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by Max Henry
The Whitney Biennial is back, the blockbuster that everyone loves to hate. But what's an art world denizen to do when the show gets "sensational" coverage for a pedestrian work that is so anti-climatic it makes one want to hurl dung? Hans Haacke's hack garbage-can installation Sanitation is political puffery, gaining the artist another 15 minutes. The piece has grad school written all over it, as does much of the work in the Biennial -- four floors of mostly forgettable paintings, so-so assemblage and crappy conceptual works.
The show features two video gems, however. Catalogue coverboy Doug Aitken has the hands-down best work in the show with Electric Earth, a multiscreen video installation that immerses the viewer in the sights and sounds of a young man's journey through a city at night. Rising star Paul Pfeiffer has two wallet-sized video projections. One stuttering loop shows basketball player Larry Johnson, screaming with mouth open after a dunk, in a reference to Francis Bacon's screaming pope.
Lisa Yuskavage's three yummy pin-ups are hung too close together and in the wrong location -- as are the three paintings by superstar John Currin. A huge Ingrid Calame looks good, but it really makes you wish for a Matthew Ritchie (who was in the 1997 Biennial). The wrong Robert Gober's were selected, having little impact and less whimsy than usual. One of the best works, a mobile assemblage by Sarah Sze, would be more effective in a room by itself.
The idea of including regional artists is a bust -- New York is regional anyway, almost everyone comes from somewhere to pursue the dream. The show isn't so much about who's in it, its about who isn't.
The four floors and basement have a "less is more" feel, and by the time you've combed the premises a question pops to mind -- is that it? The "Whitney Biennial 2000" is easy to bash, but the extra year of preparation and hype made many hopeful that the millennial tie-in would provide inspiration rather than indifference. Where's Francesco Bonami or Rosa Martinez or someone of stature with a track record and a vision to take the reigns? Through the rear view window, the 1997 Biennial is starting to look better. That is scary.
On the waterfront
The gusty winds didn't stop the Saint Patrick's day revelers from making their way to Roebling Hall in Brooklyn for a festive performance by Guy Richards Smit. The alternative outpost is situated in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge in a turn of the century industrial building with brick arches and high ceilings.
Smit is a rock star, standup comedian and watercolor artist. His performance as music great Maxi Geil & Playcolt had it all -- a well-rehearsed band, a velvet-suited front man (himself) and a rollicking set of songs. Smit can sing and his band is legit, but the heart of the art (his smashing solo debut) is the uproarious Jonathon Grossmalerman Standup Comedy Series of Videos (Grosmalerman is German for "big painting guy"). Think of a young slapstick Schecky Greene with the lugubrious face of Gary Shandling doing Steve Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy routine versed in Foucault.
Smit makes Grossmalerman a funny-bone polemicist -- dressed in Las Vegas duds and swinger shades he sweats profusely under the stage lights while upchucking one liners that refer to art-world power and hegemony. An everyman conceptualist, his watercolors illustrate his penchant for off-color humor and sexual pathos -- they're Marcel Dzama meets Nicole Eisenmann.
Smit recently appeared as the CNN broadcaster in Christoph Draeger's madcap video installation at Leibman Magnan -- he could very well crossover into television and film acting as Ann Magnuson has, with his refreshingly original and magnetic presence. In show biz lingo, the kid's got legs...
Charlton Heston's NRA poster boy
Robert Beck has installed an ad hoc homage to his 1970s childhood in a first solo show replete with objects that weave a syrupy narrative on the passage of time. At the entrance to CRG gallery we see a shrine offering candles, flowers and balloons seemingly in memory of some deceased person. But the mourned is not actually a person but the lost innocence of youth.
Inside, the gallery floor is covered in gray wall-to-wall industrial carpeting. In a corner is a small pile of rolled up newspapers wrapped in plastic. Beck must've been a paperboy. On the wall we see a small framed magazine page highlighting things for children to make. A nearby pedestal holds a plaster mold and wax leg of a taxidermy squirrel, as if Beck's idea of craft hour was to make a slingshot and do some damage. In the main space a partition wall made of wood paneling is hung with a framed hunting print. A lamp turned over on the platform makes one think of kids horsing around and tussling in a basement den.
A child-sized camouflage tent reminds you of backyard campouts playing Army -- toy guns are the objects of boys' affection -- real guns? -- look at the portrait in front of the Christmas tree -- one brother holds a 22-gauge hunting rifle, another a bb rifle, and the youngest a realistic toy rifle. The gist of the show is a video montage playing on a monitor sitting on a high pedestal, an effectively maudlin review of snapshots and 8mm footage of family members and the young lad Beck firing a real handgun in the backyard. The montage plays a wonderfully schmaltzy lite-FM '70s soundtrack. Remember Helen Redding? You and Me against the World -- Neil Diamond's He Ain't Heavy He's my Brother -- and, Everything I Own by Bread. Somewhere the NRA hovers in this potent and surprisingly poignant mis-en-scene.
Androgyny pays the rent
Nir Hod is based in Tel Aviv and New York. His second solo show of paintings and photographs in the U.S. is at Leibman Magnan on West 24th Street. Hod rod is a gender-bending narcissist; a Dionysian she-male incarnate consumed by the glossy imagery of mass media. Hod has a repertoire of self-portraits that accentuates his androgynous appearance. One oil on canvas is, a diptych called Police Man and Police Woman (1999), shows Nir on the left panel and a woman on the right. With almost identical faces and slender body, they strike the same militaristic but nude stance -- Hod dons the female police cap while the woman wears the male one. It's painted in aluminum silver and black outline further embellishing the feminine/masculine gendarme switcheroo.
Happy Birthday Mr. Hod (1999), is a big glossy three-panel c-print of Hod walking through the new Times Square. He wears a milk-white mime mask and carries a shiny red balloon. It resonates with Heinrich Boll's protagonist in his famous post war novel about a mime, The Clown. The Legend of the Last Polaroids (2000) is a three-panel canvas with a thick clear resin surface. Unfortunately it looks and feels too much like the iconic black and yellow self-portrait of Andy Warhol.
Hod serializes himself, using costumes, cosmetics and repetition in twos, threes and fours. It's a way to heighten the double-take effect he wants the viewer to have. A four-panel photo shows him in two portraits, one with himself in pale femme make-up and the other wearing a pointy witch hat. Hod (like much of the fashion industry) advertises his purposeful image as an androgynous being from another world. Clothes really do make the ladyman and in the case of Nir Hod the work's ambiguous deployment plays on the subtleties of selling sensualism.
Maintain Speed is the title of Peter Halley's new book published by D.A.P. and sponsored by Dutch mega-collectors Adrie and Ank Reinders. Bursting with punchy color and graphic design, the 217-page monograph surveys the scope of Halley's painting and writing career. From the East Village neo-geo scene to the East Side galleries, Halley, since the '80s, has chronicled his tenets of modern abstract forms in many essays and catalogues. He believes "that abstract painting references the outside world and the world of social reality." Reproductions of his exploding cell prints and vintage day glow paintings (installed in various museums) are interspersed with snippets of text from Halley. Rudi Fuchs, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, Susan Kandel, Makikio Matake, Demetrio Paparoni and David Rimanelli contribute six erudite essays. Coinciding with the book's publication is an exhibition of Halley's wallpaper prints, on view through Apr. 22 at Frederieke Taylor/TZ'Art in SoHo.
Postcards from Alphaville is author/poet/art critic Raphael Rubinstein's second book from Hard Press. A follow-up to his first book of poems, The Basement of the Café Rilke, this 165-page prose work falls somewhere between a Francis Ponge novella and travelogue prose. Rubinstein ruminates on the people and places he's encountered on his many travels throughout Europe and America. Told with a dualistic voice and concise detachment, many of his characters are local eccentrics revisited through a menagerie of far-away memories and real-life cinematic vignettes.
Rubinstein's story, Jacques de Mercier, Where Are You?, brings closure to a supposed reencounter with a would-be leftist filmmaker met two decades before. A Godard Scrapbook, begins in 1975, weaving in a parallel chronology of his life with the film history of his idol Jean-Luc Godard. Godard shot the film Numero Deux on video (note that the title of Rubinstein's book refers to the 1965 Godard film Alphaville) in '75 and as the story digresses one realizes Rubinstein has seen every one of his films from the '60s on. The story moves back and forth from personal anecdotes to anecdotes about protagonists in Godard films.
A Lost Profile muses on a late '70s photograph from the music pages of the Sept. 1, 1996, New York Times. It's a concert at Max's Kansas City by the legendary James Chance and the Contortions. The photo shows the audience watching as the No Wave singer performs his antics -- the author recognizes himself as an audience member and begins examining this period of his life, its history and relationship to the present as if musing on a reveler in a vintage Brassai nightlife photo.
Along with Surrealism and contemporary art, there's an affinity with European Cinema's pace and storytelling and the ironies of incidental encounters with people from the past that no longer fit into the present. All the while the back stories keep a crafty laissez-fare intimacy, as if told over a four hour dinner party, the private asides and digressions expanding and contracting in a skillfully measured monologue.
MAX HENRY lives in New York City.