You Are Not Alone
This summer go out and watch yourself watching other people watch you at a new survey of Dan Graham’s work currently on view at the Whitney.
By Cynthia Daignault
On June 25, 2009, Dan Graham: Beyond premiered at the Whitney. A landmark exhibition, it is the first major survey of the artist’s work in the United States, and it’s a stunning show. Also on June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson died (in case you hadn’t heard). Coincidence? Absolutely. The two events have nothing to do with each other. Yet, whether meaningful in their conjunction or not, this summer no one will find peace from the din of Jackson tributes, rock blocks, and conspiracy theories; the resulting cacophony between melody and eulogy will resound as the accidental soundtrack for the summer of 2009, the entire duration of Graham’s exhibition. Hence, in preemption, I posit a Jackson song as the summation of the retrospective: You Are Not Alone.
The song, Jackson’s last number one hit, invokes the idea of constant company as an affirmation of bolstering community and love without boundaries. Yet, recorded in the wake of Jackson‘s child molestation charges, it is also a critique of the voyeurism and surveillance suffered during the scandal, and more broadly ever-present in contemporary mediated culture. This is the duality so evident now in Jackson’s wake: music and slander, harmony and gossip, rhythm and paparazzi, transcendence of the community and death of the individual. You are not alone is the contradiction that media culture has an unprecedented ability to bring millions together before its content (Chocolate Rain anyone?), yet that once gathered the throng leaves little air for breath (Chocolate Rain anyone?).
Even now, you are surrounded. I am speaking directly to you, just as your own reflection stares back at you from the dim and unfocused outline of your LCD. Just as you stare into the multitude of cyber-personae in the space beyond the screen, you read this as others do. You shoulder the ever-widening crowd, bustling and bumping over the thoroughfares and passageways of fiber-optic cable on the daily commute to obsolescence.
Enter into the fracas Dan Graham. Graham’s work on the most basic levels of materiality and content takes these aspects of culture and media as its subject: suburban homes, advertisements, rock bands, corporate structures, magazines, prescription pills and television. The work explores and mimics, laughs with and at the structure and philosophical significance of living within the simulacra. Yet, Graham never loses sight of optimism, nor the opportunities for meaningful communalism inherent in mass media, eschewing the clichéd dystopias of cultural theory in favor of hope. It is the Jackson dichotomy again, critical in its analysis of media, yet buffeted by optimism about its potential. You are not alone is a mantra of collectivism, not the paranoia of big brother.
Or to rephrase our summation, “it is not you alone, nor I alone,” as Walt Whitman wrote it in Leaves of Grass. For after all, Graham’s denial of dystopia and his boundless optimism about the value of communalism – it’s Whitman in a way. For in an exhibition so overflowing with reflection, refraction, projection, watching and being watched, contemplating and being contemplated, the internal experience echoes Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. So how fitting that I crossed the East River from my home in Brooklyn to wash up on the fourth floor of the Whitney, on the shores of the exhibition.
Stepping out of the elevator, myriad surfaces and screens project and multiply your own likeness amidst the crowds that fill a New York summer blockbuster. It is a show that puts you both in the position of Whitman’s omniscient eye and in that of the horde passing before the gaze of the poets and philosophers who fill the museum. Glass, mirrors, cameras and screens – you see as you are seen. Or as Whitman wrote, “I see you also face to face / Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!…I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is… Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you.” I watch myself. I watch others. I watch people watching other people watching me. I watch myself watching other people and watch people watching myself, in the semi- transparent reflexivity of the one-way glass. It is not you alone, nor I alone.
If the exhibition sounds dizzying, it is—the dizzying fun of a summer carnival. All the titillating nausea of funhouse mirrors or the sickening reversals of a tilt-a- whirl, as spectator/viewer/subject/object rotate and exchange places. Forget art for a minute, the exhibition is simply fun. For instance, Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay broadcasts its room on a six-second delay, over monitors that recall the infinity between two facing mirrors. I ran back and forth across the room, watching the effect alternately on screen or mirror, never tiring of seeing my own body out of phase or my hammed facial expressions, each time with just enough delay that I’d forgotten I’d made them. Or Public Space Two Audiences, an installation of adjoining rooms with two separate entrances where viewers can enter on either side to come face to face with those in the opposite room, seeing the others as if in a mirror. I stood in the white cube, part broadcast room part racquetball court, and found myself in impromptu mime game with a total stranger, making the ogling faces that one does at a baby, or as a baby. There are videos, rock music, Minor Threat, Sonic Youth, lipstick application stations, slide projectors, revolving doors, comedy and nudity. Though Coney Island is diminished this summer, Graham’s show is a fitting replacement, lacking only Nathan’s Famous.
This is not to suggest that the exhibition is juvenile in any way. To the contrary, the show is so rife with 20th century cultural theory (Baudrillard, Benjamin, Barthes, Brecht, and that’s just the B’s) that it leaves no wonder why even the most severe cultural theorists of October Magazine (Buchloh for one) counted Graham as a beacon of 60’s art. Yet, it is in the base and carnal pleasures that the show truly reveals its politics. In its rock music, in its embrace of humor, parody, sex and pleasure, there is a more sinister political subversion than in that of mere theory. To paraphrase what Graham said in a ramble when touring the show (and you need only YouTube Dan Graham to know the speaking style to which I refer), “Buchloh got it wrong cause he missed the joke.”
In an interview with exhibition curator Chrissie Iles and artist Rodney Graham, Dan Graham discussed this subversive undertone in the work. In his words, “I am trying to subvert, but not sociologically, corporate building and corporate structure. But the program is not to critique corporate culture, but make it into a pleasure situation.” This notion of pleasure, the aspect of play in the show is the reclamation of co-opted spaces and structures. Rather than be oppressed by despotic media culture, one reclaims it by transforming its experience into an active and pleasurable one. Graham appreciated that in his work he could transform the banal or co-opted into the meaningful. As he wrote, “We all love the cliché. We all like tautologies, things that seem to be dumb and banal but are actually quite intelligent.” Though he makes media the seeming focus of these exercises, his quote just as easily sums up the tropes of conceptual art and minimalism. Just as Graham recasts the banal and insidious and dystopic as pleasurable, so too conceptual art and minimalism transcend their now cliché and banal tropes to reveal the playfulness and stuttering humor in their tautologies. That is to say that even conceptual art seems fun after viewing Dan Graham: Beyond. At last, the idea that Sol Lewitt’s cubes were conceived as jungle gyms for cats (as Graham loves to remind) is finally as feasible as it is delightful.
Really, the only complaint is that the show is too small, both in scale and quantity. As I finished the fourth floor, I was excited to find what other treasures lay downstairs, only to discover that the Whitney has only dedicated one floor to the show. That the Whitney did not succeed in getting one of Graham’s pavilions installed in public space (as they’ve done in the past with Paul McCarthy or Charles Ray) seems a glaring problem, especially for an artist whose work centers on the exchanges between public and private, inside and outside, or corporate and personal space. Certainly, it is sad and telling about the current nature of the art world, when the thought crossed my mind “this show would have looked great at Gagosian.” This sad remark is a testament to what a good job galleries have been doing subverting the role of museums (re: Picasso or Manzoni @ Gagosian); and it is a testament to the great jobs museums have been doing putting up small, crammed, underwhelming shows of critically important work.
Yet overall, the exhibition is so filled with gems and joy (and ultimately so well curated) that I find little energy to gripe. One of the real standout joys for me is Graham’s seminal video Rock my Religion. The work, a classic both of rock criticism and video art, delights now as much as ever (and can be watched for those outside New York on Ubuweb). Sitting before the video (on what I must add were the most comfortable benches in museum history), I was struck most by the electricity of the live performances. Both Patti Smith and Jim Morrison who figure prominently in the film suffer in understanding if one only ever hears the recorded material. To forget how weird and raw they both are is to miss something important, something about imperfection or unclassifiable truth. (It’s the same reason that everyone should see Dan Graham: Beyond in person and not just read about it). Indeed, this notion of the power of the live or communal is the central theme of the film, as in the exhibition. Traced from the Shakers to the hippies through the punks and into new wave, Rock my Religion posits the undercurrent of an American quasi-religion of music, dance and shared culture, underscoring the power of collectivism and the truly spiritual role of culture in America.
So if there’s a message in the film or in the exhibition, it’s this: If you do one thing this summer do anything, do something, do everything. In the coming weeks when the city is so surfeit with incredible cultural events, I wonder, as I do at the start of every summer, why anyone leaves the city at all, especially during its prime. So go out into the people. Watch something, hear something, stare at something that stares back at you, and feel thankful. For you are not alone.
TIME IN ON MY SIDE
In light of a new retrospective of late-life Picasso works, ruminations on sex, painting, rock n roll, and the circle of dancing naked hippies that is life.
BY CYNTHIA DAIGNAULT
“Time is on my side… Just wait and see… You’ll come running back to me” — Mick Jagger
I saw the Rolling Stones play for 40 people in a tiny London rock club in 1967. And they killed. Actually, that’s a lie. In truth, I saw the Stones play for 40,000 people at Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey in 2007. But they still killed. I wanted to hate it. I really did. Culture snob, born cynic that I am, there was no way I was going to give in to a past-prime tour of musicians more
corporation than band. Yet, despite the innate desire to kill one’s idols, watch them fail or falter, sell out, burn out, wash out and die, no amount of bred suspicion could overcome the fact that it was a perfect three hours of music. Every bit in their prime, only better. Seasoned, honest, brutal, sincere, but with the gifts of age: perspective, urgency, and subtlety. Traits one would expect from artists later in life, but that in our youth-drunk culture we seem reluctant to afford. Death to all skeptics, doubters and cynics —they killed. In the face of the undeniable Mick Jagger, 65 years old and still chicken-strutting the length of a one-hundred-yard catwalk, cliché though it may be, I was reduced to a swooning, halter-top-adorned puddle, waiving an eight dollar Coors Light at a football field, screaming along with all the rest of fat and happy Jersey to a slurred version of “Time Is on My Side”. Long live rock and roll.
Near as I can explain it – this is the exact experience of Picasso: Mosqueteros a stunning exhibition of Picasso’s late-life works currently on view at the Gagosian Galllery in Chelsea. The show is undeniable. Breathless, raw, expansive, historical, contemporary and deeply moving. I found myself overwhelmed with the same sense of wonder—the miraculous silencing of the ever-catty internal critic by the presence of true mastery. No small feat either. Long considered to be paintings that evinced Picasso’s descent into mediocrity, quirkiness, and the rambling madness of a perverse old man, their legacy seemed locked in the sewers of Picasso’s oeuvre. Clearly though, they were due for disinterment. Really, that it is even possible to rethink Picasso at this point, whose work seemed immovable to me even days ago, is a testament to his boundless relevance. The counterculture junkie within wants nothing more than to scoff at the banal, mainstream and co-opted: Picasso or the Rolling Stones. Yet, in this latest exhibition, the work is so brutally good that if I could have stripped down to my halter-top and waived a Coors Light at the wall without attracting undue attention I would have.
In short, Picasso: Mosqueteros is a landmark exhibition that should be seen by all lovers of art. A large group of rich and seductive paintings (nudes, portraits, musketeers and matadors) selected with astute care by John Richardson, Picasso’s loving biographer. In addition, the exhibition presents a large group of exquisite etchings. The paintings are rich and raw, colorful, open, funny, thick and earnest, while the etchings are quiet and delicate in their masterful rendering, re-affirming Picasso as the master draftsman who carries the entire history of mark making in his arsenal. Installed together, the etchings ground the rawness of the paintings as purposeful and political acts, not the lazy gestures, nor the ineptitude of a man near death.
As he did throughout his career, Picasso takes on the history of painting in these works, wrestling with his gods to find his seat in the pantheon. The foppish characters, mustached and costumed self-portraits, tip their floppy hats to Rembrandt. The matadors and musketeers fence with Velázquez and their Spanish identities; the bold color and thick paint of the figures call out to Van Gogh; and throughout linger the mingling ghosts of Ingres, Manet, El Greco and Cézanne. At Gagosian, Picasso winks cryptically at the great masters before him from behind his own depthless black eyes, which dot the Mosqueteros. The works are plaintive attempts to understand and assert Picasso’s own place in history, and nowhere is the questing for ones relevance more poignant than in late-life work. Looking back at the end of ones life over ones life, in hopes of finding the solace of purpose before death.
Further, I am struck by the powerful subtlety of Gagosian’s curation and installation. As with my distrust of Giants Stadium, I have to eat some crow here and give kudos to Gagosian. Foremost, installing the works in their 21st Street space is a brilliant coup. The most contemporary of Gagosian’s galleries imbues the works with the air of life, with the space and openness to exist before each portrait, as if face-to-face with the living. Further, they curbed any inkling to mar the clean lines of the gallery with unnecessary wall text or didactics. Devoid of the cloying wall text, inane audio guides, or pre-chewed museum pedagogy, one can really learn something, both about Picasso and his sources. It is an affirmation of the role of the private gallery in the creation of art history. It’s also a disturbing suggestion that when the educational paradigm is removed, suddenly the exhibition gets educational.
Beyond the exploration of painting, I was struck by the sex. (Herein the comparison with a Jagger-esque virility stays firm). It is a highly sexual show, arrestingly so at times, a fact that locates the work firmly in its time, thigh-deep in the sexual revolution of the late sixties. Many of the works are raw and brutal looks at sexuality from all positions: from tender courtship in the portraits of his lover Jacqueline to the frenzied voracious appetite of copulation in the iterations of “The Kiss” to the dazed afterglow of post-coital embrace in the nudes. At once tender, loving, passionate, hungry and sated; but also chauvinistic, bored, impotent, violent, masochistic, sexist and engulfing. Though it is not always flattering, the portrayal is nonetheless painfully honest about the truths inherent in the frenzied pawings of intercourse. The work explores the full nature of coupling, of the act of two becoming one and the metaphoric implications of duality. Portrait and self-portrait, viewer and subject, lover and self, all clawing at each other, ever pushing forward and receding away, in the eternal grinding rhythm towards epiphanal cumming.
Obviously, little on this planet besides death is more universal than sex, but I can think of few painters who have dealt with the topic with such accuracy recently. Let’s face it—there’s been a lot of vagina around town recently. Just to name a few—Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin, and Richard Phillips, none of whose sexual paintings seem to come from any great love of sex. Take Currin, the most sensual of the three. Another Gagosian staple, his porn show, a cribbing of Courbet, didn’t embody the sense of an authentic exploration of sexuality, nor did the paintings feel like they were even about sex. Like porn, they were more about power and masculinity, or the failures therein. And with the clinical sterility of porn, there was nothing of the messy, frantic, unflattering, tender, embarrassing, overwhelming orgasm of emotion erupting from Picasso’s work. There is something deeply raw and honest, deeply emotional and carnal in these late Picasso works that is a stunning counterpart to the cerebral nature of their historicity.
Countless critics, artists and historians have weighed in to agree that Picasso: Mosqueteros is a landmark exhibition, on an epic scale. And it is. Especially touching was Peter Schjeldahl’s review in the New Yorker where he admits and revises his own past derision of the work. Unlike Schjeldahl, I’m not old enough to remember when these paintings were derided as sub par, let alone to have derided them, and honestly, seeing them now, I don’t particularly understand why they ever were. However, it is a fact that in the past these works were overlooked within Picasso’s oeuvre, and it is a fact that right now the volume of their importance is intoxicating. So, within this divide lurks one of the greatest questions posited by this exhibition: what the hell happened?
Can work, like wine, have a vintage? Is it possible that some of the best works may need years to develop the subtle notes of their palette? Can a work actually be ahead of its time, anticipating or even creating the conditions of its future acceptance? Is it possible that in the grand scope of Picasso’s fame, the ability to see work apart from the legend is lost? I can only imagine an inherent discomfort with change when these works were produced, especially for someone so canonized as Picasso. Perhaps rather than expanding definitions or internalizing contradictions, it is far more comfortable to write off whole periods of an oeuvre. Further, with Picasso, one must posit that the short-sellers and cynics in us wish for the failure of our idols in their final moments, and not on a minor scale but in some epic way, befitting a man who lived so much larger than life—that some part within each of us waits for the train wreck, the moment when the light goes out and the genius dies. In truth, failures are usually more prosaic. There are paintings, passages and parts that fail. Yet, those were exactly the bi-products of courageous exploration that Picasso always welcomed in his practice. To strive for something new, to push against the four corners of the canvas is to remain uncomfortable and to fail at times. And in this, even the worst in this exhibition succeed as they always have, showcasing the true core of Picasso’s practice, to push for authentic and courageous exploration even in the face of the formidable trappings of legend, fame, ego and the real possibility of colossal failure.
I carried these questions about the mutable nature of significance with me as I walked through the galleries of Chelsea. I was particularly struck at Andrea Rosen by a Sean Landers’ painting from 1997, currently on view in the back gallery. The painting “Dance of Life” depicts a circle of dancing naked hippies, reminiscent of Matisse, only bigger, weirder and more out there. The painting lets it all hang out, both in its massive scale and penis-wagging subjects. It’s wild, and one can still understand why when it was first shown in 1997 it was met with tepid, if not hostile reviews. In the New York Times, Roberta Smith called Landers “in painful transition,” and said that the painting “didn’t gel, pictorially, narratively or coloristically.” For Artnet, Roger Boyce wrote that “the artlessness of [the picture left him] feeling cold and alone on a hostile planet.” However, standing before this painting today, pulled out of whatever massive storage facility it’[s been hiding in, it looks damn good. Chicken-strutting good. Truly, it’s striking to consider in retrospect how Landers marked or anticipated or maybe even caused a seismic shift in painting, currently visible in the likes of Dana Schutz. In fact, I’m lightened by the revision of its importance, more than Picasso even, because it suggests hope for the less storied amongst us—that in this dance of life, even the fat goatied hippies may come round full circle to their significance.
Enlivened by this belief in the mutable nature of quality, about the unpredictable effects of time, I wonder about the all the exhibitions I will mock and deride today. Who knows which of these heinous-looking beasts, which of these pointless, inane, time-wasting, face-cringing, embarrassing failures will emerge from a storage unit some 40 years hence to the deafening applause of an audience finally ready to embrace its genius. Time is on my side. Just wait and see.
The Hunter College MFA building at 41st street is a fleeting landmark of New York’s grittier past, housing a proud group of artists at the forefront of the art world’s future; but like so many other relics of weird Manhattan, it too may soon be gone.
BY CYNTHIA DAIGNAULT
Twenty years of romance makes a woman look like a ruin; but twenty years of marriage make her something like a public building — Oscar Wilde.
If you ask Hunter College Masters of Fine Arts students about their education, their first words are likely: the building. The Hunter Art department has long been coupled with its studio building (a blue labyrinthine eyesore on the corner of 10th Avenue and 41st Street). As per Oscar Wilde, I’m not sure if the union between building and college is more marital bliss or torrid love affair, but given the building’s historic location amidst the porn theaters, nudie booths and sex shops of Hell’s Kitchen, I’m leaning toward the latter. Ruin sounds harsh, but it is now fact more than rumor that the love affair between Hunter and the 41st building is over. The juggernaut of Manhattan development and the paucity of public education funds guarantee the relocation of Hunter’s MFA program to a smaller, more traditional, and more sterile studio building, most likely in an outlying borough, most likely soon (when not if). So, when the program moves to its new home, the 41st Street building will be left without its identity, or in more severe scenarios demolished to literal ruin. Don’t mourn its loss yet. Go visit. Attend one of the myriad public events this fall and reflect on a building that is a marvelous relic of New York past and an MFA program that is a bold model for an art world future.
My mother is moving to New York. She scours real estate ads for apartments. She calls me for advice on neighborhoods. “What do you think of Clinton?” “Clinton” I ask, “where the hell is Clinton?” “40’s. West side.” Ah. Not where the hell is Clinton, but where the hell did Hell’s Kitchen go? I guess it was only a matter of time. First the hookers, then the nudie booths, then the strip clubs, then the traffic in Times Square, and now realtors banished even the neighborhood’s sinister moniker from whence it came. Amidst the whitewashing, the Hunter studio building is a hunkering blue hold-out. To walk there, out the back of Port Authority, past the homeless shelters and dollar pizza stand, is to step over a drunk and into the past, every bit as seedy, smutty, absurd, messy and grime-covered as ever. In fact the growing scarcity of filth across Manhattan makes the studio building’s grime feel positively charming. Walk into the bathroom, and not only are you fairly certain that people have had sex in that bathroom, but it’s also the kind of bathroom in the kind of building that makes you consider doing so yourself, thrashing your own life onto the flesh of mortal sin. In that way, the building represents old New York – a landmark of grime and Grindhouse – one of the last hold outs of Hell’s Kitchen against Clinton, worth the visit, at the very least to pay homage to its resolve.
The other central defining characteristic of the building is that it is wholly public. It is a city building, housing a city college, and as such both democracy and bureaucracy are as endemic to the building as smut. Over the years, the building has housed a diverse range of businesses and services in the additional rooms and floors above the studios. In New York City government building fashion, an uncanny blend of people wander in and out of the building, around the artists, past the studios, over the woodpiles, wet paintings and precarious sculptures. Aggregated heaps of treasure/trash, piled in arrangements that can be neither sturdy nor fire-safe (though here at the western edge of the city, as with laws on the frontier, fire codes seem neither applicable nor enforceable). Truly, it is a building with no delineation between the art and source material, or between art and structural material for that matter. On the studio floors, junk mingles in and out of finished and unfinished pieces. In the halls, crap aggregates: graffiti, abandoned artwork, chairs, trash, tools, pianos, and all the behemoth treasures hauled into the building for whim or exhibition, yet abandoned to roam the halls, studio to studio like ghosts, in deference to their bulk. As Seldon Yuan put it, describing his studio: it’s organized chaos. Just file it all under G. For garbage.
Every few years, questions about the institution of the MFA itself swirl in public debate, often incited by an incendiary article in The New York Times. A few years back, articles circulated about the rising number of MFA art stars getting snatched up by galleries right out of school. This month, Roberta Smith rekindled the MFA debate discussing the current relevance of the degree in the face of real economic downturn. Smith, writing in response to the launch of the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (a free-school for arts education), decries what she sees as the increasing professionalism of art-making. The resulting din of responses descended into the usual oft-repeated blanket statements and assumptions, punctuated by deep emotion and scant fact. In order to ground this discussion in some sort of truth, unscientific though it may be, I have analyzed the ages and graduate schools of the American-educated artists at 20 major New York galleries, to surprising results.
First, in direct answer to Smith, although the number of artists pursuing graduate degrees is growing (as it is in nearly every field of study), the percentage of artists withMFA degrees at galleries remains relatively low overall (30% for artists born before 1960 and between 1940 and 45% for artists born after 1960). Hardly professionalism in the sense of doctors or lawyers where 100% of practitioners acquire graduate education. Forty-five percent is closer to the level of teaching, a profession in which there may be some monetary or educational benefit in obtaining a graduate degree, but by no means are those benefits always guaranteed or requisite. Further, this means that by far the largest group of artists are still those with no graduate degree. The degree itself provides no statistical advantage, and accordingly, no single school carries a statistical advantage. Not Hunter, nor Yale, nor CalArts (which interestingly has more graduates represented by New York’s top galleries than any other graduate school. Surprise.)
So, if there is no advantage, why go to any program, or more specifically, why Hunter? When I asked the Hunter students this question, they cited many of the same answers: the building, the large studios, the time to work and focus, the affordable tuition, the spirit of democracy, the freedom and the filth—in essence many of the same characteristics underlying the nature of the building. Yet still, one of the best answers came from alumna Andrea Merkx who captured the essence of the Hunter MFAexperience in a single quip: at Hunter, you could die in your studio and no one would ever notice. Two-sides. Upside: anything goes. Rogue exhibitions, extra years in the program, free semesters, secret dance parties, rental schemes and good old-fashioned squatting. (So long as you keep a low profile and strategically avoid probing emails). Downside: anything goes. When one really needs help – say when you’re dying in your studio – the same faceless higher-up who overlooks your dance party overlooks your bloody corpse (or botched loans, diplomas, registrations, or funding). No such thing as free lunch after all.
Regardless, the effect of the headless monster is just that. Mom and Dad left for the summer. The babysitter died. A familiar plot? Then perhaps, you’ve seen Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. Sure, at first, the lack of hierarchical control incites a bedlam of broken dishes and shattered rules. However, left to their own devices long enough, the kids realize that in order to survive and to thrive they must band together to take care of business in style. Minus Christina Applegate, it’s same story at Hunter. The college is absentee, the professors are a mixed bag, and so the students have learned self-sufficiency unmatched by more organized institutions, out of necessity. They plan their own shows, curate their own artist lectures, form countless groups and collectives, and invent excuses for themed party after themed party. These are tested bonds, to carry through life. MFA candidates at most programs cite these types of bonds as one central end product of graduate school, yet they are arguably stronger between students at Hunter, as with siblings raised in neglect, abuse or adversity.
The force of community forged at Hunter is one compelling argument for the program, despite that Hunter may be the educational equivalent of a ragtag parentless home that no social worker would condone. In fact, this strong sense of community begins forging an answer to Roberta Smith’s recent article as well. In the article, her main point was that in a recession, shifting to a system where a $130,000 education is mandatory is ludicrous. Smith dreams of structures for learning, sharing and building bonds outside of the high-cost capitalist cash-cows of private university MFAprograms (and yes we’re all hopped-up on any capitalist rhetoric right now thanks to the anti-PhRMA speeches). So, in many ways, Hunter is a model for the kind of program Smith is calling for, and has been a sustainable one since the 1920s. A public institution, the college has been offering quality, democratized arts education to working artists for an affordable price since the start. A model program, not just for the high quality of ground-breaking work, but also for its commitment to rational education expenditure. (As an interesting aside on this, following my visit to Hunter, I heard President Obama speak on the new American imperative to save, to buy reasonable things that we can afford, instead of charging whatever luxuries we felt like on layaway or credit. It made me ask the question, in a market where a fancy MFAdegree brings with it no financial advantage or gain, isn’t taking on $100,000+ in debt a continuation of the spend now, pay later status quo that drives the US debt?)
Regardless, one should see the Hunter MFA building in person. Attend open studios and the MFA thesis exhibition this fall, and enjoy a fleeting piece of New York art history, to which there is no peer. Consider the building and the program, the city and the country, their pasts and futures, and contemplate which will stand together in the future as public monuments and which as ruins.
This week only, the perfect date night: meth lab and a movie
BY CYNTHIA DAIGNAULT
After a few months in my parents’ basement, I took an apartment near the state university, where I discovered both crystal methamphetamine and conceptual art. Either one of these things is dangerous, but in combination they have the potential to destroy entire civilizations.
- David Sedaris (from Me Talk Pretty One Day)
This month, the newest addition to the luxury boutiques and condominiums of SoHo is a meth lab. Tucked inconspicuously between Apple, Prada and Trump SoHo, the lab (or more accurately the depiction of a meth lab) is the central room of Black Acid Co-op, an immersive multi-room art installation that marks the return of counterculture to the shopping mall formerly known as SoHo. Black Acid Co-op is the third incarnation of Meth Lab in the Sun, a work by New York artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe. Deitch Projects reconstructs the work inside its massive Wooster Street warehouse where viewers are free to wander unmonitored through rooms depicting disparate environments of clandestine subculture, as if characters through a tripped-out Kubrick or Lynch film. Black Acid Co-op is essential viewing this summer, and even if we have the recession to thank, Deitch should be lauded for suspending commercial activities this month to present such a significant work. Site-specific in the purest of senses, Black Acid Co-op is culturally significant not only to art but to the city and neighborhood as well, a walking tour through dioramas of SoHo’s grittier past: the Chinatown bazaar, the bohemian den, the warehouse rave and even the contemporary art gallery.
Black Acid Co-op follows a long tradition of encompassing art happenings. Most recently, many New Yorkers will remember Mike Nelson’s Psychic Vacuum presented in 2007 by Creative Time, and indeed, the two works are closely related. Foremost, both share an aesthetic that falls somewhere between rotting ranch house and festering urban decay; and structurally both literalize the cinematic experience of moving between edits or jump cuts. However, despite some surface similarities, the two are remarkably different works. Nelson’s Psychic Vacuum was a presentation of non-specific archetypal space, a psychological experience of mood, emotion, memory and dream. Black Acid Co-op, meanwhile, is an aggregation of specific cultural referents, thus operating in the philosophical and analytic, more than the emotive or psychological. Meaning in simpler terms, Black Acid Co-op is about something specific. It is not about the abstract interiority of an individual’s mind; it is not timeless and spaceless like a dream or feeling; instead it is located in a specific time and context, about culture more than the individual, and as such, Black Acid Co-opexplores specific subjects: Methamphetamine and the Metropolis.
First things first: though it is maybe a taboo or distasteful topic (and this may be why most of its press has ignored or glossed over the subject all together) Black Acid Co-opis a piece about meth. In the first incarnation of the piece, Hello Meth Lab in the Sun, the work explored the production, use, logic, dysfunction and aesthetic of methamphetamine and its subcultures. In this current incarnation, Black Acid Co-op, meth has been dropped from the title, rooms added and rearranged, and its referents expanded to encompass the metropolis, yet the drug is no less potent in the work. Architecturally, the meth lab is still at the nexus of the environment. The lab is the central control room for the work, with its tubes and wires running throughout the installation, unifying the entire space. Further, the aesthetic of meth, the logic of the tweaker, is the conceptual unifying force of Black Acid Co-op.
Illicit methamphetamine production began largely in San Diego, making its way east in a reverse Manifest Destiny. The drug only recently crossed the borders of the original 13 colonies, and accordingly in New York its characteristics are still wildly unknown outside of myth and media. As a longtime resident on the West Coast, I can say to anyone who has never lived in a town ravaged by meth that you know a tweaker den when you see one. Slang for behavior most closely compared to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, tweaking is a primary symptom of Amphetamine Psychosis. It is the act of presumed productivity; the building and un-building of machines; the scavenging and rummaging through endless heaps of treasures and trash; the collecting, organizing and archiving of files, papers and junk; a tinkering marked by an undeniable fascination with tubes, cables, wires, lights and cords; the exposing of innards; the rigging of surveillance equipment; the ensuing paranoia; and the clawing, ripping, biting, decaying, lightless, timeless nature of a nonstop-24-hour existence. These, the hallmarks of methamphetamine use, are the forms and structures that unite every room of Black Acid Co-op. Spines manically ripped off books, jars of junk preserved as precious collectables, paint and carpeting picked and peeled with the ferocity of nail-biting and face-scratching. Make no mistake, this is a tweaker den.
Thus, Black Acid Co-op takes meth as its subject, exploring its cultural relevance, but more radical is that the work takes its forms from the chemical effects of methamphetamine on the user. As such, the piece can be viewed along a continuum of seminal and important works both about and derived from the drugs that are their subjects (i.e. psychedelic art relative to the hallucinatory effects of LSD). What is significant about this connection is that despite its prevalence (meth is now third only to marijuana and alcohol in many Midwestern states), unlike every other drug, meth has until very recently been largely unrepresented in popular culture. Black Acid Co-op marks in visual art what is just starting to happen in music, literature, film and television in recent works like Spun, Cookers, Methland, Tweak and Breaking Bad.
The longtime absence of meth from artistic production is as fascinating as it is puzzling. Countless significant artworks have been made about every other prevalent drug, and each has had its decade. In the 50’s (and 90’s) there was the heroin chic of Burroughs, The Man with the Golden Arm, Charlie Parker, Trainspotting and Kurt Cobain; in the 60’s and 70’s, psychedelic art pervaded the entire global explosion of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll with Zap Comix, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and my personal favorite Hypgnosis (please Google the best album cover of all time—Yes’Going for the One); and in the 80’s, coke had its decade with New Jack City, Miami Vice, Scarface and White Lines. Yet, though meth has been around since before WWIIit has remained almost completely invisible in both dominant and subcultural production. In a very unscientific count, from the webpage “the 300 most classic drug movies of all time” only five films involve meth use, and all of those were made after 2001. (No need to even mention how many weed movies made the list, culminating of course with the 2009 sleeper hit – Evil Bong 2).
Such a blatant omission in a culture that loves to tell drug stories begs the question why. And moreover, why are people suddenly penning meth’s stories now? What’s changed? Research revealed two common explanations, which both seem scant and suspect. One explanation for the drug’s longtime invisibility is that there is just nothing cool about meth. Clearly, this is a flimsy chicken-and-egg argument, as I sincerely don’t think there is anything inherently cool about heroin prior to or outside of its storied victims, novels, movies and songs. Another explanation is that meth is so caustic that there was never any room for romanticism. Again, heroin? If we can romanticize the death and decline of nearly every rock star, actor, or beautiful junkie, no doubt there is room for a tweaker or two.
More likely, the explanation for the artistic hush around meth is subtler, something inherent in the drug and its subculture that has kept it off the cultural landscape for so long. Perhaps there is something about meth’s high that discourages users from forging the mythology of their subculture, an inherent lack of productivity, or an output with a bent toward the technological rather than the artistic (computer programming, engineering, mechanics). Maybe to be spun is to be inherently paranoid or secretive, a drug that pushes its users into clandestine societies, undesiring to parade their subculture before the exploitation of the mainstream, remaining instead in covert dens like those of Black Acid Co-op. Or maybe there is a profound shame in the high, contrasted with the megalomania induced by cocaine so obvious in the music of the 80’s, much of which reeks of too many lines off the soundboard and for which one wishes someone had felt some amount of healthy shame. And just as likely the demographics of race, class, and geography have played a major roll in its longtime cultural exclusion, as the drug has never been the choice of the cultural elite.
I posit no answers, but the fact remains undeniable that until very recently meth was the dirty backwoods Midwestern cousin who carries the reputation of being the one controlled substance (along with crack) generally agreed upon as taboo, trashy, destructive, and just plain bad. Why it breaks into the mainstream now is as yet unknown, perhaps the epidemic finally reached undeniable proportions, or Hollywood ran out of material, or it was just its time. Regardless, meth has begun its spread through popular culture, and Black Acid Co-op marks its appearance in visual art. This arrival is especially timely for two reasons. First, the exponential rise of meth’s use means that it will continue to be a clear and enduring fixture of American life for some years to come. Second, and more subtly, with over 20 stories in the New Yorker and The New York Times this year alone about the growing use and acceptance of Aderall and other mind-enhancing legal amphetamines (yes New York, Aderall is amphetamine), no matter what transpires with meth itself, the aesthetic of amphetamine courses through the veins of American culture already. For example, given the prevalence of Aderall among New York artists already, I realize that it is possible that the visual logic of of meth (concretized in Black Acid Coop) subtly structures the city’s artwork already. This may already be the century of Tweaker Art.
Rem Koolhaas, renowned urban theorist and architect, penned the ultimate “retrospective manifesto” on the Metropolis and Manhattan: Delirious New York. So appropriately, right around the corner from Koolhaas’ Prada store, the rooms ofBlack Acid Co-op mirror the zones of Koolhaas’ Manhattan, and to pass through them is to experience passage through New York just as Koolhaas described it. Commercial to residential, interior to exterior, crossing the liminal and interstitial zones of hallway, stairway and corridor, the entirety fused by the infrastructures of light, heat and plumbing. Black Acid Co-op is allegory of New York, but as it also stands as an equal and accurate representation of meth as well, the work posits meth and the metropolis as metaphoric. As Koolhaas wrote, “the Metropolis strives to reach a mythical point where the world is completely fabricated by man, so that it absolutely coincides with his desires. The metropolis is an addictive machine from which there is no escape, unless it offers that too…” Koolhaas puts apt words to the metaphor of the city as drug and as user, built on the spun logic of a junkie. It’s not really so far fetched if one extends the metaphor. The hustle, the rat race, the long hours, the OCD stacking of its architecture, the partying, the sex-crazed-drug-induced-late-night-all-hours promiscuous underbelly of the city — the logic of the city is the logic of the tweaker.
This connection of city as drug, city as addict, and the strategy to view New York as the aggregation of a multitude of separate illicit dens of subculture is the central tenet of one of my favorite works about counter culture in the city, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls(which screens this Saturday and Sunday at the Anthology Film Archives). Black Acid Co-op and Chelsea Girls make for a perfect complement and viewing both together would be an epic New York date night. Chelsea Girls is an agglomeration of scantly scripted scenes, ostensibly recorded in different rooms of the Chelsea Hotel (though historically some were shot off-site). As with Black Acid Co-op, each room in the film presents a different sub-culture, a different peek into the underworld of the city. When they are compiled side-by-side (the film is dual-projected) these scenes aggregate into an experience of counterculture and a feeling of urbanity, just as withBlack Acid Co-op. Yet, the truly great thing about the paring is that Black Acid Co-op is unpopulated, an environment without its freaks and miscreants, while Chelsea Girls is largely about the people who might subsist in its strange subterranean dens. (If you do go, stay for the credits to enjoy the single best piece of outro music ever recorded, vintage unreleased Velvet Underground).
I would say go see it now for two reasons (beyond that it’s a great pairing with Black Acid Co-op). First, Chelsea Girls is still requisite viewing for any New Yorker or art lover, especially anyone who thinks they totally understand Warhol. If you haven’t seen Chelsea Girls yet, then you are probably missing the whole picture (though really anyone who thinks they totally understand Warhol is probably missing the whole picture anyway). Second, this weekend is a rare chance to see the film at home, downtown where it belongs. Just as the rooms of Black Acid Co-op nod to the seedy side of SoHo’s past, so too Chelsea Girls revives the gritty downtown of yore. The last time I saw Chelsea Girls on screen, it was uptown at the MoMA. True to the neighborhood, most of the elderly MoMA members left displeased at the content or length before the end of the first hour. Those who remained were the dedicated soldiers of film history (think the Simpsons’ comic clerk) who shushed both my laughter and covert clinking booze (forgive me; it was Chelsea Girls after all). And I kid you not, when I say that the man three rows back asked me after I giggled at some line (it’s a funny movie sometimes, I swear), “Where do you think you are? Downtown?” Where am I, indeed?
So let’s face it, Chelsea Girls is a downtown film. And for now, while New York still has some vestiges of its downtown, seeing Chelsea Girls at the Anthology seems an obligatory New York activity. Really, it’s fitting to watch the film that marked the exact moment when counterculture had its own fifteen minutes from inside the old stomping grounds of its lowlifes. Yet sad too, because writing this, when I imagine actually walking out of the film, given how much the neighborhood around the Anthology has changed, I imagine that I might feel loss. I might wonder, where did all the freaks go? What happened to the Bowery, to the Lower East Side, to SoHo, to Greenwich Village, and to Chelsea? Walking the tidy and gentrified streets of Manhattan these days is like wandering through the unpopulated rooms of Black Acid Co-op. Tweaker den without the tweakers. It’s an emptiness that almost feels post-apocalyptic, except that neither Manhattan nor Black Acid Co-op is actually empty yet. As I watch the average New Yorker, somewhere on a break between brunch and Barney’s, ogling the increasingly foreign environments of slum and transgression, the city, like the artwork, reads as urban history museum, showcasing dioramas of humans no longer seen, civilizations lost to the Visigoths of real estate, I-banking, hedge funds and greed-thirsty mayors. This ain’t rock’n’roll – this is genocide!
Given the systematic gentrification of downtown Manhattan and the undeniable eradication of counterculture from its streets, there is something mournful about watching Chelsea Girls, as if watching field footage of a civilization extinct. This loss of Manhattan’s subculture is identified and decried all too often of late. So the question is not did it go, but where did it go? Let me extend the metaphor of New York’s counterculture as an indigenous jungle population for a moment. When the colonizers came and discovered the tribe on land they wanted for their own real estate plans, what then? Were the natives pushed further into the jungle, across borders north and east (Brooklyn, Berlin)? Were they interned in camps, reservations, human zoos or freak shows (again, Brooklyn)? Are they still here, wandering itinerant, homeless, displaced refugees who lost their Palestine to the conquests of NYU or Wall Street? Was there a sudden disaster, instantaneous and unexplained extinction as with the Mayans or dinosaurs? Or maybe extinction came in the slow and subtle death of enculturation, as when Sitting Bull or Tarzan donned the suit and disappeared into the polite society of the cubicle forever. Or more broadly, maybe the very notion of subculture itself is extinct, as the maw of dominant society finally swallowed even the possibility of a counterculture in the homogeny of boundless heterogeneity.
Maybe I am a nostalgic of the worst kind. Definitely really – the kind who whines about the city that was. So, take this with a grain of salt, when I say that walking out ofBlack Acid Co-op, I found myself hoping that David Sedaris was right – that maybe the congruence of meth and conceptual art truly is the magic alchemy needed to take down polite civilization, at least a little. To tussle the prim and priss of SoHo just enough to make room for a freak or two again. Or perhaps, as with all meth labs, common household and agricultural bi-products might turn so unstable as to explode in a stunning mushroom cloud of scattering pseudoephedrine that annihilates all of SoHo (or at least the transformation of Manhattan it represents) in its scalding radiation and light.
So, make it a date. Whether to claim one more night for the underground or just to toast its extinction, see Black Acid Co-op. Walk across the city past the Bowery to the Anthology. Watch Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. Nico is still as beautiful as ever, and the Velvet Underground are still in their prime. Then pound a whiskey, just for old times sake. Put the Ramones or Blondie on a jukebox. But stick to the side streets, since a walk down the Bowery or Saint Mark’s might destroy the momentary illusion that downtown New York is still there, just as it ever was. And wander aimlessly through a city that for many feels increasingly tame and unfamiliar. Then at last, in the sweltering muffling darkness of New York’s summer, look up at its glowing starless sky and say, at least I am still here.
I’ll be there too, perhaps right behind you, two rows back, one block over or maybe even holding your hand, pulling you forward. Bohemian, artist, and erstwhile reprobate myself, I will walk across the span of downtown, 14th to the Battery, Hudson River to the east, declaring at every block for all who care to listen or not, that though Stanley Bard has been ousted from the Chelsea Hotel, though the grindhouses long left Hell’s Kitchen, though there are women of polite society sunbathing in Tompkins Square Park, and luxury clothes being sold out of the bathroom of CBGBs, we are still here.
MEET THE NEW BOSS
This Easter, youth rises again in The Generational: Younger than Jesus at the New Museum
BY CYNTHIA DAIGNAULT
In The Generational: Younger than Jesus, the inaugural exhibition of its new triennial, the New Museum hopes to play apostle in documenting an imminent revolution in art history, chronicling the good work of its new prophets. With an eyebrow-raiser of a title, the exhibition presents the work of 50 artists, all younger than 33 (Jesus’ age at crucifixion), all members of the so-called Millennial Generation. First, allow me to join the legion of bloggers in agreeing
that this is the Worst Exhibition Title Ever. Distasteful, borderline offensive, and cliché in its romanticism of martyred youth. However, the real crime is that the title is just really uncool. When mounting an exhibition whose subject is the young and hip, a contrivance so square as Younger than Jesus elicits the same cringing embarrassment as the toupeed boomer, posting ironic YouTube clips on your Facebook page. In the immortal words of the Fresh Prince, esteemed prophet of the Millennial generation, “To you, all the kids, all across the land, there’s no need to argue, parents just don’t understand.”
Actually, that the curatorial construct is so uncool, so out of touch and so wrong, seems fitting in a show about generational divide and identity. After all, such is the definitive concept of generational markers – that our parents just don’t get us. Even more beguiling (or as testament to the low expectations such a title engenders) is that in a miracle beyond fishes and loaves, Younger than Jesus is actually a good show. Standout pieces by Kitty Kraus, Tris Vonna-Michell, Ryan Trecartin and James Richards manage to belie the absurd context of the exhibition in a fitting demonstration of youth’s timeless ability to flip the bird at the institution, and transform contrivance into real meaning.
The focus of the show is two-fold: Youth and the Younger Generation. The first, the production of gifted youths, is a topic so belabored as to be inane. Curator Laura Hoptman predicates the exhibition on the obvious fact that many of the greatest works of art were produced by artists younger than 30. So, ostensibly, by focusing their new triennial on artists in their twenties, we might perhaps
discover the next masterwork of a Jasper Johns or Pablo Picasso. Yet, given the make-up of recent Whitney Biennials and the dominance of the MFA system in the art market, the assertion of the necessity for a show on the younger demographic seems absurd. Further, the genius of youth and the transience of youthful production are not much of a curatorial hard sell these days either. Gordan Matta-Clark, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Eva Hesse—there is no shortage of exhibitions this year commemorating art’s young geniuses and martyred youths. Give me a triennial of forgotten mid-career, artists struggling with anonymity, distended waistlines, dysfunctional sex organs, and the fleeting possibilities of making lasting and relevant humanist works before death, and then I might tip my hat to the new revolution. Otherwise, to focus on the inspired genius of the young, gifted and beautiful feels like “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
The second topic, generational identity, is far more intriguing. Younger than Jesus seeks to explore what ideas, interests, and subjects ally the Millennials, but more broadly asks if the construct of generation itself is even still relevant. Though sprawling and fractious in both its years and politics, there is a shared acceptance of the definition, existence and identity of the Baby Boomers. In contrast, an Internet search on the Millienial generation provides no such accord. Neither agreed years, nor even a shared name. Generation Y, the Millennial Generation, iGeneration, Me Generation. It’s generation identity crisis, and with nearly 50% of the world’s population belonging to the Millennial, it is possible that generational identity, like nationalism, eroded under the shifting currents of globalism and the world demographic.
Notwithstanding, walking through Younger than Jesus, a clear sense of a shared identity does develop, epitomized best perhaps by AIDS 3-D’s OMG Obelisk. The black minimalist and monolithic totem, flanked by torches, is alit with the ever- present text-messaging acronym: OMG. Oh my God. There is no doubt that technology is the origin story, tribal counsel and god-force for the generation that never knew a world without the personal computer. Even the uses of archaic technologies in the exhibition, such as the turntables in Icaro Zorbar’s Golden Triangle or the tape decks in Vonna-Michell’s No More Racing in Circles, Just Pacing within the lines of a Rectangle, come not from nostalgia, but from the technophile’s innate understanding of the specific value and aesthetic of particular technologies, and as an assertion against their obsolescence.
Overall, it is savvy work that feels novel, but I found no signs of revolution within the innovation. No radical ideas or forms. No seismic generational shift. To the contrary, many familiar ideas and artworks of the past are recycled and remediated in the new work. Cory Arcangel’s mural-sized abstract color c-print Photoshop CS: 110 by 72 inches, 300 dpi, RGB, square pixels, default. gradient “Spectrum”, mousedown y=1416 x=1000, mouse up y=208 x=42 is Lawrence Wiener via Photoshop; Chu Yun This is XX is Cornelia Parker and Tilda Swinton’s Maybe outsourced and doped on Ambien; and Kitty Krauss’ Untitled invokes the Euclidian geometry of Robert Morris’ mirror cubes, plotted into the
fractal dimension. This is not to say these are not vibrant and interesting works, they are, but it is to say that it is a critical mark of this generation that the images, media, methods and works of the past generation are the subject matter for the new. New media theorist Lev Manovich sees this process of recycling, or ‘remediation’, as central to the new generation. In The Language of New Media, he notes that “the new avant-garde is no longer concerned with seeing or representing the world in new ways but rather with accessing and using in new ways previously accumulated media.” As both born consumers and the inheritors of such a vast amount of media, imagery and objects, the Millennial Generation inherits the role of archivist as much as artist. Raised on technology, the Millenials know that obsolescence is the new death. So, to protect ideas from obsolescence, as with technology, they must be invoked and transferred, before their original format becomes so outdated that the material is lost forever, e.g. LP to tape to CD to minidisk to Mp3. This continual transference keeps the material and ideas of past generation vibrant, alive, present, and forever young. So then, it’s a fitting irony of Younger than Jesus that although youth is the driving force of obsolescence, the focus of this generation is on its denial.
What this says about Jesus, I don’t know. However, writing this on Easter weekend, it seems apropos to note that three years hence when the next triennial will open, most of the artists in this show will no longer be Younger than Jesus. Yet, though they will not be able to stave off their own crucifixion, or the death of their youth, given their bent to archive, preserve and reanimate ideas of the past, resurrection is only ever right outside the cave.