with trinkets, statistics and handwritten narrative texts--proved that the personal and the ornamental can be political. Celebratory and sad, playing on the colonized conditions of Puerto Rican excess, the show opened with a lacy bassinet that spoke of infant mortality and ended with The Wake an unforgettable funeral parlor installation that addressed AIDS in the Hispanic community.

The Gulf War intruded into nearly everything on view during the spring. "Splatterpunk" may be the popular new genre of Hollywood film, but in the art world, Splatterworks--the early 90's variant of late 60's process-oriented scatter pieces--were everywhere in New York. There was a spate of installations that were atomized, barely existent flung-together scatter pieces, desultory arrangements of construction materials, glitter, underwear, electrical components, disembodied wax body parts, ordinary objects. I doubt that it was mere coincidence. The war must have made artists realize that in the real world deconstruction means demolition.

I first noticed it in February with Thom Merrick's floor installation at Pat Hearn: unrecognizable bits and pieces of deconstructed motorcycle strewn across the gallery's white floor and titled Desert . Then there was Mathew McCaslin's sprawling installation of electrical wires and circuitry (take that, Peter Halley) at Daniel Newburg Gallery. Karen Kilimnik's scattershot installation at 303 Gallery--strewn with plastic eggs, toy guns, glitter, Napoleonic imagery, music (I don't like Mondays) and random shotgun holes in one wall--had overtones of violent narrative as well as disintegrated order. Even John Armleder weighed in with a lightweight reconstruction of an early work that was little more than a ladder and some glitter in a couple of heaps on the floor.

It is not that the negligent aesthetic is particularly new-- we've already seen it in the work of artists like Martin Kippenberger, Georg Herold or Cady Noland. But current events made it infinitely more relevant. Art's critique of its own commodification was already being superseded in New York by more pressing concerns: social, racial, sexual, cultural inequities; the deteriorating environment; an incurable disease. Issues of authorlessness were being overthrown by issues of ethnic identity. Appropriation was being overthrown by ecological art. Simulation was giving way to medical and spiritual metaphors. In fact, political correctness is becoming so pervasive in New York art that it threatens to become academic, if not generic. And worse, intolerance is increasing exponentially from all sides; the latest instance is a Washington DC museum official's effort to censor an early Sol LeWitt homage to Muybridge, which she decided was offensive on feminist grounds.

In mid-June the first intentionally politically incorrect group show by ten artists, curated by Kenny Schachter, titled "Decorous Beliefs" opened in a raw loft space in SoHo--strewn with perverse nastiness--the guest book cover was that of Mein Kampf. It was hard to tell what was art and what was part of the grungy space: a stained tablecloth with a meat-slicer by one artist, from which roast beef sandwiches were dispensed at the opening; the tags bearing personal ads (alluding to the 80's craze of people advertising themselves like commodities) hung in odd places by another artist; a couple of copulating dildos on the floor; some lesbian graffiti drawings on the window glass. "This group of work rejects the current frenzy to present art that addresses social, political and environmental issues in a manner deemed 'correct' by a corrupt society" declared the press release. The fin-de-siècle mood in decaying New York is one of mourning, warning, denial, hostility and foreboding. But I sense something stirring, as if the current exhaustion were masking a defiant new throwaway aesthetic of trashy objects and conceptual rubble transformed by rage and outrage and a new generation of artists, who are post-political and nihilistic.


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