Monday, July 28, 2008

“After Nature” -the New Museum NYC

“After Nature” is an important group show of twenty-six international artists, past and present, at the New Museum, which proposes a saturnine new direction in art. The catalogue is a foldout slipcover around a paperback of “After Nature,” a book-length poem in three parts by W. G. Sebald. It’s an arresting gesture. The rapturously depressive German writer, who died in 2001, would seem an unlikely hero for contemporary avant-gardists, who have been more easily imagined reading comic books. The first two sections of the dauntingly erudite work—on the Northern Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald and on the German naturalist Georg Steller, a participant in a disastrous Arctic expedition led by Vitus Bering in 1741—exude Old World gravitas, laced with obsessive descriptions of material ruin, physical disease, and mental suffering. The third, which is roughly autobiographical, quotes “King Lear” and expresses anguish directly: “Oh, / you are men of stones. . . . Water? Fire? Good? / Evil? Life? Death?” But Sebald’s signature tone is dead calm. His conjurings of historical and personal loss, which in his novels and memoirs are usually keyed to the calamities of the Second World War, happen to you slowly, as you read, like the onset of a cold. (I’m an admirer but not a fan.) What young artist would want to get mixed up with such connoisseurship of remote sorrows?

The museum’s director of special exhibitions, Massimiliano Gioni, who curated the show, is confident of Sebald’s Pied Piper appeal, as he is of Werner Herzog’s—the director’s gorgeous and dire film on the aftermath of the Gulf War, “Lessons of Darkness” (1992), excerpts of which are loop-projected on the first of the show’s three floors, is another touchstone. Gioni also cites Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road” (2006), writing of a rising sensibility haunted by “the destabilizing sensation of having come upon the remains of our own civilization after its extinction,” transfixed by “offended sceneries and scorched earth,” and hankering for qualities of the “pure, distant, and extreme” in “a sphere that is, if not religious, at least sacred or obscure, like a mystery cult.” Remarkably, the visual goods on display endorse Gioni’s rhetoric. Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit. (In fact, the underappreciated recent Whitney Biennial hinted at the mutation.) It’s a fashion auditioning as a sea change.

The selections of unfamiliar past art in “After Nature” nonplus the viewer, by evident design. There are cameraless photographs, called “Celestographs,” made in 1894 by August Strindberg, the playwright, who exposed film to the night sky in hopes of capturing starscapes; he decided that the results had metaphysical import, despite comprising only traces of dust and chemical discoloration. Hand-lettered, delirious sermons by the Reverend Howard Finster (1916-2001), a Georgian bricoleur, and surreal abstractions by Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910-83), a working-class Milwaukee-an, admit outsiders to the collegial mix. And little-known films by the late sculptor and painter Nancy Graves—obsessive studies, from the early nineteen-seventies, of camels, frigate birds, and the moon—contribute a note of, in Gioni’s words, “cosmic stupor.” These things share a driven sincerity; they couldn’t be made by anyone who didn’t mean them. One work jars, instructively: a dangling, taxidermied horse, its head (if it has one) buried high up in a wall, by the internationally celebrated, zingy satirist Maurizio Cattelan. Cattelan’s horse comes off as gaudy and smug—emblematic of a cul de sac (art as engineered sensation, more or less) that most of the artists in the show strive to escape.

The major surprise is the sculpture of Pawel Althamer, a forty-one-year-old artist based in Warsaw, whose animal-intestine-skinned, straw-stuffed, naked people, among other works, give an old-fashioned humanism the burning presence of an angry revenant. Althamer’s art discounts considerations of style to insist on realities of life and (chiefly) death, as does a bolted-together and propped (and perhaps needlessly large) reconstruction of a dead tree, by the American Zoe Leonard. Other artists pile on raw-nerved provocations: the Italian Diego Perrone, with photographs of maw-like holes in arid ground, some with a naked man who seems to contemplate a suicidal plunge; the New Yorker Dana Schutz, with an Expressionist painting called “Man Eating His Chest”; the Pole Artur Zmijewski, with a video in which naked able-bodied people become living prostheses for naked victims of maiming, helping a one-legged man walk and a man without fingers shampoo his hair; and the Pakistani-born American Huma Bhabha, with “legs, and arms, and heads” (2008), a big, truly scary skull in several mediums.

If the common run of contemporary art risks triviality in the pursuit of seduction, the new kind incurs hysteria as a toll of earnest intensity. Emotional reach exceeds formal grasp throughout the show, and certain melodramatic lurches fail entirely. (I don’t care what Robert Kusmirowski intends by his painstaking reconstruction of the Una-bomber Ted Kaczynski’s cabin; it’s dumb.) But the futility of artistic technique in the face of world conditions may constitute a subject for art as substantial as any other, and rather more compelling than today’s stacked-deck models of success. Bhabha’s gruesome death’s-head neatly—that is to say, messily—critiques Damien Hirst’s famous diamond-encrusted skull, which sold last year for a reported hundred million dollars. Work like Bhabha’s tacitly cancels the credit of artists who allude to terror and horror without personal investment. Existentialist standards of authenticity may be back in force, however fleetingly. How much can we bear of art that, like Sebald’s writing, glories in bottomless malaise? I expect we’ll find out.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Banksy's cover has been blown?

Gasp, horror! Banksy isn't a fictional character. His cover has been blown. He's an actual person who makes art. Worse than that, according to the Mail on Sunday, he went to public school. He's middle class! He lived in suburbia! What did people expect? That just because he started with graffiti and grew into street art that he was some council estate hoodie with a knife?

The Mail on Sunday allegedly spent a year tracking him down - discovering the earth-shattering news that Banksy is a bloke called Robert Gunningham (who went to the same school as Sophie Anderton - though at different times). Spiced up with old interviews, the life the Mail describes is pretty dull. Bloke has middle management parents, goes to school, likes graffiti, makes some art, lives with some mates, moves to London from Bristol. Not exactly headline worthy.

The question of the artist's anonymity seized the public - and more importantly the media - since he first started making serious money. And that's the main issue. The secrecy of Banksy's identity seems to be much more about the public's fascination with celebrity and money than anything to do with art. Who is this invisible person raking in the cash and why isn't he in the pages of Heat magazine or sleazing it up at the back of Art Review? It's a good piece of marketing spin that the artist himself has played up by keeping quiet. If Banksy is a brand, will it be damaged by his outing?

But from an artistic point of view, will Banksy's exposure make his work better or worse now people know who he is? It may make his ability to make a street piece a little more difficult if coppers can follow him home afterwards. (That is assuming the police waste as much time and money as the Mail has on tracking him down.)

Perhaps in some way it's a good shift in people's perceptions of street artists and graffiti writers. They are not all naughty teenagers. Considering that scrawling on streets became popular in the UK in the 1980s, its not surprising that many street artists are closer to 40 than 15. They come from varied backgrounds and they make varied work. The question isn't who is Banksy. The question is who cares?