(Paris.) When an Austrian art dealer orders a British curating legend to select New York artists for a show in his Parisian gallery space, this sounds promising.
“Parisian” in this case means Thaddaeus Ropac’s factory site in the suburban village of Pantin, a wonderland of art with space in abundance. And Norman Rosenthal (ex-Royal Academy) was not alone in arranging the melting pot, he joined forces with Alex Gartenfeld (MoCA North Miami, Art in America).
The first works we see are well chosen. Ruby Frazier’s black and white photographs of ruins and construction sites corroborate the image of a city that not only never sleeps, but never will die. Eternally moulting into something fresh and unseen, New York City refuses to leave the top; it just won’t turn into a static outdoor museum of European capital type. On the verge of every new era, only continuous transformation offers the chance to preserve relevance. Where Rome is nicknamed “the eternal city”, NYC stays forever young thanks to never-ending plastic surgery (we won’t call art the Botox of this metaphor). Frazier’s photographs are joined by Virginia Overton’s large steel rod, held askew by bloody-red cotton bands. Half erected pride or a flag pole at half mast? Talking about the future.
Empire State - New York Art then continues without telling a story, and artists living in NYC proves to be the only concept. The curators have united a total of twenty-six artists, we will only mention some works that stick to the memory for one reason or another:
Dan Graham’s model of a skateboard rink (what's that Gus van Sant film called again?) is a miniaturised model of a micro society – kind of like what this exhibition seeks to be, too. Joyce Pensato’s mural - specifically conceived for the occasion –shows a giant face halfway between Batman and a racoon. And Danny McDonald’s installation The Beads (that bought Manhattan) summons an American nightmare. Patchwork curtains and a dollar note carpet, objects, videos and light FX; somehow it all centres around a Hippie Zombie looking like he stepped right out of a Slipknot music video, and his family life with an all American girl. To understand what this is about, you’d need to spend much time reading background information, then you’d probably decipher most witty comments on contemporary life. But you may also lean back and just enjoy the creepy atmosphere. Sounds like what any good horror flick is about.
The ghosts of the past continue to haunt us, when we meet two of the biggest stars from the nineteen eighties and nineties.
Julian Schnabel is still alive and painting graffiti tags over historic battle scenes. I’m sure, this series alone will refinance Ropac’s expenses for the show. Jeff Koons brings us Dr. Bruce Banner under gamma ray influence (for the non-geeks: that’s The Incredible Hulk), made of painted bronze in disguise of a featherweight balloon figure. We have seen this technique abundantly, yet it is not less impressive than it was ten or twenty years ago.
Where in the past Thaddaeus Ropac’s great Parisian rival Emmanuel P. presented fake horses (by Maurizio Cattelan) and elephants (by Daniel Firmin), Ropac goes one step further when Rob Pruitt‘s fiberglass dinosaurs majestically face each other. Looking around, we discover a fiberglass pile of poo several meters behind the Brachiosaur (the other’s a velociraptor, fascinating what you still remember from Jurassic Park). It’s funny (well, kinda), but that’s all. I refuse to read anything more into this (you probably could see many a metaphor for life, society, and – stop. It’s bull- or rather: dinosaursh--).
Renée Green likes Italy. Her fascination is not limited to pasta and Puccini, but extends to Italian Intellectuals and the role Italian immigrants have played in the history of the big apple and other hotspots of immigration. In an offer we can’t refuse, the artist honours Italians and Italo-somethings from de Niro to Gramsci and Guattari, the names printed on cotton sheets hanging from laundry lines. And here’s an example of great curating, as this work is combined with Adrian Piper’s Everything #21: the phrase “Everything will be taken away” repeatedly written on blackboards. Piper might have been influenced by #BartSimpson and #Twitter™ here; elements of contemporary (pop) culture are not bound to stay. The co-presentation lends a dark nostalgia to Green’s original work. Every arrival means a loss, and what’s newly built up will be (partially) lost in immersion. What can different cultural influences still mean today (there certainly are journalists sufficiently dumb to call this artwork “racist” for hinting to differences and cultures in the plural form)? Not to forget, the times of European mass immigration to the US are certainly “lost”, the States’ demographics is changing. Standing for itself, Piper’s work simultaneously reminds of the necessity and the insufficiency of protest slogans; of indoctrination and despair.
More highlights are hidden in a side building, where a room is reserved for a video installation by Tabor Robac. The artists shows four films “picture in picture” on the same screen: 1) Images from a 3D video game in a fantasy medieval setting with the player character approaching a set table in your average dungeon; 2) recordings from a supermarket surveillance camera showing shelves of pleasantly packaged foods 3) a teleshopping-like presentation of plastic coloured sweets; 4) ultrasound scans from digesting intestines. Only with a second look we realise that all of this is actually extremely realistic computer graphics.
Despite all technical progress, man is bound to his most basic needs (yes, woman too). As long as we exist in bodily form - not saved on a chip/in the cloud -, not everything is replaceable by code. The artwork questions reality, form and function, consumerism, marketing and technical progress, to namedrop but a few ideas.
We know the expression “food porn” for photos of sublimely arranged haute cuisine in coffee table cook books. And we imagine our ancestors punching their chests with the cub that slayed the mammoth, whose remains will be copied to the cave wall by the first artists in history.
Resembling a “Best of 20xx” compilation, there is no curating concept other than the artists’ home base behind this show. What can “Empire State” teach us?
Maybe that Made in NYC as a label lacks a unique selling point. There are brilliant artists and there are others; there are abstract, experimental artists and those working in a more classical style. But the label is not good for any movement. A school of New York does not exist, not in the sense e.g. of the post-war École de Paris. If New York still is the promised land for European artists, then only because of its collectors who actually buy art (they really do, don’t they?). Enough of them to feed even art advisors, a profession unknown in the old world. But in terms of art, there are no differences to anyplace else. Which on the other hand is a decidedly contemporary phenomenon and itself an expression of global culture. The times of movements, of manifestos and groups are long gone, and they won’t come back soon. If you’d stage a show with Parisian artists and compare it to Empire State, you’d struggle to find an artist whose work would not fit into both shows. And again, this is truly modern, a sign of our times, and as such just right – it cannot be anything else. This is a time of consolidation, not of revolution. Accordingly, Empire State appears like it could have as well been curated in the ‘80s, the ‘90, the ‘00s. Without wanting to claim all inventions have been made (there’re more than enough historic examples for how stupid that opinion can make you look), it’s hard to imagine fundamental changes to art in the near future. Once the giant ape has climbed up to the roof, there’s nothing left but shoot him down and rescue that muse from his paws.
Empire State New York Art Now, Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery Paris Pantin, 17 November 2013-15 February 2014