We’re on a historical cusp. No one knows what will come next. But in the art world, an esthetic sorting out is already beginning. I’m not talking about the purging or comeuppance some critics have gleefully cackled about or howled for. I love art galleries, and worry that a wave of them will close this June when, looking ahead to the traditionally dead months of summer, dealers will be forced to throw in the towel. As for art, I admire much of the work that came to prominence in the last 15 years. Recently, though, much of this art has been looking either dated or not so relevant. At this year’s Armory Show it was stunning to see almost no work by stars of last season like Murakami, Hirst, Koons, Prince, Reyle, Struth, and Gursky. Partly this is a natural process and doesn’t necessarily mean these artists are bad or not passionate. But the hypermarket that justly extended the careers of many artists also delayed the winnowing process of many others. Now all this winnowing is occurring at once. Artistic qualities that once seemed undeniable don’t seem so now. Sometimes these fluctuations are only fickleness of taste, momentary glitches in an artist’s work, or an artist getting ahead of his audience (it took me ten years to catch up to Albert Oehlen). Other times, however, these problems mean there’s something wrong with the art. One sign that this is happening is when the same things that were said about an artist a decade ago are still being said today.
The same bogus arguments come up every time there’s a Lisa Yuskavage show. Is her work feminist? Is she, oy, "critiquing the male gaze?" At the opening of Yuskavage’s current solo outing, I was standing between two paintings: Figure in Interior, a picture of an anorexic nude on her knees with her legs akimbo, shaved vulva exposed, white cream/semen dripping from her face onto her breasts; and Reclining Nude, a picture of a recumbent girl in a glowing green glen, her breasts pointing in two directions, legs splayed to expose pink genitalia protruding from blonde pubic hair. A well-known museum curator sidled up and swooned, "Lisa’s paintings are as rich as Vermeer’s and Boucher’s. They’re as sumptuous as the background of the Mona Lisa." I blinked silently until she mentioned Courbet. Then I bitchily snipped, "If you think these paintings have that kind of mojo, you’ve either never looked at those paintings or you know nothing about painting—which I’ve written about you." We smiled at each other and parted. I love the art world.
Those who say Yuskavage’s figurative skill makes her paintings good don’t grasp that if rendering figures realistically equals skill then the makers of 19th-century Victorian nudes and painters like Bouguereau would be the greatest artists of all time. Yuskavage’s beanpoles, voluptuaries and ugly ducklings make it clear that her work is less connected to classical art than to calendar illustration, cheesecake, dirty playing cards, Vargas and Thomas Kinkade. These aren’t meant as insults. Yuskavage’s influences also include Hallmark greeting cards, Russ Meyer, the Hudson River School, Maxfield Parrish, ’70s Penthouse, Impressionism, third-string Italian masters, and the kind of naturalist kitsch the Nazis liked. This mix is kinkier and more interesting than any discourse about technique and critique.
But it’s not enough to make her work feel of its time. To her credit, Yuskavage is making necessary changes to her formula of putting naked ladies in neon-colored fantasist settings. The new backgrounds are weird interiors, strange ruins and primordial bogs. Odd scale shifts occur; women seem as large as mountains or stand thigh-high in lakes; a vulva resembles a vestigial scrotum. The heightened gynecological realism is a good move and may be about what it takes to make paintings that are "open." The cream on the faces might be a metaphor for the fear of having critical pie thrown in one’s face. The babies may be about aging, menopause or childbirth. But much art involves such fears and fantasies. I love Yuskavage’s palette; I appreciate that she might be in conversation with spread-eagle Modernist masterpieces by Bellmer and Duchamp. But the coy gamesmanship and knowing irony at the core of this work make it feel stuck in another time.
Something that may be crucial for art right now may be an artist’s ability not to want to know or dictate what’s coming next -- not as a projection of cheekiness, but as an open embrace of the confusion. Four artists are doing this to excellent effect. Josh Smith’s densely hung painting show, which was at Luhring Augustine until last week, comes at you with an intense optical force that accurately replicates the psychic energy of our topsy-turvy world. Smith’s paintings look like swirling, multicolored wallpaper patterns with green leaves or jumping fish in the middle. His surfaces shift from handmade to printed to Xeroxed and entice, confuse and zap the eye. His sense of design, abstraction and figuration all come forward at once. The paintings are well-made and smart but not about being "important." This releases all sorts of fresh air into the space around his painting, painting in general, and exhibitions. Two years ago a show like this might have seemed like a marketing ploy; now it feels like life. Whatever it was, it gave me a rush.
Adam McEwen’s tour-de-force installation for Nicole Klagsburn, Switch and Bait, sucks all the air out of the room, and this feels perfect. In an otherwise empty space on West 20th Street, McEwen has installed 45 fluorescent light fixtures overhead. It’s like an upside-down Walter De Maria or Dan Flavin piece. Each bulb is dark gray and is made of machined graphite. Somehow your body feels the pull of the graphite, like it’s us. The lights become a homing beacon or a death force, while the room transforms into a sepulcher. It’s a metaphysical dead zone and walk-in esthetic echo chamber. In the next room there’s Self-portrait as a credit card, an American Express card made of machined graphite. The card is too cheeky for me, but the overall effect is still a look at the hyped-up market after it’s been freeze-dried, cremated, and reduced to ash.
At Deitch Projects, Jon Kessler gives us a mad, whirling circus of spinning cameras, television monitors, toy soldiers being dragged around on their asses, visions of torture, mayhem, sex and clowns. All this is installed under an enormous army tent. As high-tech as this installation is, Kessler gets beyond the highly produced objects and immerses us in a continuous feed: His work illustrates the repercussions of our own actions and intimates the collapse of social order. While it may not be the "reckoning" our president spoke of last month, it does baptize you in a feeling of confusion and hope, and makes you aware that sometimes there’s nothing in between.
Rudolf Stingel portrays all these feelings poignantly in his three small black-and-white photo-realistic canvases of sculptures of saints, hung one per wall in the enormous churchlike cavern of the Paula Cooper Gallery. Stingel escapes the irony and kitsch of the recent past and gives us an atmospherics of melancholy and love. I wouldn’t want any of these paintings individually, but together they charge the gallery with thoughts about what it takes to create shows in the wake of orgiastic abundance. Stingel’s installation is a requiem for the white cube and a fond farewell to the last 15 years. These four shows make you understand that while the market is dying, art is in the process of being reborn. They may not be remembered in ten years, but right now that doesn’t matter.
Lisa Yuskavage, Feb. 19-Mar. 28, 2009, at David Zwirner, 533 West 19th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Josh Smith, "Currents," Feb. 14-Mar. 14, 2009, at Luhring Augustine, 531 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Adam McEwen, "Switch and Bait," Mar. 5-Apr. 18, 2009, sponsored by Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery offsite at 520 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Jon Kessler, "Kessler’s Circus," Mar. 7-Apr. 4, 2009, at Deitch Projects, 76 Grand Street, New York, N.Y. 10013
Rudolf Stingel, Feb. 20-Mar. 31, 2009, at Paula Cooper Gallery, 534 West 21st Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.