Young American Art: A Web Tour

If you’re like Culturebox, you don’t get down to the waterfront very often. But that’s the place to see new American art these days: where New York’s Chelsea turns into a gallery district just short of the Hudson River and the industrial zones of Brooklyn and Queens taper to a slender bohemia just east of the East River. Those who find themselves similarly landlocked can follow Culturebox out to P.S. 1, the Queens public school turned experimental gallery and studio space, for a quickie tour of the artistic edge.

The show that opened at P.S. 1 this week (and continues through May) is called “Greater New York” and features an epic 140 members of the generation of artists in their 20s and 30s, some of them of modest renown, most of them known only to the better-established artists for whom they work as badly paid assistants. Indeed, the nicest thing about this show is that it’s comfy and low-rent. A small blockbuster sandwiched between big blockbusters (the dealers’ and gallery owners’ glitzy Armory 2000 last week, the much flashier Whitney Biennial, which opens in three weeks), the event marks the merger earlier this year of P.S. 1 with the austere and wealthy Museum of Modern Art. Happily, the former elementary school has not yet shed its exuberant art-class atmosphere. There’s art in the stairwell, art in the administrative offices, even art in the bathroom. You can’t pee without having someone’s budding artistic vision staring down at you from the ceiling or popping up in the corner where you’d meant to toss your paper hand towel.

All this is of a piece with the show, though, since the war between whimsical mess and oppressive order is the big theme of “Greater New York.” That appears to be this generation’s take on a perennial art-world question: How should art deal with the encroachments of technology and commerce? Work after work trumpets the virtues of breakdown and happenstance, of putting a wrench in the system. One strategy for battling the onslaught of new media and technology is to retreat into a utopia of organic forms. But even the artists who choose to do this know that nostalgia is not the answer, telegraphing this insight with a mawkish faux-naivete that makes you you suspect bad faith. Lucky DeBellevue’s yellow-and-chartreuse chenille macramé sculpture seems to grow out of a corner, like a cascade of warm and fuzzy moss, until you suddenly realize that it is a grinning primitivist mask. Rob De Mar’s tiny Boschian worlds teeter precariously like flowers on long felt stems (see image on this page), and Caitlin Masley’s gardens of Eden are a dry joke.

Other artists eschew Luddism and appropriate computer and robotic and systems-analysis imagery for their own ends, turning them into something childlike and fun and goofy. One of the first installations you see when you walk in is by Diana Cooper (the piece on the Web is not actually the work in the show, but the two are similar), a circuit-board gizmo of paper and felt and foam and pipe cleaners and magic markers that seems like it ought to run some machine, maybe one built as a fifth-grade homework project. Just down the hall is Radio Frankenstein, half a monster and half a radio play, by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy. As you go by, this almost-cuddly gawky robot emits eerie scrambled fragments of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as if the only way to resist its namesake’s tragic fate is to sabotage the story and the linear logic that made its creation possible.

The most energetic marriage of system and whimsy–and one of the best pieces in the show–is Mick O’Shea’s Artworld. This is a functioning train set, its choo-choos trundling across half a large room transformed into a miniature town, like a three-dimensional SimCity. Only on closer inspection do you realize that everything is made out of art-world artifacts. Little houses are actually folded-up art-gallery invitations. Warehouse structures are slightly larger wooden cartons that used to hold linseed oil. One train’s cars carry swirling globs of dried paint, the other’s empty paint tubes. The entire thing is a witty send-up of the art industry, a sort of visual sociology masquerading as a children’s toy.

“Greater New York” includes few of the broad conceptual gestures preferred by young New York artists’ British counterparts, the Young British Artists seen in the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” show. Of what there is, Nina Katchadourian’s GIFT/GIFTis by far the best (and to be fair, her video owes more to what is known as “process art” than YBA-style neo-conceptualism). Using red thread and tweezers, Katchadourian has delicately woven the word “gift” into a spider’s web, then videotaped the spider’s reaction. The spider will have nothing to do with Katchadourian’s additions to her web, and labors mightily to remove them and weave her own patches. This may sound crazy, but there’s something completely mesmerizing about watching a spider expend all her strength to push a purplish “I” off a video screen. Katchadourian has transformed a simple story about the struggle between the natural world and humans into a larger meditation on language (how an insect reacts to words) and originality (who’s the true producer of the web patches, Katchadourian or the spider?).

The weakness of conceptual art, however charming or intellectually rigorous it may be, is that objects and found images–and even created ones–aren’t really the best media for argumentation. Or so it seems to Culturebox, who admittedly has a bias in favor of words. As art critic John Armstrong writes in the British magazine Prospect this month, “It’s the ideas, rather than the object, which we are supposed to get excited about. Yet are the ideas exciting? Is any point of substance being made? … If the ideas are unimpressive, nothing remains.” Many of the ideas–like Katchadourian’s–were in fact impressive. Others just seemed like doctrinaire expressions of a dour art-world pessimism. The works Culturebox enjoyed the most were the ones that sidestepped the political and concentrated on a more private vision.

Photographers Justine Kurland, Tracey Baran, and Deborah Mesa-Pelly are the stars in this department. They are among a generation of young women, many of whom studied with the same teacher at Yale, who take documentary photography and push it further toward allegory than it’s ever been before. Justine Kurland’s pictures feature lush landscapes and ripe teen-age girls in mythic situations: carrying deer, like modern-day Dianas; gazing at themselves in the mirror, like Narcissus; or running away from a forest fire in a slow saunter that feels like something out of a dream. Tracey Baran creates bold icons of female sexuality. The best of her pictures are not on the Web: One giant photograph offers the close-up of a plush white cat smugly guarding a freshly killed mouse. Another, called Who’s Leda?, is a straightforward celebration of masturbation: the legs of a woman stick out of a bath while a stream of water pours out of a swan’s-head faucet down onto her (invisible) crotch. Deborah Mesa-Pelly indulges in dykey heroine-worship in Rope.

If you should happen to get to the top floor of this four-story show (it starts in the basement and goes up three floors), don’t skip a room that isn’t part of “Greater New York.” It is P.S. 1’s most memorable permanent installation, sculptor James Turrell’s Meeting, a plain square room with an equally square skylight and a banquette ringing the edges. (Sadly, this isn’t on the Web.) The daylight is enhanced by subtly hidden artificial lights. This is where museumgoers finally get a chance to sit down, and where they’re bathed in a flow of light that seems like to comes from one of those Renaissance paintings in which putti ascend to heaven, their faces reflecting the glow of God. Even the plainest face is made radiant. After all the walls full of argument, attitudinizing, and ambition, this is a good reminder of how erotic and elegant older American art can be.

Mail Box, by Rob de Mar, courtesy of the Clementine Gallery.