Make Room for Video, Performance and Paint
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: December 31, 2009
SINCE the 1970s people have perennially complained that while the number of artists keeps rising, the number of good ones remains the same. Many of us have nodded in agreement to curtail yet another lament that the good old days were better. But let's do the math; the odds are very much against this equation.
Over the past decade the number of artists has indeed continued to increase, but so has the tally of good ones. The years 2000 to 2009 saw the emergence of a tremendous number of really good, interesting, promising artists. They came from around the world and every demographic, working in every medium.
This was inevitable. There is now officially more of everything. Why should good art be exempt? The increased number of art schools and art students has upped the number of people determined to be artists. The globalization of art has increased the chances for visibility and market support. Various liberation movements — concerning race, gender, nationality and sexual orientation — have continued to have effect, adding participants, energy, traditions and subject matter, meeting and making new challenges.
From where I stand — which is very often in some sort of New York art gallery — the decade had a high yield of impressive debuts, along with some debutlike second shows, stirring game changers (Carroll Dunham's latest show at Gladstone) and comebacks (Nicole Eisenman's at Leo Koenig). And since I didn't see every show that occurred on the planet, I can only think that nearly as many good artists made their presences felt elsewhere and have not yet passed through the New York portion of the art-world pipeline.
This situation was impressed upon me by the humbling number of unknowns in the no-frills " 'Younger Than Jesus' Art Directory," in which the New Museum published the work of the 540 artists considered for their first triennial — of which about 50 were selected for the actual show. As important as the show itself, this publication gave a new transparency to the selection process; it may contain a better show than the one chosen and could serve as a sourcebook for future exhibitions.
For proof that the last decade has been a great time for art, forget about auctions and copycat collectors. Open your personal image bank of memories, study it through a wide-angle lens and see what comes up. (The Internet of course aids greatly in the process; many galleries lavishly document their exhibitions.)
Some high points I remember or revisited online include the black-gray-and-white taped floor of Jim Lambie's debut at the Anton Kern Gallery (then in SoHo) and the makeshift greenhouse in Peter Coffin's first show at the Andrew Kreps. At Zach Feuer (or its predecessor, LFL), there were: the spongy nose picker among Dana Schutz's early paintings, Tamy Ben-Tor's spot-on video evocations of sundry female stereotypes and Nathalie Djurberg's hilarious video animations of humanity's dark side. The free-spirited Klara Liden arrived from Sweden, dancing (in video) in a trolley car at Reena Spaulings, a space that Josh Smith also filled with barstools as paintings.
Urs Fischer's first hole in a wall (on this side of the Atlantic, at least) breezed through the old Gavin Brown's enterprise on West 15th Street, and Cao Fei's sci-fi photographs introduced slightly deranged action-figure devotees at Lombard-Freid.
Nalini Malani's evocations of Indian deities at Bose Pacia were memorable for their diaphanous effects and simple hardware. Tauba Auerbach's optical, letter-based abstractions at Deitch Projects compelled double and triple takes. Shinique Smith's towering bales of recycled garments and fabrics revealed geologies of thrift-shop detritus at the Proposition. The Marian Goodman Gallery added Rineke Dijkstra's "Buzzclub," a mesmerizing video portrait of clubgoing adolescents; Pierre Huyghe's "Third Memory," an eerie video-installation evocation of the real story — and man — behind the 1975 Sidney Lumet movie "Dog Day Afternoon"; and Anri Sala's video "Dammi I Colori," which showed his shell-shocked hometown Tirana, Albania, rising from the ashes with Modernist primary colors.
Other striking video debuts included Aïda Ruilova's percussive Goth vignettes at Salon 94, and, most recently, Mary Reid Kelley's vibrant grisaille conflations of painting, book illustration, Dada performance and sea chanteys at Fredericks & Freiser.
Other mediums or styles were resuscitated with conviction to spare. Ellen Altfest's debut at Bellwether, Karel Funk's at 303 and Josephine Halvorson's at Monya Rowe (still up) were among several to perform this service for realist painting. Sterling Ruby at Foxy Production, Jessica Jackson Hutchins at Derek Eller and William J. O'Brien at Marianne Boesky treated ceramics as just another medium, no big deal. At ATM, Huma Bhabha took figurative sculpture back to its ancient origins. In a group show at the SculptureCenter, Leslie Hewitt signaled a new phase in postconceptual sculpture and a more oblique approach to the subject of race. The Japanese artist Misaki Kawai dominated one of Kenny Schachter's intrepid group shows with a large, determinedly not cute treehouse fashioned from cardboard and fabric and populated by decadent glam rockers, or something close.
For every incident here, there are probably four more equally deserving mention, among them Christof Büchel's elaborate architectural intervention at Maccarone and Ryan Trecartin's hyperkinetic, color-saturated coming-out saga "Family Finds Entertainment," seen at the New York Underground Film Festival in 2005 and the Whitney Biennial in 2006 (albeit on a tiny monitor, one of the decade's dumber curatorial moves). Even before art performances became as ubiquitous as photography, I remember Jamie Isenstein doing a soft-shoe with a skeleton at Guild & Greyshkul and Rachel Mason's wobbly voice and acoustic guitar giving her own insistent update on folk music at the Alona Kagan Gallery.
Not only are there scores of interesting artists, they are working on all fronts, including some new ones. The number of mediums has expanded, thanks to the continued development of aspects of postminimalism — especially video and performance — and the rise of digital technology and the Internet. So has the ingenuity with which artists fragment and mix these mediums. The ways of being an artist — from membership in an anonymous collective with satire, social improvement or both on its group mind, to entrepreneurial mega-stardom — have also multiplied.
All this has moved beyond the simpler days of art movements, trends and warring claims for the supremacy of one medium or another. If it seems otherwise, you're not looking hard enough or without blinkers. To beat a dead horse: even painting remains very much alive. It is a language that is too complex, widely spoken and beloved to expire, but you can bet it is changing all the time.
Finally, what might be called the liberation of art history that began in the 1970s has continued; new knowledge about and approaches to nonwestern, decorative, popular, folk and applied art forms have been grafted onto what was once called the master narrative. It is now a tree with many strong branches that gives us more to think about and greatly increases the kinds of visual culture and models of creativity that can inspire artists.
The lack of reassuring simplification means that we are experiencing the present in a fuller, less blinkered way. We can now see that most art begins in plurality, even if it is temporarily neatened into movements by artists, critics and art historians. Thus, as it was being made, New York art in the 1940s included Jackson Pollock and Janet Sobel (whose dripped paint influenced Pollock) and Steve Wheeler (a so-called "Indian Space" painter who hated the phrase but worked small and tight in a time of Abstract Expressionist expansiveness). For a few decades all you saw was Pollock. Now Sobel and Wheeler are back in the historical picture.
In all, we are confronted with the distinct possibility that quantity and quality may not be so mutually exclusive after all. More means more better.