Michael McMillen: Train of Thought
Oakland Museum of California
THE GENIUS OF MICHAEL MCMILLEN lies not in his ability to tell a story, but in his ability not to. His tableaux, installations, objects and even drawings deliver not narrative but places and devices for narrative, mises en scène so redolent with possibility, regardless how specific or how mysterious their details, that they set us projecting. Or, better, they set us dreaming. If anything, the visions and contraptions amidst which McMillen drops us resist our need to animate them with explanation or account: they inhere their own accounts, their own histories, and, especially, their own atmospheres.
In this, McMillen is sort of the mirror image of Terry Allen. Allen's spaces and images invariably conjure specific times and places, memories and attitudes, and keep us in thrall with their stories and the way they tell them. McMillen's no less elaborate structures refuse such anecdote, replacing it with equally enthralling technical and pictorial detail whose elements conspire to overwhelm us physically and visually. If Allen's works culminate in the sound of his plaintive art-country ballads, McMillen's culminate, at least by inference, in smell — not (usually) any specific smell pertinent to the urban or rural, domestic or industrial environments he suggests, but just something general that perfumes the air with humidity or decay or the sodden reek of accumulation. It's the smell of poetry.
Given the complexity of his work in general, and the immensity of many of his installations, any McMillen show that could truly call itself a "retrospective" would have to occupy a pretty capacious airplane hangar. Even so, "Train of Thought," the survey with which Oakland Museum's departing curator Philip Linhares made his valedictory gesture, disappointed expectant visitors, at least at first; scattered throughout the museum's California art collection rather than stuffed into discrete galleries, the show's own installation allowed no concentrated wallow in McMillen old and new.
But Linhares, who'd begun his tenure at Oakland with a McMillen show, knew what he was doing. McMillen's quirky art — handmade, eccentric, elusive and illusive, straddling reality and dream — is quintessentially Californian in spirit and in texture, and integrated almost magically with the museum's spectacular collection, even gaining a power from certain juxtapositions that would have been absent in a segregated show. Further, the area in the back of the floor Linhares was able to command entirely for his friend he filled with three of McMillen's most thorough and transportive sons et lumières — including the massive Pavilion of Rain (1987-2011). The survey thus allowed the McMillen's body of work some sort of apotheosis, however quirky and spotty the build-up.
In a sense, such a presentation was apropos, matching as it did the playful meandering of McMillen's own mental process. What delights us in his work is not only its lyric strain or its masterful craft but its unexpected coordination of wandering mind and exacting hand. His approach to assemblage is nothing short of virtuosic; rather than capitalize on discovery, as, say, George Herms does, McMillen clearly knows ahead of time what objects or materials he needs to find, the need dictated by the project at hand. Vision comes first, driving handiwork — although, much like William T. Wiley, McMillen seems to unleash his hand rather than simply drive it, allowing himself much revelation as he works.
McMillen, who is the son of a movie set designer and himself experienced in the profession (he made props for Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, among other films), always keeps us at a bit of a distance from his apparitions, so that they invariably command our visual space without impinging upon our bodily space. Only in his own movies, recent productions that recycle found footage into daffily deflected fables, does McMillen allow us close encounters. A clutch of exquisite works on paper from the early 1970s — quasi-conceptual studies of odd contraptions — whetted the visitor's appetite for more, and gradually, as we wandered through the floor, cued by a wheel-of-fortune symbol, we came across these and others given three dimensions in all their miniaturized — and, ultimately, not so miniaturized — glory.
All one could regret, finally, is that "Train of Thought" did not include any of McMillen's more ambitious work from his early years, such as described in the catalog. They sound enchanting, too, if somewhat more gimmicky than their successors. The catalog itself is a treasure, crammed with detailed and appreciative essays, appropriately brimming with documentary images, reproductions and close-ups galore, and spanning McMillen's career with the giddy, dogged focus that the show itself — or any show — could not possibly provide.
- Peter Frank
Regen Projects II
ELLIOTT HUNDLEY'S AMBITION is on a cosmic scale. His massive standing or hanging assemblages are panoramic fragments of worlds within worlds. Juxtaposing found elements to create personal mythologies he exposes an ongoing reconfiguration of Western cultural mythologies. Hundley's work always involves reaching back, an immersive bricolage through dream, private theater and culture both contemporary and historical.
In recent years, Hundley has assembled an entire oeuvre around works of the classical playwright, Euripides. His current exhibition, "Semele" (all works 2011), is titled after one of the principal female instigators of the The Bacchae. Semele herself does not appear in the play but her mythology is one of its key underlying sources, and is referenced by Hundley throughout.
Hundley's assemblage panels scan in a kind of chromatic and rhythmic wave motion, a visual respiration that reflects the way time and actuality expand and contract in his work. His "performers" are simultaneously magnified on the panels into the iconic demiurges of tragedy and shrunk to asteroids in this swirling cosmos, existing in several dimensions that might all be termed parenthetical. They conjoin with other colonies and constellations: insects, stars, dust and debris, and — most importantly here — language. Spare tires, architectural fragments, Louis XVI chairs — the archaic and anachronistic meet in a kind of tournament to oblivion.
The mapping of the surface is distinct from any narrative that might be imposed, but from one figure to another, or pair of figures, nude or semi-nude, we can sketch out a loose choreography of dance, performance or fabrication: many of the pairings feature props recognizable as the free-standing sculptural assemblages in the show. Hundley has also collaged into them contemporary and historical text and imagery. Where Cezanne's apples appeared in Lightning's Bride, Hundley footnotes eyes that run with a fragment of Matisse's
The sculptures have a clearly performative value. You can see this straightaway in tearing flesh from the bone. At the same time, they stand on their own as sculpture, or props transposed from the play, as in swarming over, a tangle of branches arching over a low-hanging cantilever support that is weighted down with a large rock.
Two paintings were unusual among the painted elements of Hundley's many assemblages. They carried little resonance with the sweeping chromatic schemes of the large assemblages, loosely composed and tentative in choice of color — not the Dionysian note one expects to close on in a show like this. Yet the larger impact is focused and sustained and leaves the viewer, not unlike Semele herself, scorched by its fire and blood. As Euripides himself might have expressed through his blind prophet Tiresias, "They speak of what will come in future days."
- Ezrha Jean Black
NICOLE EISENMAN'S SENSE OF HUMOR is always a marked part of her work, and is at times more ribald than others. Yet the salient and sustaining characteristic derives from a deep understanding of loss and the difficulties inherent in what Kierkegaard referred to as the "human condition." Expanding on the body of work most recently shown at Leo Koenig in 2009, Eisenman uses humor as a means of accessing a more complicated personal narrative, turning up the volume on her own artistic practice, as these new paintings reflect an unwavering commitment not only to painting as a singular and uncompromising form of expression, but also toward telling visual stories as a reflexive tool to a deeper human understanding.
One might even go so far as to call these paintings "existential," which emphasizes the individual attempting to achieve a fulfilling life, faced with obstacles that must be overcome, and the external and internal factors involved in attempting this, including the potential consequences of the existence, or nonexistence, of God. In the painting The Tea Party (all works from 2011), Uncle Sam sits sipping tea in a bomb shelter with a family who appear to be assembling some kind of deadly weapon. The woman serenely cradles a rifle as though it was a child, and the men are red-nosed and ardently fixated on the task at hand. The American capitalist's dream has finally gone under as Uncle Sam's infamous finger cradles a sagging tea bag and points downward toward Hell.
Other works like Séance speak to our growing fascination with the occult, though what is particularly affecting here is Eisenman's use of color as a kind of spiritual conduit as each figure seems to vibrate, their gnarled hands like templates or neon imprints of their own human existence pressing down into the tabletop. Are they summoning a spirit from the other side or pushing something deeper down inside themselves?
In The Drawing Class we witness the image from one artist's point of view. Only from there can we see the distorted and nearly vanishing figure in front of her. It's implied that the rest of the group only document what they think is there as opposed to really perceiving the strangely suffering form before them, or looking into themselves. Eisenman's portraits capture the moment between the visible and the invisible, as with Guy Reading the Stranger, where the artist posits in visual terms Camus' central existential conundrum, namely that darkness is its own revelation and we choose to identify with it or not just as our lives are sometimes governed by indifference or even ignorance. Here, Eisenman's "guy" slips quietly into his own personal shadowland.
In the end, Eisenman is really an optimist, though she might be loath to admit it. She cares intensely, and each of these revelatory paintings speak out on our behalf, despite the fact we are sometimes ugly and often crass; what is most vital is the willingness to continue looking into the void, even if we are the void.
- Eve Wood
Thomas Solomon Gallery
"EVER LET THE FANCY ROAM" was a sparsely populated solo show with only five objects placed throughout the single-room gallery. A sense of quiet pervaded the space, but it was a stillness that commanded attention. Each object, deliberately situated, held an inner power that was as seductive as it was initially cryptic.
The large sculpture anchoring the rear of the room, Love Forever (all works 2011), mimicked a white sheet draped over a love seat, recalling classical Greek works in the muscular realism of its various folds and indentations. Interestingly, the love seat itself was missing from the work; Yaghmai made the sculpture by pouring fiberglass and resin over an old sofa, with the resulting shape, minus the sofa, constituting the final product. Love Forever instantly brought to mind an old, uninhabited house; the desire to preserve our cherished belongings; a sentimental remembrance of love; and perhaps the empty misplacement of affection onto memory rather than life itself.
On the right side of the gallery were two sets of concentric brown rings titled Removal, Removal #1 and #3. Hanging closest to the gallery entrance, #1 was comprised of actual rings taken from a redwood tree, while #3 was made up of resin casts of the negative space surrounding the rings. Not present was #2, which would have been the mold. Quietly memorializing the enormous lifespan of the redwood tree, Yaghmai questions civilization's theft of the same through manufacturing.
In Light of Today was the goofiest piece in the show, deviating from the spartan perfectionism surrounding it. The huge Lightjet print presented a leafy-green abstract background, in reality a close-up image of the soft insulation found underneath carpeting. Digitally collaged atop this background was a small rectangular image of a dark-haired girl in exotic attire sitting in a field of pink flowers — an image taken from a minor 19th-century painting, possibly of the Rococo variety. Even with and perhaps because of its visual clunkiness, In Light of Today deftly conflates domestic convenience and exotic kitsch.
In an adjacent and slightly darkened anteroom one could view the final piece in the show, a spectacular collage titled Eclipse 2. For this work, Yaghmai took an image of an eclipse and pasted various cuttings atop it that both mirrored and magnified the eclipse's dramatic effects, radiating scenic fragments out from a prominent black hole in the center. Collage elements were taken from a variety of sources, including magazines and the artist's own photographic prints. Evoking again the nature of nostalgia, fragments of culture and scenes from past encounters emanated from a place of emptiness that blocked out the sun's light.
Yaghmai's work conveys the rich inner life of objects, the mystery of their containment, and the intricate ways in which such objects carry meaning for us and for culture. "Ever Let the Fancy Roam" reached deep and lingered in the mind long after viewing.
- Carol Cheh
Shoshana Wayne Gallery
AS A PERFORMER, DANCER and artist, Tony Orrico can be thought of as a human Spirograph who uses the body's appendages as levers to create his magnificent series of Penwald drawings.
Like Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, Orrico takes advantage of the body's proportions and uses its geometry to create arcs and lines. As he moves his body across large sheets of paper placed on the floor or wall, he repeatedly strikes the surface with pieces of charcoal or graphite, creating linear or circular patterns that become denser as the drawing progresses. Watching a time-lapse video of his process it becomes evident that the physicality of the performance is as much a part of the work as the finished drawing. Like many artists working in the '60s and '70s who were interested in performance, endurance and duration, Orrico — who was trained as a dancer and has danced with the Trisha Brown Dance company as well as with Shen Wei Dance Arts — designs specific patterns of movement, and while the resulting drawing is a record of that activity, it becomes more than simple documentation.
Every title includes the word "Penwald," a reference to those who teach themselves to be ambidextrous through practice. The simultaneous use of both hands creates symmetry in the work that recalls Rorschach patterns, or hemispheres of the brain. Whatever the final shape, the quality of line, whether overlapping arcs or tightly controlled scribbles, demands close scrutiny.
Penwald: 2: 8 circles: 8 gestures (all works 2011) is a site-specific work created in the gallery during a private performance that lasted more than two hours. To make
Orrico draws on paper as well as directly on the gallery wall, as in the 12-hour drawing taking place over three days, Penwald: 4: unison symmetry standing. The drawings, whether on the wall or on paper, are explorations of choreographed body movements not dissimilar to the series of commands issued by Sol LeWitt as directions to create his wall works. Unlike LeWitt however, these could not be made by just anyone. Orrico's training as a dancer and his interests in gesture and the body make his process and abstract works unique. His specific sequences of movement reflect his training, and are designed to leave a trace — the enactment of a dance and the record of those movements unfolding over time.
- Jody Zellen
UCLA Hammer Museum
"DIVER" PROFFERS SCANT remnants of Paul Thek's massive, often-collaborative and ephemeral installations. The retrospective conjoins these remains with rarely seen paintings, small objects and notebooks to create a very different picture of Thek than the vaunted, mythological "artist's artist" legendary to many. With pleasure we read Thek by Thek, finally.
A revelatory way to see the exhibition is to walk through it backward chronologically — "against interpretation" — as may have been advised by Thek's friend Susan Sontag, who dedicated her seminal book of essays with the same title to him in 1966.
Starting in the extant gallery — almost an afterthought to the main exhibition space — viewers encounter humble paintings from Thek's last show hung low on the wall. While he lay dying of complications from AIDS in the summer of 1988, none of the works sold. Time is a River and Dust (both 1988) — only two examples of many in the room — carry a bright turquoise hue as resonant theme. Across the color appears Thek's poetry imbued with a reflected light like sun glinting off the water. While there is time (1987), Thek painted the year before, "let's go out and / and feel everything."
Paul Thek loved the sensuality of the world but had monastic longings. A Roman Catholic, he was devoutly interested in materiality at its vanishing point — death. His journals are filled with a crux of observations and poetical indulgences at the point where spirit meets body meets humanity, the eye of the world. A show of Thek's multitudinous private notebooks alone could have carried the day.
Other simple objects with this power include Untitled (globe) (1973), a glass orb painted like Earth sitting in a nest, and Portable Ocean (1969), a construction of a child's wooden wagon with blocks painted in atmospheres. As Thek and Sontag may have concurred, materiality is just a state of potential that art and hermeneutics release.
Thek's icy clouds protect softer viscera. Only seen upon crossing the next threshold on this backward trajectory are the installation and meat works visible — this is the raw Thek who is everyone's favorite, the one with balls. Refreshingly we learn that Thek was not just that artist. In fact he "suicided" his most famous work The Tomb (1967), which featured a naked, full-body replica of himself in a pink ziggurat — dead — by refusing its shipment back to him in New York in the early '80s. Weighing in on the side of life, not art, he is said to have rebelled when asked to show it: "Not that piece again! Imagine having to bury yourself over and over."
In the next room, Thek's mid-'60s series Technological Reliquaries are a perversion of Smithson, Judd and Minimalism in general, encasing theatrics and horror. Thek's prosthetic incursions into pure geometric space demonstrate that the voice of the artist emerged from deep within the body. "We accept our thingness intellectually but the emotional acceptance of it can be a joy," wrote a young Thek upon his visit to the Capuchin catacombs with his lover Peter Hujar, photographer for much of Thek's studio ephemera on display.
Stepping out of the meat room at last into the entry vestibule, a huge projection of Warhol's Screen Test: Paul Thek [St337] (1964) shows a clean-shaven Thek blinking calmly as he is considered for a series of "the thirteen most beautiful boys." Starting here the completely misleading image would make a spectacle of the exhibition. Unspeaking, vacuous, Thek is captured in a permanently undead state of pubescent beauty, the decay he loved, nowhere to be seen. Leaving "Diver" on this note, released back into the flow of time, it is clear Thek chose the hardest path — to document his own life as it passed before his eyes.
- Carrie Paterson
FOR SCOTTISH ARTISTS Craig Little and Blake Whitehead — collectively, littlewhitehead — dark comedy serves as an antidote to life's routine onslaught of negative information. Emerging from post-industrial Glasgow's harsh atmosphere, their principle strategies involve humour (the British kind with an extra "u") and the visual tropes of filmmaking. Geographic and cultural differences between the U.K. and U.S. aside, the exhibition of 2011 works "Bad News" seemed right at home in Los Angeles with its Noir sensibility.
Through an e-mail exchange, it was learned that the cast of a Stevie Wonder record, After the Fall, and an upright black briefcase, Bad News, were intended as emblematic items. Both established an ominous air and were made from the ashes of burnt-out houses in Detroit. The distorted noise from the record is "a strange lament to Detroit," considered by the artists a sister-city to Glasgow for its economic decline. It becomes the show's "soundtrack."
The artists created this work after a spate of personal setbacks. "2011 has been a pretty shit year so far," they wrote. "We had family members being told they were dying, works smashed in transit, driving offense fines, failure to secure funding for projects, projects and exhibitions being cancelled." This autobiographical dimension is not readily evident, even as a newspaper clipping stuck to a wall with a butcher knife, My Butcher, describes a deadly e-coli outbreak in a suburb where the artists work. Additionally, two figurative sculptures feature Whitehead's father's facial profile: We're all going to lose — a human figure sprawled on the floor with a man's face incongruously matched to its child-sized body — and The right word at the right time, another dwarfed figure nearby, teetering on a window ledge mounted on the wall.
The humour continued at the back of the gallery, where Stolen Flesh dripped "blood" from a bag hung from a dead tree branch. Drawings and photographs similar in fatalistic tone (all Untitled) felt somewhat separate from the sculptures; nevertheless, all seemed part of a web of narrative vignettes.
Narrative encompasses fiction and nonfiction; it can suggest a sea-changing event or episodes connected through time, cause, theme or outcome. It certainly structures news and most movies, both of which the artists cite as influences. Whether intended or not, "Bad News" invited narrative readings. Take the bloke on the window ledge—is he attempting escape or contemplating suicide? Why is he wearing a business suit? Could the fictitious briefcase contain money, drugs, a bomb ... or something more innocuous like paper and pen? Couldn't the two figures or even the briefcase be seen as relatable? For viewers, there's an inclination to develop story lines from works' adjacency in space. The artists say that to "revert" to this response is natural but insist the works' narratives are "nebulous" rather than "didactic." However, the potential for reading stories or even non-linear episodic associations into the works add layers of richness; narrative doesn't necessarily undermine conceptual underpinnings. Take the work of Young British Artists like Sarah Lukas, Damian Hirst or Tracey Emin, which littlewhitehead's art somewhat evokes. Narrative can be a sophisticated visual strategy, and at the hands of intelligent, talented artists like littlewhitehead, what's so bad about that?
- Anne Martens
Michael Rosenthal Gallery
WITH ITS DENSE INTERPLAY between word and image, Justin Amrhein's small but concentrated show takes some time to process. The artist, a Californian now living in Brooklyn, makes impeccable, graphite faux-engineering drawings, sometimes with non-repro-blue graphpaper backgrounds or inserts, of "exploded" mechanisms in axonometric projection. Replete with alphanumeric part names (e.g., R225C7, W11 Stage 2) and real-world descriptors, the diagrams look buildable, whether plausible-sounding (Equalizer Tank, Bubbler) or not (Prophet Support Arm, Copulation Motion Controller).
Five small works in graphite, acrylic and metal leaf on Mylar, from a 2011 series called "Pulled Part" (a term familiar to habitués of auto salvage yards) purportedly depict assemblies pulled from larger devices: Recharging System Q7, Air Circulation System A, and Belt Power System; two additional drawings hint at Christian theology (Family of Three) and absurdist wordplay (Gilzit Tibler). The satirical Dada machines of Francis Picabia and Max Ernst are clear ancestors, though Amrhein has made one interesting modification: the metal leafing suggests electrical conductivity and therefore functionality, so these are literally working drawings — Duchampian alchemy for the printed-circuit age.
More strictly technical in appearance are a half-dozen 2008 graphite diagrams on sheets of vellum depicting sub-assemblies for various imaginary Doomsday weapons, the named parts include Fuel Pump, Sphere of Uranium 235, Guidance Satellite Dish, Ignition Chamber, and so on. One huge tour de force, Weapon of Mass Destruction R225C7, W11 Stage 2 (2011), measures nearly 7 x 13 feet, the size of a blackboard chockablock with squiggly equations, or a medieval altarpiece squirming with the damned.
Not all the works here depict uber-ordnance, however. A few show the supposed inner mechanical workings of insects, not so far-fetched an idea nowadays, as nature and technology converge in such contrivances as tiny flying spy drones. Apis Mellifera (Honey bee) from 2010 is a drawing on Mylar depicting a bell-shaped apparatus suggestive of a war helmet. Monarch Machine and Praying Mantis Machine, both from 2011, depict similarly enigmatic, powerful devices; these Duratrans film negatives mounted on steel light boxes resemble both engineering drawings and X-rays, evoking both design and diagnosis.
Machines and art have had a love-hate relationship since industrialization's origins in the early nineteenth century. Turner's little black tugboat, humble compared with the grand but obsolete sail-powered man-of-war that it tows to be dismantled (The Fighting "Temeraire" ... 1838), heralded the new age of mechanization and scientific rationalism that were to be both exalted and mocked by Modernists of various stripes a century later. Amrhein's renderings of imaginary mechanisms continue to investigate this complicated relationship between man and his creations. Technical and non-mechanical types alike will enjoy Amrhein's parodies and marvel at his visual and verbal ingenuity, while pondering what their absurd incomprehensibility says about our increasing, irreversible dependence on technology.
- DeWitt Cheng
Science of Sight: Alternative Photography
ESOTERIC PHOTOGRAPHIC techniques, from the antique to the highly experimental and conceptual, came to the fore as Haines Gallery recently sidestepped the medium's increasingly ubiquitous digital interface, giving exposure to the work of 13 artists who approach the photograph as an intersection of light and materials.
Artist Binh Danh uses a daguerreotype process to present flickering images, faces of those documented by the Khmer Rouge prior to their execution in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (2008) portrays the image of a young man; as his solemn face stares back at us, we may be disconcerted by the sight of our reflection in the fragile silver medium. Danh, originally from Vietnam, captured this image at the genocide museum in Phnom Penh.
The photogram is one of the earliest photographic processes — created by placing actual objects atop photosensitive paper. Beijing-based Shi Guorui, primarily known for large-scale camera obscura works of spectacular sights in China, presented photograms created during a residency at the de Young Museum. Untitled (chair from de Young archives) (2007) offers a haunting reinterpretation of a traditional object as a hazy, cream-colored absence. Wendy Small's photogram A plane, 2 dragons, 5 dollars (2004) uses mysterious small objects to create engaging, lacy images. In her Barrel of Monkeys (2004), simians and tiny mermaids come into focus. Small's initial impulse — to de-clutter a drawer — blossomed, resulting in these formal yet whimsical compositions.
Klea McKenna's Paper Airplane Project (2011) is comprised of a large wall installation of partially unfolded paper planes; exposure to the sun "from dawn until dusk" resulted in warm shades of orange, yellow, red and brown, glowing across the angular geometry of surfaces. These were inspired by the military in WWII watching round the clock for enemy planes along the Western coast of the United States. McKenna exposed the paper planes at Tennessee Cove in Marin county, one of the outposts where the wartime vigil took place.
Abelardo Morell uses a camera obscura to project panoramic landscapes — the Brooklyn Bridge, a view of Florence — onto intimate interior settings. Setting up temporary residence in a space near a site, Morell would temporarily cover the windows with black plastic to create the pinhole camera. The reversed documentary image, falling across the furniture and decorations within the room, produces an unsettling, hallucinatory effect. John Chiara's 15th at Noriega (2011) uses a dye destruction process to create a cityscape, the sun reflecting off a flat, indeterminate, surface, in a smoggy-looking haze of a San Francisco sunrise or dusk. Chiara actually climbs inside his hand-built, large-format camera mounted on a flatbed trailer, manipulating the exposure from within.
Refreshingly low-tech, Jo Babcock creates sculptural tableaux, such as Gasoline Can & Abandoned Gas Station (1997), incorporating a photograph with the humble, three-dimensional object transformed into a pinhole camera — here, a rusty gas can — that produced it. Internal and external space, often turned inside-out, along with a subliminal sense of the ephemeral, subjective nature of the world, give us much to consider in the work of these accomplished artists.
- Barbara Morris
FOR RYAN TRECARTIN'S solo exhibition "Any Ever" at PS1, visitors could sit on a sofa, a plastic swiveling chair, airplane rows, lawn furniture and metal bleachers; then laze in a hammock, climb up onto a bed on stilts and toy with gym equipment. I passed on the six-foot stepladders, either because the guards might stop me or because they might not. I wandered amid four hours of digital video, and entered mash-ups of IKEA and a wide-screen multiplex, with the sound coming through soft, old-fashioned headsets; saw a pool party, a joy ride, a satanic ritual or an act of arson, and almost perpetual dancing; listened to confessions of and pleas for love, pop songs and hissy fits, blank responses almost like therapy, and a lecture on cutting up the Constitution.
Has "contemporary" art entered a midlife crisis in the face of Gen-Y? Now 30, Ryan Trecartin shares MoMA PS1 and the video age with Laurel Nakadate, age 36. She comes with warnings about adult content, but is still obsessed with teen anxiety. So is Cory Arcangel, age 33, who uses video games in his work, and the Whitney has given him a full floor; he is the youngest artist to ever have a solo show there.
Trecartin's characters want love, freedom, a career, material possessions, and a soul. They seem to do a fair amount of cursing, but Trecartin alters their pitch along with his own nasal tone and rapid pace, so that one strains to make out anything at all. His voice-over does, however, have something to do with a perpetual remaking of the self — a creative freedom too dangerous to allow mere sex or violence. As a wall label has it on the way in, "one becomes everything one thinks, says, and does."
If "sense" is the word, it makes sense to treat "Any Ever" as one huge work with recurring thoughts and props. A globe turns up on one video for fondling or kicking around, becomes the spinning logo for the evening news on a second, and is smashed to bits on a third — perhaps with the hammer lying around two rooms away. The confrontation recalls Bruce Nauman or Paul McCarthy, and the gay and transgender identities reference John Waters or Jack Smith. So does the glitz and the over-the-top action. For all that, Trecartin wants to believe in creativity as a source of stability and even control. His cast draws on aspiring child actors, and his steady collaborator, Lizzie Fitch.
Trecartin's call for the continued remaking of identity recalls Cindy Sherman — but with a difference. Sherman is always at risk, always a part of film culture's deep past, and impossible to pin down. Trecartin is always explicit and always at home, with so much cheap furniture to be left behind or thrown away. Even the oldest work dates back just two years. PS1 links Trecartin to "intergenerational thinkers and cultural consumers" — but here, thinkers are always consumers.
- John Haber
Sue Scott Gallery
WITH A CHARACTERISTIC combination of chutzpah and humility, David Shapiro reveals the alternately intriguing and boring details of his identity as both a customer and a client in a recent series of drawings featuring fastidiously rendered, life-size facsimiles of his bills, receipts, cancelled checks and payment stubs dated 2010 — a complete compendium from last year, according to gallery information. In 12 enormous scroll drawings (as long as 30 feet) in color pencil, ink and gouache, Shapiro has reproduced the records of each month's monetary transactions, arranged in a rough grid, like specimens or evidence. Accordingly, several of these scrolls were presented in elegant, dark wood vitrines; the rest were displayed in purpose-built wall mounts.
Like a stone tossed into a pond, Shapiro's deceptively simple gestures generate radiating conceptual ripples. For this exhibition entitled "Money Is No Object," and others, Shapiro usually makes reference to an economy of some kind. Reflecting on the relation of property and consumption in a 2005 project called "Left for Dead," the artist took possession of dozens of decrepit bicycles, chained but evidently abandoned in and around New York City, and relocated them to Socrates Sculpture Park on the Queens waterfront. (The chains he hung from a sort of May pole.) "Consumed," a 2003 installation, consisted of two years' worth of the artist's empty food and beverage containers neatly stacked on supermarket-style shelving, postulating the gallery as aesthetic bodega and art as artifact of one of the artist's most biologically essential activities.
"Consumed" was also a metaphorical self-portrait, and "Money Is No Object" picks up that theme. The paper trail includes supermarket receipts, scrawled order forms from Chinese take-out, a Chelsea parking lot's claim checks, fading cash register tapes from Utrecht art supplies and, amid the sheer ordinariness, ticket stubs for the Louis Armstrong House Museum (two adults, one child). The work's tone might be exhibitionistic if the content weren't so quotidian — nothing racy or illicit here. Still, the viewer experiences a pang of voyeurism scanning the artist's legal bills and airline tickets, and a telltale invoice from Roto-Rooter.
If critiquing rampant consumerism, Shapiro indicts himself as an accomplice; if kvetching about corporate domination of private life, he displays his victimization. But surely the project is fueled by love, not by anger. Strength, not spite, sustained the mental focus and steady hand required to reiterate in exquisite detail the documents' mash-up of printed and handwritten characters, misaligned time stamps, scratchy trails left on running-dry paper tapes, the vagaries of a foreign hand struggling with unfamiliar language, the soothing institutional palette of off-whites, pastel hues and endless variations on gray. As a narrative, the work's diaristic form testifies to battles lost and won: an indefensible motor vehicle citation ("no front plate"); a $2,972 federal income tax refund check. The indefatigability with which the artist approaches his subject and method mirrors the relentless struggle to keep on with the business of living, and the psychic imperative to take what pleasure we can in its incidental visual riches.
- Stephen Maine