The Negligent Aesthetic
Kim Levin fights back the torpor of a New York Summer with some surprising
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
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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