First off, Phaidon's new book Fresh Cream makes an odd impression. Packaged in a lung-like container of inflatable plastic and with an elongated, flesh-colored cover, the book resembles a mutant body still germinating in its shell. Which is appropriate enough, since like its predecessor Cream (1998), this volume delivers the work of 100 hot new artists in an editorial effort designed to "take the temperature of contemporary art."
The 100 have been selected by 10 curators, all players on the international scene. Among them are Tate curator Iwona Blazwick, Parkett editor Bice Curiger, NKA editor Olu Oguibe, Istanbul Contemporary Art Project founder Vasif Kortun, and Bankok professor and curator Apinan Poshyananda.
Art-world insiders are sure to recognize some of the artists -- Doug Aitken, Uta Barth, Lucky DeBellevue, Wim Delvoye, Sylvie Fleury, Noritoshi Hirakawa, Byron Kim, Oleg Kulik, Sharon Lockhart, Paul McCarthy, Kerry James Marshall, Elizabeth Peyton, Jason Rhoades, Doris Salcedo, Wolfgang Tillmans.
Others will be less familiar, at least to New York's parochial cognoscenti: Arahmaiani, Kutlug Ataman, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi, Heri Dono, Erbosyn Meldybekov, Priscilla Monge, Guia Rigvava, Jaan Toomik, Dolores Zinny and Juan Maidagan, to name a few.
As a reference work, Fresh Cream is quite useful. Images dominate the book's simple format: four or five pages of pictures of artwork are complemented by a brief curatorial essay and a list of the artist's solo and group exhibitions. Presumably, Fresh Cream could do duty as an art collector's tip-sheet of the art-world "new."
But the book is more a yearbook devoted to a hip and talented freshman class than a global exhibition in book form. As a whole, the book is unfocused and confusing. It's more like a palimpsest than a book -- it doesn't encourage reading as much as a kind of impressionistic examination, with new images popping up like cherries on a slot machine.
There's so many artists, but no connecting tissue. How many artists come from which countries? How many are men, how many women? Do they show at commercial galleries? Did they participate in international biennials? Have they exhibited in New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo?
In the end, each artist is presented as an individual on the global stage. And as such, several trends emerge in this not-an-exhibition in a book. These include sculpture documenting political injustice, humorous assaults on modern culture, and further deliberations on the body. And there's another direction centered on meditation. Herein, a sampling.
Heri Dono is a 41-year-old Javanese artist from Jakarta who uses puppets, videos and installations to debunk living "a cartoon life where mass media is reality." It's all about futility and political helplessness. Whether expressed by sad-looking wooden figures or gas-mask-wearing performers, the lives of Indonesians (particularly those from undeveloped regions) revolve around mindless routines, as in Fermentation of Mind (1993-94), in which a group of sculpted heads nod in unison to the hum of a radio.
In Ceremony of Souls (1995), politicians are depicted as hypocritical cartoon characters (sound familiar?). The liveliest work pictured is Waywang Legenda (1988), a shadow puppet performance wherein a fierce-eyed and skeletal male stalks an equally spindly female. If Society is truly a mechanism operating beyond human control then perhaps the artist should build a machine that produces his work. Hmmm.
Responding to a land torn apart by feuding drug lords, Columbian artist Doris Salcedo grafts pieces of furniture together, conveying the rooted yet phantom-like presence of memory. In Untitled (1997), an empty bed frame is lodged in the wall of a bureau walled up with concrete. In Unland: irreversible witness, a crib frame sinks eerily into a table awkwardly joined to a smaller table. The loss of loved ones is well conveyed; the hobbled pieces of furniture can no longer function. She increases the barren mood by gluing on patches of hair and applying threadbare coats of paint, making the work look oddly windswept. These understated works exhibit a slowly building desolation.
Another artist combines objects in disconcerting ways. Erbosyn Meldybekov is a conceptual artist from Kazakhstan, a country returning to a "lost norm" after the collapse of the Soviet Republic. Tackling the imposed construct of national identity, he experiments on stuffed animals like an evil surgeon, grafting them together or pulling their insides gruesomely to the surface. In Wolf-sheep/Sheep-wolf (1998), the hindquarters of a sheep are sewn to a wolf's waist and in Bare Model (1997) a sheep wears its exposed ribcage on its back.
According to curator Viktor Misiano's essay, the animal world represents prehistoric man and the artist's grisly collages recall the Asiatic nomad's custom of cutting up animals. Is a more primitive way of life the answer? The works have some visual punch but seem like one-note gestures that lack immediacy. How does the search for a national identity affect people's daily lives?
Then there's South African artist Jane Alexander, who offers another case study of disenfranchisement, in this instance the cultural fallout of Apartheid. The subjects of her figurative sculptures have suffered a traumatic alteration, leaving them in a confused limbo between human and animal. In Bom Boys (1998), a group of children wears animal masks and hip teenage clothing. One suspects that the masks can't be removed. Looking stunned, they hold their hands up as if to say: "What the hell is this?"
In Butcher Boys, a trio of cadaverous male figures sits on a bench. Their bleached heads are crowned by antelope horns and, in a particularly ghoulish touch, their noses and mouths seem to have eroded away. Alexander offers more realistic work as well, like the three spiritually exhausted women in Pastoral Scene (1995).
One of the senior members of the class is L.A. performance artist Paul McCarthy, who curator Maria Lind notes is notorious for "deep, masculine trauma" -- that is to say, he puts on masks and smears himself with food, like a mad infant in cooking class. (Freudians call it "soiling the mother.") In his 1991 video installation Bossy Burger, for instance, the artist wears an Alfred E. Newman mask and chef's outfit as he slathers ketchup, milk and mayonnaise (resembling bodily secretions) onto the furniture of a defunct sit-com set.
Fresh Cream has several pictures of such installations and performance sets as well as photos of McCarthy's freestanding figure sculptures, like Spaghetti Man (1993), a bunny-headed person with a long, coiling hose-like penis. Dressing up as Heidi and Pinnochio, McCarthy performs perverse rituals incompatible with their calculated innocence. This work neatly reflects the idea of the artist as social deviant whose unwholesome personal statements are scorned by a television-molded public.
Angry dark humor also abounds in the photographs of London artist Sarah Lucas. Often depicting the devaluation of women, the artist plants foods on thrift store furniture, acidly reducing the human figure. In Bitch (1995), a T-shirt containing two melons is stretched over one side of a table. The image is completed by a vacuum-packed fish dangling between the table's back legs, approximating a woman on all fours.
In Chicken Knickers, a spread-eagled chicken is mounted on a young girl's underwear. As curator Bice Curiger puts it, Lucas' work presents imagery that "tests the stamina of her viewers." She's like a prizefighter seeking a title so sardonic that the jabs of lesser minds will lose their sting.
The body humbled
The body retains a firm grip on the imagination of working artists. In Pulling (1998), a performance piece by Brazilian Laura Lima, a naked man and woman sit facing each other. A long cloth hose called a "sucking machine" connects them (one end strapped to his face stretches out to a pair of funnels, held to her breasts). In Apparatus for the Hips, two men are joined with a cloth girdle to form an awkward crab-like creature. Like those aggravating Chinese finger traps, her work suggests that the one's dignity is undermined by instinctual desires.
The Glasgow-based pair Stephanie Smith and Edward Stewart make videos where one body performs on another. In Intercourse (1993), Smith sucks on Stewart's chest until he's covered in bruises. In Sustain, Stewart is seen holding his breath underwater. Near drowning, he violently exhales beneath the surface and Smith darts in to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Smith/Stewart stage paradoxical encounters where intimacy is won through humbling the body. What a set-up!
The pleasures of staring
German-born artist Uta Barth takes out-of-focus pictures of trees, roads and architecture, avoiding the reflexive clarity of traditional photography. In Ground (95.3), a leafy tree filtered with sun diffuses into softly rounded spots of light. The warm blur of works like Ground (95.6) is very soothing; it's as though the world and the viewer, in a mutual act of kindness, have split off into two separate cocoons, still within hazy view of each other. After this lull, the sudden demands of her focused work are surprising. Barth's atmospheric works unburden the eye from defining space and dissolve the viewer's perception of time.
New York artist Joanne Greenbaum brings to her abstractions a buzzing energy. Combining the slightly crude drawing style and seriousness of a child, she paints boxes, circles and pyramids that promise to move if you watch them long enough. The forms are surrounded by elaborate scaffold-like structures that sprawl across a white canvas. These compositions are so intelligently organized that only the paintings themselves could have masterminded it. The denizens are like an ant-like community perpetually plotting expansion, and the effect is mesmerizing.
Fresh Cream is an impressive cultural document -- where else can one get an idea of what life and art is like in so many countries so easily? There's plenty of good writing, especially noteworthy is Zygmunt Bauman's piece on eternal myths being overthrown by modern images of disposable beauty.
Still the effort has its flaws. The opening cultural essays, while thought provoking, often hold tenuous connections to the work. And as one might expect in such a project, though the curators all have intelligent things to say, they're rather too deferential to the artists they have chosen. Timidly avoiding strong interpretations, a number of the curatorial essays obscure the work in an unraveling poetical fog. Beyond that, it's well worth perusing.