18 June 2006

Toil and Trouble

Part V Greater New York in Five Parts

Giants are big and ugly, and ugly because they are big. Marvel at their presence, but know that you would also marvel at a hair follicle, if only it were enormous. The art world’s current giant is at PS1, clamping its teeth on all five boroughs and New Jersey and calling itself Greater New York.

Despite naming itself in her honor, this show has little interest in New York per se. Instead, the artists themselves and their nearby graduate schools are the objects of attention. The central curatorial pretext here is geography, but the real theme is how a survey of its artist population might identify the new New York aesthetic. Unfortunately, the common address of 163 artists is not a sufficient organizing principle for an intelligent art show, so the huge gathering mostly proves what a superficial identity New York City actually provides for a ragtag group of outsiders who want to live near the world’s premier art market.

In a time when art criticism is regularly outflanked by the restless activity of armies of curators, we need a more critical level of curation from leading museums like PS1/MOMA. Unfortunately, this much-awaited blockbuster was jam-packed and confusing. The huge number of people brought in to help select work seemed to have worked against themselves. The little-of-everything style of selection and display showed scant regard for the conditions of artistic production and reception, and an unwillingness to take any risks. Inclusion in the show ended up being the most palpable theme, but it was so diluted that it became meaningless: a popularity contest with too many winners.

Logistically, the show is also frustrating. Outdoor sculptures commissioned for the show were removed months before it is to end in September. The catalogue for the is not yet ready, and handwritten gallery names were added to up-and-coming artists’ name plates as they got picked up. Art is crammed into the building from the corners of the foyer to the far reaches of the basement. When the first show opened in 2000, it was slated as a provocative alternative to the Whitney Biennial, but now, with a style of display most similar to the galleries in Chelsea, the show most resembles the art world’s annual trade fair at the Armory.


What we see in the show in its plenitude are luxury items, products of the skilled labor of the trained artist. This marks a return to the prioritization of sensory gratification, and a triumph of the art market. Artists are honestly toiling away in their studios and investing value in material through a desperately optimistic practice of hourly labor. If necessity is the mother of invention, angst is her grandmother, and professionalism is her agent.

Into this institutional framework, Gardar Einarsson inserts his antagonistic refusal of traditional models of art: three hand-painted graffiti scrawls quoting angry teenage outbursts. Einarsson hand painted the graffiti with a small brush, painstakingly unproductive work that makes trouble rather than value and pokes oblique fun at the toil of art making.

Wade Guyton’s Untitled Action Sculpture (Breuer) continues the tradition of Duchamp’s urinal on slightly different terms. Breuer’s chair, an icon of modernist design, is destroyed and muscled into a freestanding aluminum line. Guyton’s labor is gestural: he materializes his position against the luxury item by returning it to its own raw material, now his.

Now that the role of the artist seems permanently blurry, it is great to see that Clifford Owen directs that question back to his audience. In Tell Me What To Do with Myself Owen talks to his audience through a cup-sized hole at the base of a wall. He initiates the performance and then continues by responding directly to their suggestions with demonstrative interactions. What remains of his performance is an installation, a divided scene with evidence of the exchange.

Installation is strongest as a discipline that wins back artistic agency in an institutional space. As it has unfortunately deteriorated into mixed-media spectacle in recent years, I was heartened to see Karen Olivier’s spare and witty Untitled (coffee table). By installing in the gallery a square, off-center column that comes to rest on a coffee table, Olivier negates the institutional space by bringing its powerful weight down on a piece of furniture—much like the show itself, which will finally be reduced to a coffee table book.


After reacting to the sheer magnitude of the show and finding the pieces one admires, one notices mainly how much of the art was produced with a very literate and active viewer in mind. It evokes the hypersensitive group critiques in grad school. The burden of interpretation is so great that the viewers themselves become the artists, piecing together clues. With so much work and so little order, the task is unfortunately beyond heroism. The museum, for its part, has become a giant gallery, a kind of high-end mall for art.

Within this context, it is bracing and heartening to come across Jaimee Isenstein’s Magic Fingers, which lures us away from our secure and knowledgeable position in the world with a simple hole in the wall. As our curiosity leads us to investigate, the experience doubles with the sense that others are curiously watching us. We imagine another vantage point and, with a prick of consciousness, notice ourselves. We peek in and see a blue concave sconce that encases a disembodied (and real!) hand. The hand is Isenstein’s. Her actual presence makes the museum walls speak, and the simple plot she concocted returns us, at last, to the wonder of human flesh.

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