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Back to Reviews 97


a pilgrim's progress: gallery rounds

by Peter von Ziegesar

Tony Smith

Gary Hume

Joan Jonas
Dog Drawings

Tony Oursler
Red Devil

Shirin Neshat

John McCracken

Gilbert & George
Bloody Shit House

Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha

   Tramping through the new Chelsea art scene gives me the desolate feeling I used to get, long, long ago when first visiting Soho and Tribeca. The hollow wind blows off the Hudson unfettered by any civilizing architectural influence, refreshing your eyes with carborundum grit and strands of native New Jersey polymer. Workmen squat on the sidewalks, eating their lunches and jeering at the female Art-o-nauts with their skinny thighs and flapping black-crow jackets. And no one seems to care that a large truck might suddenly grind its gears and run over an art critic, whose body would not be found for a week or two afterwards. I'm not sure what benefit Chelsea offers, except perhaps that the spaces are bigger and can handle industrial quality weight -- for instance Paula Cooper could never have shown a NASA-sized sculpture like the Tony Smith's Moondog in the old Soho setting.

Certainly Matthew Marks' south Chelsea Gallery (on 22nd Street, as opposed to his north one on 24th Street) is huge enough to make even Gary Hume's big, blowzy-looking paintings on aluminum panels seem like Persian miniatures. It appears that Hume begins with an image from a magazine -- a glamour portrait, for instance, or a nature shot -- and reduces it to a few simplified outlines and shapes, which he then fills in bright, flat enamel colors. They end up having a Warholian decadence. The women look as if they have splashed-on eye makeup and trampy lipstick (like Warhol's portrait of Liza Minnelli), and the men look like Bill Blass. For me, Hume's best work was in the back gallery, a series of four giant photographs of snowmen, each made of ice dyed a different color. No doubt this series is a camp reference to Monet's "Haystacks" with their changing light and hues. That the snowmen had no faces was welcome after the garish features of their human counterparts.

Next door, at thePat Hearn Gallery, it's refreshing to see an exhibition that's small and quirky and barely looks like merchandise -- props and artifacts from videotapes and performances by Joan Jonas. Curiously, one work involves a snowman, or at least something white, plastic and ghostlike. It holds a pumpkin and stands mysteriously on a beach, so if it's a snowman, it's confused. There is a drawing of a dog that recurs throughout the show, too, one that is humorously echoed in the photographs of rocks shaped like the pooch's head, a ruse that recalls Claes Oldenburg's "Ray Gun" collection of gun-shaped detritus from the `60s.

Props are about process and the inevitable leavings of actual performances, performances that you missed (or you remember) -- in either case, an absent event that was presumably more fulfilling in person. An exhibition like this is best when it is enigmatic and eccentric, hinting at the grandiose themes and imagery that can only properly be found in real time and on a proscenium stage. This show, which also featured a kind of mini-theater with doll-house-sized props and a video, along with images of sea gulls and quotations from Seamus Heaney, seemed to do all that very well.

For me, the question with Tony Oursler, who is exhibiting with Jim Shaw and Gary Simmons at Metro Pictures' new multiplex gallery in Chelsea is: how long can he sustain a career on what amounts to a simple, though admittedly hilarious, party trick? His room of chattering minikins installed at the Whitney Biennial looked like a scene from a Beckett play put on at some devolved monastery. At Metro Pictures, too, the sad-sack comedian's face, video-projected on a stuffed dummy lying on its side, mumbled an endless, troubled monologue about "Colors, colors!"

Naturally Oursler deserves a tremendous run from his particular jolt of inspiration, but what comes next? I see a lot of commercial potential -- will he make a crossover into the mainstream entertainment world, as William Wegman did with his Weimaraners? Or will Oursler remain a hard-core artist and continue to develop his avant-garde brand of theater?

Walking into Matthew Marks' giant upper-level space on 24th Street, I found the sheer, cold weight of concrete walls managed to add an extra funereal tone to the pair of good-natured, if tonally subdued paintings on view by Brice Marden. The artist has also put on display a number of the striking Tang Dynasty stones, worn and densely carved with epitaphs, that have obviously inspired his entire "Cold Mountain" series of paintings. Installing the tombstones along with the paintings was a good idea, but I find Marden's calligraphy studies problematic. His two new paintings are impressive, though, perhaps because they have so little in common with the somber and heavily stylized calligraphy that apparently inspired them. Looping over gray and stonelike canvas surfaces, his green, blue, yellow and red colored lines are less the drippy, Ab-Ex inspired nets of his recent work than formal, closed patterns that seem closely related to Dubuffet or Léger. I wondered, though, why there were only two paintings and why so much space was devoted to their origins. Is this the beginning of a series, or more like the end? I look forward to seeing more.

Calligraphy also figures into Shirin Neshat's big black-and-white photos at Annina Nosei Gallery. An Iranian feminist who lives in New York, Neshat elegantly pens radical Arabic poetry and ornamental floral designs on her photographic images, which are actually snapped by her husband Kyong Park (and sometimes Larry Barns). One of my favorites shows the artist completely draped in the somber folds of a black chador, while her young son stands beside her naked, covered (on the print) with what looks like an ornate paisley tattoo. I interpreted her son's nakedness as symbolizing his greater freedom in contemporary Iranian society, where he, as a male, would be quite a bit more enfranchised than his mother.

There is a strange beauty in the flawlessly inscribed Arabic (or is it Persian?) handwriting scribbled over most of the skin in Neshat's prints. I miss such scriptural ornament in contemporary art, though `80s graffiti art has some of the effect. Figurative images were originally forbidden under Muslim law, so that the right-to-left calligraphy developed an ornamental range never quite achieved in the West. I remember too the henna-dyed designs on African women's faces and hands, which can be either individual expression or symbols of slavery.

Neshat's prints are curiously cinematic, and perhaps because the politicized images are so laden with text, they also remind me of early Godard, as when the silhouette of a woman, for example, is juxtaposed over the full face of a man, his face literally covered with some kind of Arabic polemic. Neshat makes enigmatic work with an odd flavor (for some reason I smelled curry as I walked around the gallery). I chose to view the work esthetically, partially because it is hard for me to absorb so much text at once (some, by the poet Fourugh Farokhzad, is translated, but a great deal is not) or to decipher too much political allegory in one place, but the work can obviously be viewed on many levels, and should be.

After the cold, vast spaces of Chelsea, going back to Soho is like returning home to a small village. It was somewhat amazing to me (I haven't been there in a while) to see 600 West Broadway standing just as it always was -- I half-expected a five-story Japanese department store to have moved in by now (soon, soon, we're told).

Before I entered that fading monolith of establishment art culture, though, I made a quick side jaunt to David Zwirner, all I had time for that day. There, lined up like modernist trophies on the wall, are John McCracken's polished, monochromatic fiberglass and wood sculptures. They seem to be aiming for the same solid, poker-faced Minimalism as vintage Donald Judd, but somehow have a solidity of color that Judd never sought. Seen in nature (in the invitation photograph, one of McCracken's pale blue cubes is pictured outdoors against a beautiful dawn sky), they gain a monolithic quality straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. One can imagine a gang of early humans scratching their heads and circling warily. In the gallery, I wanted to run my hands over their sleek lines as one would the hood and body of a custom car at an auto show.

Over at Sonnabend in the 600 building, it was hard to tell from Gilbert & George's life-sized photoworks whether the artists are going through a mid-life crisis or are trying to get us to come to grips with gay sexuality and human body functions (the artists also have an installation at Lehman Maupin around the corner). Personally, I did not find the spectacle of a pair of naked, balding European men in glasses bending over and spreading their butt cheeks all that liberating, however.

You can tell from the titles of the works that the artists are shooting from the hip at our putative hang-ups: Lavatory, Shit and Piss, Piss Pistols, Bloody Shit House, Spunk and Tears. In each image, macroscopic views of the bodily fluids mentioned are used as a bright, primary-colored background to the familiar self-portraits, naked or suited, of the artists.

I did find beguiling a continuing architectural theme of large brown turds arranged in a post-and-lintel formation. Perhaps these refer to the overall title of the show, which is "The Fundamental Pictures" -- i.e., turds are esthetic foundations of some kind. My feeling is that by the late `90s the major transgressions have already been made, and that perhaps the team of Gilbert & George should take another look at their own fundamentals.

After such a preachy exhibition, it was nice to walk down a flight of stairs and find -- in Ed Ruscha's "Cityscapes" at Leo Castelli -- that an established artist with a firm reputation doesn't feel that so much is riding on his next move that he can't still allow himself to do something completely inconsequential and silly.

In each of Ruscha's paintings, a series of words have apparently been rubbed out -- a sort children's diversion. Title cards informed me that the inscriptions-that-might-have-been are sneering bits of dialogue straight from an old Cagney film -- "THIS IS NO JOKE I'M AFTER YOU STUPID PUNK," "IF YOU EVER TELL I'LL HURT YOUR MAMA REAL BAD," or "LITTLE SNITCHES LIKE YOU END UP IN DUMPSTERS ALL OVER TOWN." The fictional objects of these noire diatribes are in danger of being rubbed out themselves -- hence the painter's passable pun.

In an earlier series of works from 1994 also on view, Ruscha has bleached the letter "O" into the covers of a large number of varied used books -- thus perhaps transforming them all into versions of the soft-core potboiler, "The Story of O." Whether this was the artist's thought, too, I had no idea, but it occurred to me that this promiscuous, all-in-one labeling imitated, in a sense, what a crass and uncaring American public has been doing since time immemorial -- bundling art under the misunderstood tag, "Modern," registering it as incomprehensible and elitist (and having little to do with either football or corn chips), and then just forgetting the whole thing.

And it is too bad that it is so, don't you agree?

PETER VON ZIEGESAR is a writer and filmmaker who lives in New York.