Is the “Sensation” Art Worth the Fuss?

Click here to view the entire “Sensation” show online.

Hey, are you the same Deborah Solomon I thought you were? The author of sensitive biographies of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell? And you say Sarah Lucas is major?

Margaret Thatcher, whom I quote with trepidation following your comments on the unappeased longings of conservatives, once observed that there was no female equivalent of the (masculine) word “puerile.” “Puerile” is surely the only word for Lucas. Her gendered mattress is the kind of garbage an immature college student would turn out the night before an exam in a desperate bid to seem iconoclastic and “relevant.” It is a squalid irrelevance even in the context of “Sensation,” but “major” would put her in bed with the leading artists of our time, e.g. Lucian Freud–now, he knows what to do with a mattress! And the idea that an oblique, hardly probable cross-reference to Rauschenberg’s quilts helps Lucas on the path to greatness is risible (the jury is still out on Rauschenberg, anyway). More likely with an artist of Lucas’ intellect and attention span is that her work is a mock homage to the cast mattresses of Rachel Whiteread–as her chum Tracy Emin’s resin-cast urinals, exhibited in New York earlier this year, are a mock homage to Whiteread, via Duchamp.

In vaunting two of the nastiest and silliest exhibits in “Sensation” (you have a soft spot for Mat Collishaw’s bullet hole because it reminds you of some other orifice, you say), you expose a disturbing infatuation with literalness, that precious “real life” you tell me you want in art. It is this quality–or lack of quality–of simply transplanting the real and making it into “shocking” art, which is in my opinion the bane of contemporary art today, nowhere more painfully than at the Brooklyn Museum. By this stage in art history we can surely draw a line under appropriation. Some genuine artists earlier in the century did inspired things with the found object and unleashed extraordinary images, but the spurious alchemy of lifting things unmediated from the common culture and plonking them down in the art gallery is truly exhausted now that it has become the academic norm. It rests on a contradiction: It demystifies skill and imagination, and yet relies on artists having privileged elective powers.

Your cravings for “real life” and youthful exuberance lead you to exactly the same folly as the popular press: You focus on the sensationalist at the expense of the subtle and reflective. Vastly more provocative and unsettling, in my opinion, than the ludicrous Lucas, is Jane Simpson’s Sacred: a vanity chest that is colored like skin (or is it smudged lipstick?) and oozes dry ice and is almost anthropomorphic in its voluptuous, erogenous curves. It doesn’t jump at one’s throat with an obvious, sexual-political meaning, but evokes genuine, enriching ambiguity. It is an old-fashioned sculpture in respect of its interplay of forms, of the way all the elements feel like they have been thought through in relation to the pervasive mood of the finished work. These elements–surface, shape, color, associations–add up to something substantial, a variety of sensations rather than merely “a” sensation. This is what I think art should do. Anyone else who thinks the same way, come join me in the closet.