16 June 2008

April, May, June

An art chronicle

“Whitney Biennial 2008”
Whitney Museum of American Art
March 6 – June 1

If you want to know how we ended up getting seduced by a woman in a plastic Viking hat chatting away through an already-encrusted bloody nose while holding a piece of Styrofoam cheese in an emergency room parking lot, or if you’re wondering why we fell in love as she cheese-guitared Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” on a mountaintop perch—well, that part is pretty hard to explain. But if you’re curious just when shaky, hand-held, low-res video became our absolute favorite artistic medium, we can tell you precisely: about three minutes into Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn’s “Can’t Swallow it, Can’t Spit it Out,” at the 2008 Whitney Biennial.

Many of the other artworks installed in the museum also tried to reflect the ugly, over-complicated chaos of our newest late-capitalist moment—intricate, idiosyncratic maquettes of storefronts, sweatshop floors, and storage rooms—but boy did we prefer that stuff when it was outside in the dirty city, still menacing and boldly unintentional. Inside, we were more drawn to Melanie Schiff’s washed-out, murky interiors; Walead Beshty’s similarly faded, body-sized photos of office ruins; Joe Bradley’s sneaky arrangements of bright rectangles; and Matthew Brannon’s little print of a cigarette, an ashtray, and a glass, with the legend: “Finish your drink, we’re leaving.”

We hadn’t been drinking, actually, but we did go down to the bathroom, and that’s when we saw the Gap T-shirts by famous artists. Although they weren’t in the Biennial, officially, we certainly saw in them an indication of the state of American art: “Here, you guys make the T-shirts.” But we did learn something from these shirts. For example, if you give him a T-shirt to make, Chuck Close will make a gridded, dotted portrait of one of his friends. Someone should give him a building, a nation-state, or an orphanage to make, to see what he does then. Barbara Kruger once again used her trademark font to tell us that PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH, but Jeff Koons seemed to disagree: His shirt featured a very bright, aggressively halftoned deer, and by the time we arrived it appeared to have sold out.

The first joke we made, after taking a lap around the fourth floor, was to call it the Whitney Beige-ennial. Other than that, it wasn’t a good year for jokes.

Daniel Richter, “Die Idealisten”
David Zwirner
March 25 – May 3

Much like the characters in Richter’s paintings, we were walking around a deserted urban landscape looking for meaning, but our clothes were plainer, our gestures were less extreme, and the buildings surrounding us were high-rent condominiums. Also, neither of us carried electric guitars or glowed with a psychedelic inner light. Inside one picture, right next to Richter’s signature, a blue bird stood whistling atop a combat boot. Just as we were trying to imagine its music, our friend chimed in: “David Zwirner is really the gallery for paint tricks.”

James Welling, “Works 1980-2008”
David Zwirner
April 5 – May 3

These series of photos, taken over three decades, made us think more about series than photos. Even though it was something of a retrospective, we kept wishing to see just one of the drapery pictures, just the strangest of the black rocks, or only the most evocative blue-mesh torso. That way we could wonder, just for a moment, where these images came from, and not have it all spelled out for us in sequence.

Sergej Jensen, “Pictures and Paintings”
Anton Kern Gallery
April 9 – May 10

We debated whether it would necessarily be a mean thing to say, “If your house was as big and plain and nicely roofed as the Anton Kern Gallery, then Sergej Jensen’s fabric-collage paintings would look really good in there,” or if, on the other hand, you could say, “These paintings remind me of wino trousers,” and mean it as a compliment.

Dike Blair and Noah Sheldon
D’Amelio Terras
March 22 – May 3

A few hours earlier we had been standing in Daniel Joseph Martinez’s room at the Biennial: 125 paintings of the names of murderous religious organizations, hung floor-to-ceiling in an even grid. So when we found ourselves in Dike Blair’s similarly hung room of pictures of human eyes, we were gently shocked: the eyes were far more unsettling. Actually, we felt pretty calm in that first room.

Noah Sheldon put packets of beautiful snapshots from a recent trip north on a table in the middle of the gallery, so you could just flip through them however you wanted. This dealt efficiently with the tricky problem of gallery display, but it just as efficiently solved the perhaps more essential human problem of looking at vacation photos, which are conventionally accompanied by a live narrator intent on ruining the whole experience.

“Jasper Johns: Gray”
Metropolitan Museum of Art
February 5 – May 4

Showing up late in the run of this big exhibition stuck us with the problem (or benefit) of having read everyone else’s reviews, which hovered around the central fact that Jasper Johns is an artist about whom one inevitably says either too much, or nothing at all. Plus, all the obvious titling opportunities were gone:“Jasper Johns Shows His True Color,” “Éminence Grise,” “Gray Matters,” and “Jasper Johns: Color in Shades of Gray” had all been taken. When we came across John Haber’s masterful “Jasper Johns: Lord Graystroke” we knew we’d been bested. So as we set out to title our hypothetical review, we left out all the color and came up with: “Jasper Johns: America’s Most Intellectual Folk Artist.” Our imaginary essay already runs to 10,000 words, none of them neutral.

“Open Studios”
Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation
April 25-27, 2008

Besides the art, we talked a lot about open studios. Not just how to avoid them, but more precisely, how to avoid them when you are the artist and have to be there. Of course, these can occasionally be fun and interesting, but more often than not the people who come to open studios are people with (a) free time and (b) nothing to do who (c) know somebody else in the studio building. Sometimes, they combine their more serious hobbies with art viewing, so they arrive, say, in day-glo spandex and click around in little bike shoes. Mostly they are your fellow exhibitors’ older relatives or, if they are your age, these visitors are either (a) gainfully employed citizens with nice hair or (b) your cultural competitors. The best defense in these situations is a good offense, so we decided that if your studio is in fact open, the best strategy is to study your own artworks with an air of curious disdain, as if you’d just walked into the room for the first time. That way, you get to regard your own work honestly, and nobody will ask you to explain it.

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