New York: Neither/Nor

Shows should not serve as summations, even as tempting as it is to sum things up when the calendar locates us in 1999. What we should have learned from studying the last hundred years of art history is that to summarize is to fabricate a false history, one which can only be persuasive for a few moments at a time, its lacks and oversights quickly growing beyond its constitutive fabric. Still, New York Neither/Nor was conceptualized as a survey of what I, as a critic working in New York City, perceive to be what fanciers of contemporary art should know about what has occurred here in the past two years, if I had to choose one vaguely coherent cluster of artists. So I cannot avoid a discussion of what time it is in the culture, and how that determines what has been manufactured.

Arthur Danto postulated that art production since the sixties has occurred after the end of art, as a historically constructed inarguable category. Although the usefulness of his work cannot be overstated, I find the crisis that this reality has caused in studio practice is not a result of the end of art, but rather the end of art history-of a sequence of movements, each following the other. Such movements were never as pure and absolute as we first learned in school, but there was tremendous comfort for practitioners in being able to fantasize that the grand symphony of art history was on-going, and the task of the artist in his or her studio was merely to find the right next note and play it on cue.

We grew up perceiving the post-war years as such a neat progression: Ab-ex, color-field, pop, minimalism, post-minimalism, conceptual, pattern and decoration, neo-expressionism, neo-geo, neo conceptualism, neo scatter, and neo-neo; then came the crisis to which all those "neos" were clearly leading, total confusion. Political art, body/performance/bad boys, and badder girls (or grrls) clutter the early nineties. The stories since then have essentially been geographic ones, such as Globalism and the proliferation of international biennials, young British artists, Chelsea galleries. We talk of geography as if it were extraordinarily meaningful because we have nothing else, and it gives us some comfort.

Today we suffer from "history-envy," a fear that our period doesn't quite stack up, that any time-traveling art historian would choose to transport back to the Cedar Tavern or Warhol's Factory rather than Gavin Brown's Bar (the current Manhattan art-world clubhouse). We know that no artwork at the moment of its completion is greeted with a choir of angels singing "The future is here!," even for the works that turned out in retrospect to be epochal markers. Nevertheless we have a desire, in the few short years we are allowed within the sphere of culture, to be witness to something momentous, so that on our deathbeds we can say "I was there." How can we live and carry on making culture without that possibility?

The present situation had been theorized for a long time now, and we should really have been better prepared. The reality seems to be that from now on we will no longer have movements but individuals, whom I and my fellow curators and critics will cluster temporarily for our own nefarious uses without naming as members of a group or making them out to be the inevitable, progressive next step. This, in fact, is progress, requiring everyone from professionals to casual viewers to work harder.

In a sense, perceiving a moment in terms of movements has always been a form of laziness. It was a shortcut past the reality that you are in a room with a particular object made by one unique author that you must respond to as yourself, not the universal, ungendered, unraced, unclassed spectator, who in fact never existed. If we can get used to that, go ahead and unleash the choir of angels, for the future is indeed here.

In their play with taste, these artists seem to enjoy a fair degree of awareness regarding the impossibility of destabilizing the regime of good taste for more than a moment; its mutability/recovery is a given in incorporating such a mechanism into their works. This is all the more true because all 13 artists play off of art history, treating the last 50 years as a playground of multiple vernaculars to be plundered for new uses. For example, when the high-conceptual trope of wall text is deployed by Evans, we have from our experience an assumption that high-minded philosophizing will follow, but are instead faced with song titles which turn reflexively back to each member of the audience's particular life experiences. Similarly, Horowitz takes the movies of teen star Macaulay Culkin and picks a moment to freeze that either for its significance or triviality forces us to think of our own histories of Hollywood spectatorship.

The artists in Neither/Nor are not in any sense a movement, and though they do for the most part run in the same circles, that is not a compelling enough reason for me to group them together. That each has found a way to avoid simple categorization is my organizing principle, which in a sense is folly, for one is never supposed to define by a negative. But a stubborn resistance to pigeonholing seems to me a positive virtue, and one that makes perfect sense at this time in the culture. Many, but not all, of them use craft-based media, projecting a funky handmade quality that throws a wrench into easy assumptions of high art. To employ gods' eyes of yarn (Hanson), stretch-velvet laid on the floor (Apfelbaum), stacks of decorated storage boxes (Pruitt), milk crates (Feher), stuffed dolphins (Feinstein), or pipe cleaners and lunch trays (DeBellevue) automatically forestalls the first categorization we are tempted to make the binary of Art versus "other stuff." "It is in a gallery, therefore it is art" is replaced by the more complex necessity of deciding "How can we be asked to consider this as art?, What standards are at play?, and Who is doing the asking?" The regimes of good taste are repeatedly violated: gods' eyes belong in a hippie commune, the milk crates go in the storage room, and Feinstein's sculpture looks as if it had been commissioned for a spectacularly low-rent resort bar. Violating taste is hardly a new strategy, going back at least to Duchamp's Fountain, but our dilemma has been that good taste, like a retrovirus, swiftly mutates, reincorporating its violation into itself.

The respect given to intuition, a debased term in the theory-heavy years of the early nineties, is seen in the work of both Harrison and Baum. Baum lets us read over her shoulder as she looks at the indexes of books and notes the strange found poetry that has captured her imagination long enough to push the shutter. Perusing an index is not reading but skimming and imagining what will be there if you move on to the cited page. Harrison's snapshots, housed in sculptures that may or may not be inspired by them and definitely do not illustrate them in any normal sense, invite us to try to intuit someone else's intuition, what draws the artist to her images. In a similar manner, Nanney's constructions refer back to his imaginings of internal processes in his body, the canvas becoming a skin that is pierced and tied, intestines morphing into arteries all tied up with pretty ribbons.

The works by Apfelbaum, Hanson, and Nanney must be literally described as sculpture, occurring in locations other than the wall, although they confound that category by speaking the language of painting. But what of the two artists whose work must literally be described as painting, Albenda and Viti? Pigment applied to a rectilinear support should make the definition clear and therefore call into play the most thickly layered media-specific context we have in the world of art, what Jerry Saltz has called the '3000-year freight train' known as the history of painting, but wait. Albenda's paintings are in fact merely by-products of his thoughts about the physicality and reality of language, and they are "explained" in a circular sense by his accompanying charts. Viti's body fluid and pigment paintings are in fact ways of dealing with the terrifying allure of bodies, the need to touch and feel the flesh of fellow humans. Coming out of work he did with respect to AIDS, in the earlier part of this decade, these works literalize the testosterone-laced tumult of Abstract Expressionism hybridized with SM practice. Neither artist's work would sit comfortably in ability to pass as simple painting is a part of their power.

I shared the stage recently with the sharp art observer David Rimanelli. In a stream of words about his theoretical background, and all the reading he did to prepare to be a critic and curator, he astutely pointed out that the life of the critic all comes down to the nominative, the gesture of pointing at something and saying "This is interesting, look here." In being invited to do a show that in some sense is a summing up, yet attempting to refuse the limitations of such a construct, I have had the opportunity to discuss my image of what the year 1999 in New York is about. My prognostication that there will be no more movements with a capitol M may be wrong; 2000 might be hiding some seeds of a future different from the one I foresee. But it doesn't matter for New York Neither/Nor, because at the end Rimanelli was right. All I can do is point, and now I am pointing you toward these complex and wonderful works.

Bill Arning
May 1999
New York, NY

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