May 27, 2010
Take Me Out to the Big Show in Queens
Franklin Evans’s walk-in painting and drawing installation, “timecompressionmachine.”
To get the full effect of “Greater New York,” the three-ring circus of new art that has commandeered MoMA P.S. 1 in Long Island City, Queens, clear your calendar, pack earplugs and be grateful for what substance and revelation come your way.
This show, a survey of little known and emerging artists working in New York City, was established in 2000 and is mounted every five years. More than other versions, the current one is a welcome jolt to the New York art world in scope, ambition and the range of things it gives you to think about. Spreading the work of 68 artists throughout an immense building, “Greater New York” conveys the impression that it is a wonderful thing to be young and making art in this city.
But if the show has some exhilarating highs, they seem fueled less by art than by diffuse artistic energy, inspired curatorial power sharing and an inexplicable optimism. Maybe the excitement stems from seeing the largest, most flexible contemporary-art space in New York being put to such extensive use. Too often, though, “Greater New York” feels like a mirage, with the hard evidence withheld. It has strong work, but not nearly enough of it.
The show has been organized by Klaus Biesenbach, director of MoMA P.S. 1 and chief curator at large at its parent institution, the Museum of Modern Art; Connie Butler, chief curator of drawings at the Modern; and Neville Wakefield, MoMA P.S. 1’s senior curatorial advisor. It pays lip service to all of the touchstones of the moment: collective art making, the ephemeral, audience participation, political subject matter, art as life, art as documentary, art as social interaction.
The main mission of “Greater New York” seems to be to prove from the inside out that not only is performance art the dominant medium of our time but also that aspects of it have infiltrated all other forms, including that of the art exhibition itself.
Dominated by videos, chockablock with performances and punctuated with other works that are in progress in some way, “Greater New York” has something of a viral, mutating organizational structure. Some of the selected artists have invited collaborators to work with them, or recommended others for the show’s performance program. The eight-page schedule mentions poetry readings, artists in residence (and office hours), collaborative performances, meet-up groups, open studios and rehearsals, and “an experiential durational happening.” It starts to sound a bit like summer camp.
Contributing further to all the activity, five independent curators will each organize a five-week show within the show during the four-and-a-half month run of “Greater New York.” (Unfortunately, the first, “The Baghdad batteries,” a group exhibition of multiple mediums spanning several generations that was organized by Olivia Shao, is too wanly conceptual.) The curators have also, perhaps lazily, co-opted some recent solo gallery shows, moving “Greater New York” away from its tradition of discovering artists. But in this case K8 Hardy’s anti-Cindy Sherman photographs and Franklin Evans’s walk-in painting and drawing installation are high points, as are efforts by Tommy Hartung and Leidy Churchman.
It is rare to see a show that puts such faith in artists — or channels their generosity, imagination, passion and networking skills so deftly — while paying so little attention to actual works of art. There are too many galleries with almost no inducement to stop and look. It’s hard to feel any need to when the curators don’t seem to have been looking, at least not with sustained openness, rigor and disinterested curiosity. The sorriest sight is painting, most of which is really “painting,” approached with irony and pushed toward sculpture, video or performance. Mr. Churchman is the only painter left standing. Here he moves with ease from faux-naïve homoerotic renderings on wood to painting-as-performance-as-exorcism videos to tabletop sculptures with no loss of concentration.
Several sculptural works will change noticeably as the show proceeds. The Bruce High Quality Foundation, today’s art collective with the mostest, has filled a gallery with pristine white sculpture pedestals in different proportions. They are available to art schools if replaced by old, used ones. For now the unmatched pedestals look like a Sol LeWitt sculpture in rebellion.
Other works in progress are too beholden to the tired fur-lined teacup formula: combine objects or materials not usually found together and wait for people to say wow. David Brooks has earnestly assembled a representative chunk of tropical rain forest plant life and deluged it with concrete — something between an indoor Robert Smithson rundown and a landscape by George Segal — in protest of the destruction of nature by industry. The encased plants will die and decay, collapsing in a kind of slow-motion happening.
On a brighter note, Saul Melman is gilding the building’s long-unused boiler works with gold leaf. David Adamo has covered the floor of one gallery with baseball bats, fit perfectly in rows, head by handle, and appropriately named the result, “Untitled (rite of spring).” Just crossing this surface is something of a balancing act on the viewer’s part, and by the end of the show it will be a completely different color.
None of this gives video, performance and photography much competition. A few of the works in these mediums are relatively elaborate, if made with a do-it-yourself directness. Deville Cohen’s 18-minute performance video, “Grayscale (A Video in Three Acts),” surely a send-up of Matthew Barney, centers on a troupe of cross-dressing men in improvised heels who find unexpected uses for office supplies and surprising inspiration in the basic elements of a carwash. Mr. Hartung’s “Ascent of Man,” a tribute to the famous BBC series, has a wonderful poetry and uses improvised tabletop sets with results alternately grand and comic.
But most of the best efforts in these mediums are more elemental, sharing an impulse to reveal basic processes: life being lived or art being made, and the vulnerability both require. One of most intense, disturbing examples is the work of Leigh Ledare, who uses photography and video to document his highly eroticized relationship with his mother and its effect on his own sexuality. Mr. Ledare is making a sensational spectacle of himself and his clearly troubled parent, but he is also taking us deep into the darkness and torment that drive many artists.
Similarly forthright is A. L. Steiner’s amazing accumulation of photographs, which cover two large walls with images of lesbian life and love, a tough, celebratory concatenation titled “Angry, Articulate, Inevitable.” The work applies the Minimalist ideal of “just one thing after another” to highly personal units of information. A similar approach is found in the Dani Leventhal’s evocative 16-minute film, a string of short, almost snapshotlike scenes titled “54 Days This Winter 36 Days This Spring for 16 Minutes.”
In other cases structure is dictated by reality, as with Lucy Raven’s imposing if also tedious “China Town,” a photographic animation with sound that follows the production of copper wire from the mines of Nevada to the factories of China, and in the process reveals landscapes devastated and lives diminished by the brute power and immense scale of industry. Hank Willis Thomas’s “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008” presents 41 pairs of photographs, pithily labeled, that reveal another kind of wasteland: advertising’s performance of blackness over the last four decades.
In one of the show’s most peripatetic pieces, the performance-video artist Ryan McNamara, who has a dancer’s body and musical sense but no training, will use the galleries as a dance studio. Wheeling around a mobile barre and mirror, he will take instruction from dance professionals of all kinds (classical, modern, exotic) or just stretch and practice. In either case visitors can watch or join in.
“Make Ryan a Dancer,” as Mr. McNamara’s sweetly courageous work is titled, is one of several here that examine the distinction between amateur and professional. Naama Tsabar accomplishes something similar, if more jarring, with two impressive eight-foot-high slabs of speakers she calls speaker walls. Visitors can pluck the various amplified guitar strings that course up, down and across the back of this slab. This is where the earplugs come in, especially if you want to look at anything in the immediate vicinity.
“Greater New York” is like the proverbial stream: always in flux. You’ll want to put your foot in more than once.