Competition between the Basel Museum fur Gegenwartskunst (that's Contemporary Art Museum to you non-speakers of German) and the Kunsthalle Basel can always be counted on to enliven the summer art scene in the city.
Clearly, the Gegenwartskunst has made the trendier choices with shows by the art world's favorite theatrical impresario (of the moment), Matthew Barney, and Elizabeth Peyton, master of the androgynous Pop portrait.
As for the Kunsthalle, its fare was less celebrity-obsessed. On view this summer were surveys of work by Lebanon-born body-sculptor Mona Hatoum, the Chicago recycling artist Dan Peterman and the hot young Berlin-based German artist, Tobias Rehberger.
Mona Hatoum at the Basel Kunsthalle
Mona Hatoum is perhaps best known for a biologically scandalous videotape in which she passed a miniature camera through her intestines (they seemed remarkably pink and juicy) and an even earlier work -- it was banned -- in which she attempted to project a closed-circuit video of a bathroom at the London ICA into the museum gallery.
So we expect a certain amount of transgression from Hatoum. But the word to describe her current show at Basel would be "pleasant."
The show features two works. In one, a large map of the world is laid out on the museum floor with clear glass marbles. In the other, a single lightbulb hangs in the middle of a small room. The sound of the bulb's burning filament is amplified by speakers in the corners of the gallery, so that the room is filled with a whining hum that increases and wanes as the bulb gets brighter and fades.
Both works are understated, interesting examples of neo-Minimalism with a claustrophobic edge, though such work feels familiar, in part through Hatoum's success.
Dan Peterman & Tobias Rehberger
Another floor of the Kunsthalle features work by Dan Peterman and Tobias Rehberger. Peterman, who got his start working for an environmental recycling company, shows in New York at Andrea Rosen Gallery and has this summer done an evolving public art piece in front of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. His specialty is making art out of recycled plastic, producing mottled grey or green bricks and timbers that he uses to fabricate tables, benches, parquet floors and storage boxes.
At the Kunsthalle is a large body of new work -- walls, storage cases and certificates concerning smog in Chicago. The work is ideal for the ecologically minded Swiss public, but it seems curiously familar, despite the fact that Peterman's aims are noble and his medium unusual. His Minimalism is cool, clever and obviously synthetic.
His floor pieces are reminiscent of those by Carl Andre, though the added point about recycling -- pun well taken -- gives Peterman's work a link to the real world that the cerebral Minimalists could only pretend to.
Like Peterman, Rehberger makes installations with a high sociability factor, and a hint of recycling -- though in Rehberger's case, it's recycling of a '70s retro-lounge feel, complete with a colored light show and hippie moderne seating (which the artist constructs himself, rather than finds in flea markets).
Bright blues, greens and oranges in synthetic fabric are the heart of the design scheme here. Another room has a drop ceiling and is divided by pastel-colored panels of varying heights -- the artist's vision of an office environment.
The overall effect is a languid environment like those retro furniture stores on Houston and Lafayette streets in New York. Playing on post-war domestic fantasy, Rehberger works in a territory similar to the American neo-biomorphic sculptor Charles Long or the visionary '60s architecture collaborative, Archigram.
The work is "fun" -- cute space-age speakers and sofas, with titles like Lying around Lazy. Not Even Moving for TV, Sweets and Vaseline. Rehberger highlights the ennui of a TV-raised generation, where everything is built for the apathetic TV browser hooked on convenience. Whereas before his work has often seemed facile, in the context of this museum show, Rehberger's installations have a cool ironic resonance.
Elizabeth Peyton at the Museum fur Gegenswartskunst
Most art lovers know Peyton's clever earliest work -- small watercolors and pencil drawings that transform punk rockers like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious into pert, red-lipped sylphs.
In this first solo museum survey of her paintings and drawings, she still seems like a bit of an art-world celebrity stalker, presenting portraits of Brit Pop stars Liam Gallagher and Richard Ashcroft and American heart-throbs like Kurt Cobain, Beck or Leonardo DiCaprio.
Peyton's special twist is to turn these scowling youths into pert cherubs, thereby feminizing what is a patently adolescent pose of macho self-indulgence. In Peyton's watercolors, even the darkest soul seems more youthful, riper and sweetly vulnerable.
Peyton's genius is in catching the exact visual essence of the celebrity while rendering them tragic, effete, consumptive dandies. Is this wishful thinking or irony?
Another series presents images of a teenage Princess Diana and her son Prince Henry, and seems to focus on the fleeting beauty of adolescence with the same loaded imagery and intensity. Still another series features a friend of Peyton's named Craig, a member of ArtClub 2000. The inclusion of Peyton's saccharine rendering of her New York art dealer, Gavin Brown, seems a bit odd in this context.
In another room are drawings of a young David Hockney from the '60s. The British artist is so dandified that Peyton's "prettying" him up seems to be a kind of homage to her esthetic predecessor.
Peyton's show is a refreshing contrast to the other fare on view -- work by those arid museum regulars Jeff Wall and Roni Horn and another Matthew Barney Cremaster spectacle. On the other hand some might venture that the art world must be becalmed, if such a slim body of work as Peyton's should take a whole floor of a major Swiss museum! But why dwell on curatorial politics? (Well, actually....)
Peyton combines great artistic facility with a clever use of metaphor. It will be interesting to see if she portrays these young Dorian Grays when they have lost their bloom or if she will move on to fresher muses.
RUPERT GOLDSWORTHY runs an art gallery in New York.