For those not going to Miami, early December is the perfect time to tour new Chelsea, with its glass boxes, crappy commercial emporiums and obstructing construction sites. One can understand why high-end galleries are always fleeing to art fairs all over the world: Chelsea has all the elitist appeal of Rockefeller Center during the Holiday Season.
The current crop of shows reek of fast-made product and little revolutionary zeal. Pat Steir employs her thundershower motif at Cheim and Read to reinterpret Barnett Newman’s zips. It’s amusing for a millisecond. Georg Baselitz’s splattered figures, including one that looks like Hitler masturbating, at Gagosian, are the worst dreck. One shudders to imagine their prices. Louis Cameron, whose work is on view at I-20, is a nice guy, but his minimalist pieces made with candy-wrapper colors are dull and dingy. Norbert Bisky shows some alarming kitsch at Leo Koenig, depicting divers and their Aryan marvels right out of Leni Riefenstal.
On the plus side, Wiil Ryman shows a Brobdingnagian sculpture of himself leaning out of bed in the morning to grab that first cigarette, at Marlborough Chelsea. It’s not art, exactly, but if Jeff Koons were this shaggily witty. . . he’d probably still be working behind the counter of his mother’s store in rural Pennsylvania.
Why do so many artists work in overblown technicolor? I’m talking about you, Mala Iqbal, and your eye-piercingly bad Kodak landscapes at PPOW. These days irony is often rancid and indigestible. Which reminds me, when going to a certain Chelsea dive, avoid the vegetarian chili. It will have the same effect on you as much of the art!
The Bridget Rileys at Pace Wildenstein, with their fluttering wings out of M.C. Escher and cynical pastel colors, would make nice color charts at the paint-mixing center of Home Depot. Are collectors really so undiscerning that they would fall for such inferior, reactionary product? You know the answer.
For elegance is rare and I found it but twice on my Chelsea ramble. Charles Ray’s installation at Matthew Marks, slick sculptures of a hatching egg, a boy playing with a toy car and a hypersized farmer on a green tractor -- 18½ tons of solid steel -- will leave you speechless in its invocation of lost innocence and mass doom. At Christmas time, immature Americans believe that toys are us, but Ray reminds us that the world is not a toy.
Finally, one true masterpiece is available in Chelsea this December. It’s called Voyager by Radcliffe Bailey and it’s in an otherwise formulaic group show at Von Lintel about 1970s African-American culture, which also features Rob Pruitt’s return to the world of blaxploitation. Voyager is a dark charcoal sailboat made of paper and studded with stardust. It is full of noble romance and junk-defying excellence. It made Herbie Hancock’s majestic tune, Maiden Voyage, soar through my being and sent me to vistas long forgotten. Thank you, Mr. Bailey, you made my day.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).