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Deal or No Deal
by Jerry Saltz
 
Takashi Murakami, "Tranquility of the Heart, Torment of the Flesh: Open Wide the Eye of the Heart and Nothing is Invisible," May-Jun. 9, 2007, and "Beneath the Underdog," Apr. 27-Jun. 16, 2007, at Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021

The New York gallery scene being as incredibly overpopulated and overmoneyed as it is, deep conflicts and contradictions arenít hard to find. Still, itís a little strange to find two shows side by side in a single gallery on Madison Avenue that throw those contradictions into high relief. But thatís happening at the artplex known as Gagosian, often called the most powerful gallery in the world.

On the one hand there are the superslick, super-flat, superexpensive and to me superficial paintings of the Japanese entrepreneur-Energizer Bunny-artist Takashi Murakami. On the other, thereís the seemingly insurrectionary but clubby group show of what could be called the "boys and girls in black and silver," organized by two leading downtown artists, Adam McEwen and Nate Lowman. The two shows, the first flashy, the second self-consciously disheveled, couldnít be more different. Their juxtaposition at Gagosian, however, points up disconcerting similarities. Under its combative surface, the group show is as buddy-buddy as the Murakami is self-satisfied. Although not an especially good exhibition, this group effort does seem to find a way around all the things that Murakami represents. Thatís partly why seeing the two exhibitions back-to-back suggests that a welcome shift in esthetic sensibilities is under way.

The Murakami show is the latest twist from an artist who in the Ď90s excelled at ultrathin surfaces and magically vapid images of sex and consumerism. Drawing from the realms of manga -- the radically distorted creatures that populate Japanese comics -- and anime, Murakami painted Mickey Mouse-like characters, sunny mushrooms and abstract splashes that were part Pop Surrealism, part Hokusaiís Great Wave and part porn. Murakami is a craft-master whiz of cuteness, razzmatazz and adolescent male fantasy; he once made a life-size sculpture of a big-eyed girl with shaved pudenda who squeezed her phallic nipples and jump-roped over a money shot of milk spurting from her gigantic breasts. He also curated several crackerjack exhibitions that elucidated the Japanese penchant for mirroring the West back to itself, and shed light on how Japan is insular and xenophobic yet simultaneously open and adaptable. If Japan is like the android that finds life (a common anime theme), Murakami is one who breathed life into contemporary Japanese art.

Unfortunately, since around 2001 Murakami has been so set on merging fine art with commercial product that by now all heís doing is moving merch. The best that can be said about Murakamiís new work is that heís making pretty money. Or pretty empty money. The main attractions of this exhibition are 50 little happy-faced flower paintings and six large portraits of a haggard-looking Zen patriarch. The flowers are insipid. So are the portraits, although at least with them Murakami is up to his old extreme stylization. But the real content of Murakamiís art is money and marketability. Hence, each of the 50 silly flowers reportedly goes for $90,000; the portraits, about $1.5 mil per unit. Four better, larger flower paintings run about $450,000; two boring pictures of severed hands, about $400,000. Needless to say, the gallery reports everything is sold.

Not bad for paintings that have the visual oomph of screensavers and are only placeholders for gullible collectors, who buy them hoping todayís feeding frenzy lasts long enough to fob them off on subsequent happy patsies. Or theyíll keep them as trophies. Either way, itís a foul feedback loop. While weíre laughing at them for being servile and cynical enough to make, sell or buy these gewgaws, theyíll laugh at us for missing out on this payday.

Itís wonderful that more artists are making more money from their work. Without the market, the art world would be a pretty boring place. But this is a complete acquiescence to a world where gamesmanship, money and hype are measures of success; where advisers sell art over the phone from JPEGs to collectors who imagine theyíll enter art history by spending exorbitantly. Meanwhile, auction houses cheer them on. Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art at Sothebyís, says of the mad prices, "Itís a new world." Actually, itís just the old one of cash, carry and entitlement, speeded up.

Murakamiís supporters call him "the Japanese Warhol." They say heís enacting Warholís deal-making dictums that "good business is the best art" and "business art is the step that comes after Art." He has his own "factory" where assistants make his paintings, his Kaikai Kiki company represents a brood of Murakami clones and heís engaged in product design. To his credit, Murakamiís eagerness to outmarket everyone makes artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons seem decorous by comparison. But Murakami has fallen into his own trap. He didnít heed one other Warhol bon mot, "Commercial things really do stink. As soon as it becomes commercial for a mass market, it really stinks." Murakami is no longer playing the market; the market is playing him -- and so many others.

Which brings us to the gritty, intergenerational, New York-centric group show at Gagosian. "Beneath the Underdog" features 53 artists who seem to be railing against the type of hype Murakami represents. The show has some good work but a lot of great energy; art is hung cheek-by-jowl, which creates a series of crackling chain reactions where you see connections between artists, even if a few of those connections are between lesser artists. Of course, a number of "Underdog" participants are almost as hot and overtouted as Murakami. So the curatorís claim the show is about "the individualís relationship to the towering vertical landscape of late capitalism" rings a bit hollow. I love that New York has all of these Gagosian galleries and that the gallery is willing to invest the time and expense to mount a show like "Underdog." Itís nice to know that the same hungry hyenas snapping up the Murakamis upstairs may be seeing all of this funky stuff downstairs, if only to make them question their purchase of the Murakami. Still, itís a little disingenuous of the curators not to address the fact that "Underdog" being at Gagosian also means itís about as deep in this "towering vertical landscape" as itís possible to get.

There are a number of excellent pieces in the show, among them Jessica Diamondís hand-painted "buy a condo or die" sign (in re-creation, originally from 1987), Michael Joaquin Greyís orange 1992 rendition of Rodinís Balzac hanging upside down from the ceiling, and Barry Le Vaís 1968 shattered-glass sculpture (also re-created). Best of all, in this context, is Monica Bonviciniís smashed-to-smithereens Sheetrock floor. This piece runs throughout the entire show, and infuses everything with a subtext of raucous anger, destruction and vulnerability. It also saves the show from itself, offsetting the irksome impression that too much work in "Underdog" is either beholden to a predictable list of au courant males (e.g., Warhol, Richter, Smithson, Matta-Clark, Kippenberger, Prince and Wool) or just trying to signify radicalism and resistance. By now the messiness, appropriation and abstraction of "Underdog" are so common and system-approved that theyíre beginning to signal emptiness and cliquishness instead.

In some ways, "Underdog" is simply what frustration and ambition look like now. The fact that the exhibition is so willing, so absolutely intent, on exposing and investigating this frustration is a sign that this is important content, and that attention should be paid to it. Itís really interesting to see these artists acting out this drama at Gagosian, despite the contradictory pitfalls involved. In addition, the show is so up-front about its in-groupness and back-scratching that you begin to understand that these conditions are effective ways to draw polemical lines in the curatorial sand, to circle the wagons against dubious tendencies, and strut somewhat. More artists should curate more shows of themselves and their friends and associates. Vampire dens are interesting places. "Underdog" rests everything on its overall energy; it sacrifices any one object, every object really, so that all the work on view might congeal into one weird mass. This mass is a weapon of some kind of destruction. It may seem dated or silly in a year, but right here, right now, the polemics, tribalism and gang warfare of "Underdog" are part of what it may take to move beyond the pranksterism, slickness and enervating cynicism of artists like Murakami.


JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York magazine. He can be contacted at Jerry_Saltz@Newyorkmag.com.