If abject art wasn't exactly the miserable stepchild of a market fallen on hard times, its various forms nevertheless found a perversely suitable terrain on which to thrive as we witnessed the overnight disappearance of an art scene that had hitherto nurtured scores of art students on dreams of '80s largesse … in contrast to the pristine fetish objects of Neo-Geo, and the bombast of Neo-Expressionism, the art of abjection found its proper forms in a Pop-inflected version of scatter...
David Rimanelli, Artforum, December 1999
During the first half of the '90s, the period this exhibition
examines, more than 10,000 MFAs were awarded in the United States.
from the catalogue for "Public Offerings"
"Public Offerings" is an audacious and poignant examination of art making in the early 1990s. Organized at the Geffen Contemporary branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, by chief curator Paul Schimmel with project director Ciara Ennis, the show opened Apr. 1, 2001, and remains on view through July 29.
The exhibition features works by 25 artists from the U.S., Europe and Japan. The selected artists, from Mathew Barney and Damien Hirst to Takashi Murakami and Rirkrit Tiravanija, are arguably the most visible of their generation.
That the artists in this contemporary blockbuster are "hot" is no surprise. The innovative curatorial approach in "Public Offerings," rather, is to focus on the artist's early exhibitions, recreating in many cases those debut knockouts at art schools in Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, London and Tokyo.
A complete list of the 25 artists in the exhibition includes Janine Antoni, Matthew Barney, Thomas Demand, Renée Green, Michael Joaquín Grey, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Toba Khedoori, Sharon Lockhart, Sarah Lucas, Steve McQueen, Takashi Murakami. Yoshitomo Nara, Chris Ofili, Laura Owens, Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Jorge Pardo, Manfred Pernice, Jason Rhoades, Diana Thater, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Rachel Whiteread, and Jane and Louise Wilson.
Wall Street IPOs, those "initial public offerings" that raise capital from investors in the public stock market for business expansion, repeatedly made headlines during the '90s tech boom. Similarly, the art exhibitions recreated in "Public Offerings" immediately catapulted these young artists, while still in their 20s, into the global critical arena and marketplace, where they have remained ever since. This group of artists is the first generation, this exhibition contends, to experience this phenomenal success en masse and at such a young age. The avant-garde, it seems, has succumbed to the rationale of the culture industry.
Providentially, "Public Offerings" seems perfectly timed for our current moment of economic contraction. As a historical analysis of the art of the early '90s, a period of recession after the 1987 art-market crash, the show examines the output of artists at the very moment of their entrance into a marketplace that they believed to be non-existent. In Los Angeles alone, over 75 galleries shut their doors between 1990 and 1993. "Public Offerings" seeks to explain why an art consisting primarily of multimedia installations surfaced during this period.
For its answer, the show's agenda begins with art schools -- their emergence as a crucial component in art making and a continuing haven for artists, even after they get their MFA. Originally titled "Global Academy," the exhibition notes that obtaining teaching posts at influential art academies is an important marker of success, not to mention a vehicle to extend one's artistic influence. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, as the artists who benefited from the '80s boom prided themselves on neither needing nor wanting to teach.
The ambitious exhibition catalogue is organized and edited by Howard Singerman, whose book, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, is the theoretical basis for the show. Among the catalogue essays not to be missed are L. A. Based and Superstructure by Lane Relyea and The Economics of Culture: The Revival of British Art in the '80s by Jon Thompson. In some ways, the catalogue is more satisfying that the exhibition itself.
Admittedly, "Public Offerings" may be one of the most difficult exhibitions to hit a Los Angeles museum in years, with many viewers walking around the show scratching their heads. Adding to the usual level of difficulty is the fact that some of the art works are not easily recognizable as being by the artist who made them -- they come from a period before the artists had been properly "branded."
At the entrance to "Public Offerings" is a curious and rather modest display of a carefully arranged of objects, the kind of ordinary equipment one might see in a lumberyard: a ladder, a set of tools, adjusted wrenches. The installation is the work of Jorge Pardo, a recreation of his 1990 exhibition at Tom Solomon's Garage, a gallery the young dealer had opened in his home (for L.A., it was remarkable to locate a commercial gallery in a residential space).
The show won Pardo wide critical acclaim. As it happens, Pardo's items were actually meticulous facsimiles of the mass-produced objects, fabricated by the artist using more luxurious materials. This body of work obscures the boundaries between art, craft and design (and later architecture), a territory central to his entire oeuvre.
Two other shows that first appeared at Rosamund Felsen Gallery signaled the paradigm shift in art making in L.A. in the '90s: Ralph Rugoff's curatorial presentation of the art of abjection in the summer of 1990, "Just Pathetic" (which later traveled to American Fine Arts in New York), and Jason Rhoades "Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts" show of 1994.
Rhoades' scattered site-specific installation features a peculiar and dense mélange of crudely fabricated yellow objects -- a reference to the yellow color of the outside of the West Hollywood gallery, which the artist matched and used on the pieces, including repainting the Yellow Pontiac Fiero sports car parked in the lot outside. The installation included copies of Ikea furniture and other commonplace domestic objects, and completely filled every inch of the space, save for a meandering path for viewers.
This seemingly chaotic sculpture (which was later broken into units and sold) was accompanied by an oblique text illuminating the overlying composition of the piece, a text that the dealer was instructed to explain to visitors. "The piece is about interior decorating," she told them, as many looked on in horror. Though actually quite formal in structure, if there was an exhibition that epitomized the shift away from the pristine object, this was it.
Another of the "home galleries" to emerge during the period, Brian Butler's 1301 PE (actually the living room of Butler's Santa Monica apartment) was the original site for Diana Thater's video installation Oo Fifi: Five Days in Claude Monet's Garden Part One. The work was part of "Into the Lapse," an exhibition curated by Butler and the artist Jean Rasenberger in 1992.
Thater shot the footage for her piece in five days, one per month, during her 1991 residency at the Musée Claude Monet in Giverny, France. The work shows flowers in the garden at different times of the day and deals, like Impressionism itself, with color, optics and light. Part One was a projection through a "three lens" set-up (red-green-blue), with the lenses intentionally out of focus, into a corner of the 1301 space that included a window that had been treated with a neutral density gray gel, which dimmed but did not completely block out the light. The interior and exterior architecture was still legible, and the garden outside could be seen through the window.
The second part of the piece, installed at MOCA on a much larger scale, was first included in the exhibition "VeryVeryVery" at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery, also in 1992. But instead of projecting the video in a separate room, as was the usual practice for video installations, Thater enlarged the projection and had it displayed in the gallery next to other pieces in the show. This broke a barrier for the video medium and allowed it to be read in the gallery space, as a painting or sculpture might be.
In 1995, artist Laura Owens had her first one-person exhibition of paintings at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, and half of the paintings from that show are on display in "Public Offerings." For this group of works, Owens took as her subject the vista of gallery walls and floors. Her works -- alternately bratty, witty and provokingly hip -- often become so bulky in scale that the artworks fuse with the walls of the exhibition spaces they occupy, becoming de facto installations.
Toba Kheedori's drawings are also large scale, yet are extraordinarily intricate, intimate and refined, and represent a cross-pollination of media: architecture, drawing and installation.
Sharon Lockhart's photographic installations in "Public Offerings" are among of the most appealing in the show. A particularly successful piece is "Auditions," a charming series of five photographs that show children nervously acting out the kissing scene from Francois Truffaut's 1976 film, Small Change.
Another highlight of "Public Offerings" is a documentation of Matthew Barney's astounding 1991 debut at Stuart Regen Gallery in Los Angeles (which then traveled to Barbara Gladstone in New York). This extraordinary show revealed a fully formed artist of power and audacity. The work is ostensibly a mise en scene of the "anal sadistic" position done with weight-lifting gear made of Vaseline, and is presented here through the use of sculptural props as well as videotape of Barney's performances of the period. Repressia and Transexualis launched a career that was instantly hailed as among the most provocative yet intellectually ambitious of his generation.
John Thompson's essay for "Public Offerings" chronicles the explosion of artistic energy and ambition that emerged particularly from London's Goldsmiths College during the late '80s and early '90s. The British artists in "Public Offerings" -- Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili, Rachel Whiteread and Jane and Louise Wilson -- were all graduates of Goldsmiths. Additionally, the German artist Thomas Demand, whose exquisite but disturbing photographs are perhaps the most visually arresting pieces in "Public Offerings," got his MFA degree at Goldsmiths in 1994.
In 1988, Damien Hirst staged the now legendary three-part student exhibition "Freeze," named after his now-famous early cow-and-formaldehyde piece, in the abandoned Southeast London Port Authority Building in the Docklands area of London. Lucas, Hume and Hirst himself first showed their work at that exhibition.
Elsewhere in London, modestly funded artist-run galleries began to crop up. One of them was the Woodstock Street space, which was run by Tamara Chodzho and Thomas Dane, and was the venue that first exhibited Damien Hirst's breakthrough installation using live butterflies, In and Out of Love, which is included in "Public Offerings." Tracey Emin and Lucas ran The Shop on Bethnal Hill Road and sold bad-girl artifacts. City Racing, another new gallery, showed Lucas and Sam Taylor-Wood as well as other young artists of this new generation.
Next, as Thomas Lawson describes in his catalogue essay, "Ofili introduced himself to the London art world by selling shit -- elephant shit. Setting up a table at the pathetic end of a street market on Brick Lane, a worn-out area of the East End given a touch of arty glamour by the proximity of Gilbert and George's studio, Ofili offered fresh turds he had collected at the zoo... Soon afterwards enigmatic stickers, saying only 'Elephant Shit,' appeared all over London." The rest is history.
In Japan, this nouvelle vague had a slightly different manifestation. Because of the conservative nature of the museums as well as the art schools there, artists such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshimoto Nara had to educate themselves with regard to contemporary art and exhibit abroad in order to receive any kind of audience for their work. Murakami is in the process of forming an art school in Japan.
The poignancy in "Public Offerings" comes, of course, from the innocence of history. When they created their installations, none of the artists knew what the 1990s art boom would bring. And curiously, in 2001, we find ourselves again at a moment in the art world and in the global economy similar to one in which these works were first created.
"Pubic Offerings" ends up, then, as the first museum show of contemporary art to bid farewell to the last century as it welcomes the next.
IRIT KRYGIER is a writer based in Los Angeles.
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