BLACK AND WHITE AND NOTHING IN BETWEEN
Fred Wilson’s “Venice Suite” is a wonderful study in contrasts: not only between black and white but between Modern and Traditional Art, more pointedly, between “high end” and “highbrow” (elite) abstraction and “low end” and “lowbrow” (popular) representation. Responding to Pietro Longhi’s “depictions of the everyday life of the bourgeoise in 18th century Venice,” Wilson isolates the eyes of the figures in Longhi’s paintings, blackening out everything else in them. The scene disappears, and what remains is a black surface spotted with white holes where the eyes were. “Don’t shoot until you see the white of their eyes” seems to be Wilson’s motto, or perhaps he prefers to make his scrambled abstractions with egg white, leaving the richer yellow yolk for the hungry philistines who prefer representational art.
The point is to convey the double life of the Venetian bourgeoisie: “the women were pale and pretty” and “moon-faced” (I think he means as luminously white as the full moon, not as round, for they’re not round-faced), and “the men were busy with the lighter side of life,” but during the Venetian Carnival they “concealed” their faces behind “hedonistic mask[s],” anonymously pursuing devilish, not to say reckless, pleasure. Wilson thinks the Carnival tradition “underscored the disconnection of the upper classes with the drudgery faced by the majority of their fellow Venetians,” but he’s got it wrong: during the Carnival, which dates at least from the Roman Saturnalia -- some scholars think it can be traced back to primitive fertility rites and what Johann Bachofen famously called the hetaerism, with its sexual promiscuity (“polymorphous perversity”), that prevailed during the first (pre-civilized) stage of society and religion -- the difference between the upper and lower classes collapses, both promiscuously mixing together in pursuit of unbridled pleasure.
The collapse is underscored by the fact that their social positions are typically reversed: the Queen and King of the New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro Carnivals are drawn from the lower classes. Society is leveled -- social distinctions disappear. Carnival is a socially sanctioned time of regression to natural instinct, aggressive as well as sexual. In Munich many murders occur during Fasching; the murderers are rarely caught, and when they are rarely convicted. The drunken stupor that prevails during many Carnivals facilitates the discharge of instinct, for it makes one forget that one has a conscience, thus giving one “permission” to be “carefree,” which means to be “careless.” The loss of social pressure facilitates self-loss: this self-loss is what Wilson’s blackness unwittingly conveys.
So Wilson is sociopolitically correct, but he is rather taken with the decadence of it all: “ripened perhaps to the edge of decay,” “the wealthy class of Venetians seemed sweet to me.” Bittersweet, for “the dark background of the paintings set against the whiteness of the young women’s faces struck me as a bit sinister.” He “sensed an irony in Longhi’s work,” and “an analogy to our time”: “Prior to the fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, New York, like Longhi’s Venice, had been awash with excitement and excess,” but the prescient Wilson “felt a dark economic cloud loom[ing] on the horizon.” Thus the double meaning and irony of Wilson’s apocalyptic -- nihilistic -- blackness. Wilson thinks he is a prophet and seer, but many economic analysts and savants really were: all the empirical signs of economic catastrophe had been remarked at least since 9/11. The economy was stretched to the limit after it, and a fall from the delusional heights was predictably inevitable.
As though making himself at home in Venice, Wilson makes the pseudo-paintings in his Sala Longhi of Murano glass, framing them in antiqued gold painted wood, giving them ironical authenticity -- a provenance, as it were. Other works are made of blown glass. The Drips and Drabs (2009) that pour down walls in the gallery antechamber are in effect the “glass eyes” of the masks isolated and displaced, increasing the dehumanizing effect and anonymity of the masks. There are wall units and floor units, with variable dimensions -- the buyers might want to change them for decorative effect. The blown glass units are minimalized gestures -- Wilson might be described as a Minimalist Expressionist, if one needs a category, suggesting the trendy “encyclopedic” scope of his work. Or is he summarizing and embalming a dead history? Thus his works are simultaneously installations, paintings -- pseudo, as I want to emphasize, or to be more polite, quasi, suggesting the “as if” art character of his work in general -- wall sculptures, and, most magnificently of all, hanging sculptures, as his chandeliers indicate.
They’re luxurious Baroque, glistening pearls of decadence, of a lost splendor and opulence, suggesting the revival of the Baroque -- which is the most important, meaningful, representational (not to say “realistic”) and hopefully trend-setting aspect of Wilson’s work. Like the oddly Rorschach-shaped forms of the black “mirrors” -- Mark, Bat and Iago’s Mirror (all 2009) -- they are emotionally intimidating. One enters the unconscious through the mirror, as Cocteau’s Orpheus did, but in Wilson’s mirror there is no Eurydice, only nothingness. Unless, of course, the oddly sexy female form of the chandelier is a memory trace of some masked femme fatale, some anonymous mystery woman who has become a momento mori, some unforgettable Carnival escapade. Only the shadow knows.
Wilson claims to be showing us the world through a glass darkly, a world in which luminous crystal balls and glorious chandeliers have become opaque glass. He claims to be rendering The Beginning of the End (2009) -- but the end of what? (I thought it happened long ago, not to say many times.) His “Venice Suite” and Sala Longhi strongly suggest the (dead-)end of abstract (and more broadly avant-garde) art, abstract art that has worked itself into a peculiarly limited Minimalist corner even as it has become stagnantly and vacuously Expressionistic and theatrically grandiose, as though to confirm the artist’s delusion of grandeur, even if it results in works that are grandly hollow. Perhaps more to the point, they invite us to compare Longhi’s traditional popular representational art and Wilson’s avant-gardizing and de-popularizing abstract take on it. Which has more appeal? Which is more decadent? You decide.
Fred Wilson, “Venice Suite: Sala Longhi and Related Works,” Mar. 17-Apr. 14, 2012, at the Pace Gallery, 510 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.