The title of the New Museum's survey of young folks' art, "Younger than Jesus," is, of course, incomplete. It should be "Younger than Jesus Was When He Was Crucified," but don't think that an alternative title should be the Who's mantra from "My Generation": "hope I die before I get old," for these artists definitely wish to live and prosper. It is how they wish to do it that is so curious.
If the implications of "Younger than Jesus" are followed, the museum and gallery-going experience as we know it will disappear. The New Museum itself is nothing more than a giant Xbox, and the art within it arranged without any sense of individuality or distinction. Paradoxically, when I wandered the show on Good Friday, most patrons were lined up in front of the elaborate wall cards, each delineating the artist's "praxis," the museum's characterization. This is the texting generation, so why not?
The art itself ached for anonymity and the cover of the crowd. Many of the conventions of World of Warcraft are observed, especially role-playing and costume. I particularly enjoyed Mohamed Bourouissa's color photographs of boxers from the Paris banlieues. As subjects of the new media and its future successors, the Jesus art cohort is sincere to a fault and irony free. Thus, Loris Gréaud's black staircase (a direct if unknowing steal from Alice Aycock's famous piece at Storm King, not to mention Brancusi’s Endless Column) tells us (via the ubiquitous wall text) that, "everything is permitted" and celebrates the 11th-century Hashashi cult of Islam, right under a wall sign declaring that the piece is in the New Museum’s Dakis Joannou Gallery, named after the protean Greek collector.
Elements of freedom and dissent are absent, and the viewer hungers for any esthetic form, such as Kristen Brätsch's purple velvet manikin, sharing space with Ryan Gander's tracksuit-wearing museum employee, a live model who looked like a Jesus as uncomfortable with prying eyes of museumgoers hungry for the one identifiable piece from the show's advance publicity as the original Jesus was on the cross.
What's remarkable about this show is how neat and clean everything is, even the innumerable AbEx ripoffs by artists too skill-deprived to name, as primly displayed as those of a fourth-grade classroom. The black candles of AIDS-3D's altar with the letters "OMG" in blue neon is the only evidence that there was ever any political content in the art of New York. In fact, such an era is mocked in Matt Keegan's canvas Barbara Kruger, which prints the name of the artist over and over, Barbara Kruger-style. Plainly, Keegan prefers the subject of another of his pieces in the show, 23 Girls Age 22, a grid of photographs which might reference Gerhard Richter's Student Nurses, but is far more obliterating in its indifference to its subjects.
For months, I have been meaning to write a piece called "The Death of Fine Art," but couldn't quite compel myself to believe it. After touring "Younger than Jesus," I believe it. I have never seen a show like it before. It is antiseptic, safe, death to hierarchies of taste and distinctions of talent, and yet determined to neutralize our eyes with an overload of useless information. Apparently the 50 artists in the show were chosen from 500 finalists, any 50 of whom could be exchanged with the others.
If the message of Christianity is that the risen Jesus becomes the Christ, the Kerygma, embodying the whole of humanity, then the message of "Younger than Jesus" is that Picasso and Koons and Sherman have died and turned the whole universe of young artists into pulsating collective. It is a prospect externally disturbing for us oldsters, but a survival cocoon for the youth within. The butterfly has become a caterpillar.
"The Generational: Younger than Jesus," Apr. 8-July 5, 2009, at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, N.Y. 10002
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).