Monday, 24 May 2010

#14 This Grandiose Tragedy.

From Hank Willis Thomas' 'Unbranded'.

"...this grandiose tragedy we call modern art..."

Salvador Dali was not know for his plain speaking, but the sentiment that modern art is a tragedy - or a travesty, perhaps - is shared by many. One can despair at the muddying, blurring, mocking and razing of the boundaries of traditional beaux arts - the canvas, the gallery, the oil and ink - or else rejoice at this modern artistic freedom. The pen is mightier than the sword. But is the urinal mightier than the pen?

Of course, you can do both - love it and loathe it - as I usually do when I visit modern and contemporary art galleries. In the past few weeks I have hit up the MoMA - modern art's Louvre - and the New Museum, a rolling contemporary exhibition space. I have basked in the splendid majesty of Pollock's greatest works, and stood dumbfounded in front of Roy Lichtenstein's tedious canvasses. I always thought the view that modern art is what you bring to it is weak - art should say something, to me (think Damien Hirst's 'The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living'), or be aesthetically beautiful (a Paul Klee, or a Mark Rothko). I have no truck with the notion that 'anything is art', nor the pompous 'something that is simply beautiful isn't art'.

This weekend I made it to the opening of the PS1 gallery's 'Greater New York' show, a quintennial celebration of contemporary work by New York artists, and I thought I would share some of the highlights.

First up, we have Rashaad's Newsome superb 'music videos'. He has pastiched rap videos and beats with classical music to achieve something wonderfully hilarious, a pithy mockery of both those who are pretentious about music, and the ridiculous swagger of hip hop. (And, actually, bloody good tunes.) His other work has involved coats-of-arms collaged from designer labels, a common theme being the lines we draw between disparate aspects of culture, history and civilisation.

I was impressed by Deville Cohen's 'Grayscale', a surreal video 'dance' exploring themes of (you've guessed it) contemporary culture and waste. Unfortunately, I can't find a link/clip.

Pedro Lasch presented a set of maps which he had distributed to Mexicans who regularly illegally cross the US border to work in America. He asked those who completed their crossing to mail their copy back to him on arrival, and the variously weather-battered maps provide an interesting visual to highlight the political and humanitarian issues surrounding that border. See LATINO/A AMERICA for more.

David Brooks' 'Forest Preserved' was the simplest piece on display, conceptually. He nursery-grew a range of native Amazonian plants, and then dumped tonnes of cement over them, to highlight the likely catastrophic consequences of Brazil's plan to build a major highway across the Amazon rainforest. (85% of Amazonian deforestation occurs adjacent to surfaced roads.)

Finally, Hank Willis Thomas' 'Unbranded' consisted of several dozen reprinted advertisements, with all of their copy airbrushed out, from the 70s and 80s. The ads were all originally targeted at an African American audience, and the work's raison d'etre was to highlight the cultural and racial assumptions we use to, and do, make. See here for an enlightening interview with Hank.

An overriding theme in most of the work was a sense of humour; a lot of it was plain funny. If nothing else, then, very modern art has removed the dour austerity of the art gallery. PS1 was brimming with a babble of colourful characters yesterday, and the bar out from was doing a storming trade. Amen to that at least.

I also wanted to mention Marina Abramovic's show, which I visited at the MoMA earlier this month. It is the biggest performance/conceptual show devoted to one artist the MoMA has ever hosted. Abramovic's performance work has pushed all kinds of extremes - live self-mutilation, 'living in public', and endless nudity. For me, the value of the show was in studying people's reactions to the work - as they rounded a corner and saw a naked woman being crucified. She explored human interaction further in her most famous piece, where she sat in a gallery and invited visitors to interact with her via a variety of objects, from food and drink to a loaded handgun. See the Wiki here.


  1. Paul Klee is one of the greatest painters of the 20th century.