New York City Cinephiles who also frequent art galleries might call it the “Michael Cimino Effect,” except that in the art world it proceeds more slowly, and the bottom line isn’t quite so, well, bottom line. Cimino, you’ll recall, was the director of the humongous commercial and critical hit The Deer Hunter (1978). On the basis of that stupefying success, Cimino was given a blank check by the United Artists studio, and the result was the disaster called Heaven’s Gate—a budget-bustingWestern that was the object of withering reviews and box office indifference. The art world’s rough parallel runs something like this: A young artist has a show or two at an edgy little gallery that generates some buzz among fellow artists, critics and—even better—a few trend-conscious collectors; he or she then moves up to a more established gallery, mounts a slicker, more salable exhibition, gets into a few museum surveys, maybe even enjoys an institutional solo, and finally lands on the deck of one of those blue-chip Chelsea galleries I call “aircraft carriers.” (To complete my naval-gazing metaphor: the carriers are such galleries as Gagosian, PaceWildenstein and Mary Boone; battleships are the likes of Barbara Gladstone, Metro Pictures and Matthew Marks; cruisers include Mitchell-Innes & Nash; in the destroyer convoy are Elizabeth Dee, and so on, all the way down to PT boats like Freight & Volume and dinghies such as . . . oh, we won’t go there.)
At that point, a confluence of dealer clout (which may or may not include backer money) and public ambition enters the mix and you get, to cite some recent examples, Mike Kelley’s exhibition “Horizontal Tracking Shots” at Gagosian [Nov. 7-Dec. 23, 2009] and Matthew Ritchie’s similarly titled show, “Line Shot,” at Andrea Rosen [Oct. 23-Dec. 2, 2009]. Kelley and Ritchie aren’t the only ones, however, opting for spectacle over delectation. In the hyper-competitive scenes in New York, Los Angeles, London, Berlin and points east all the way around the globe, hanging modest rectangles of canvas and photo paper on the walls or plopping potted-plant-sized objects on the floors of galleries just doesn’t cut it anymore. Competitive kids are driven as much into spectacle as older, richer artists. With younger artists these days, there’s sometimes a desire for street cred (that’d be 24th Street cred): “See what my otherwise financially strapped dealer will let me do in the precious space?” When they try spectacle, though, the results often look less like a big-budget movie such as Troy than they do like those on-the-cheap History Channel glosses on the Peloponnesian War featuring lots of shaky, economy-disguising close-ups of helmets, flames and fleeing legs.
But Kelley is no one- or two-hit wonder who’s suddenly been allowed carte blanchein Gagosian’s vast and elegant 24th St. space, and whose overreaching has him headed for a big fall. He’s been exhibiting for 30 years, since his mid-20s, and has had one-person exhibitions at Tate Liverpool and the Louvre (the Louvre!). Kelley’s work graces the collections of the Centre Pompidou, the museums of contemporary art in Los Angeles and Chicago, and the Met and the Modern in New York. He’s as established an artist as, say, Danny Boyle is a movie director. However it’s received, “Horizontal Tracking Shots” is not going to amount to Kelley’s Heaven’s Gate. But there is a disconnect between the content of Kelley’s show and Gagosian’s retail magnificence: Kelley, who made his reputation as a grunge artist with stained and abused stuffed animals, old dolls, soiled carpet, etc., still traffics in the vibes of the injustice of youthful suffering, and his art cries out for meaningfully crappy production values.
That’s not, of course, what he got—or indulged in—at Gagosian. The show was an immense and gorgeous (from a distance) collection of paintings (and a couple of obligatory video monitors) gussied up with a series of candy-colored wall fragments, some replete with molding. Seen up close, the paintings depict the usual, putatively unusual, assortment of disaffected imagery: indifferently rendered cartoon characters, customarily private body parts, creatures that look as though Sesame Street ran through Chernobyl, and penises, penises, penises—many of them on preoperative transsexual porn models colloquially known as “chicks with dicks.”
The show wanted to be in one of those taxicab garages which have been driven out of Chelsea by expensive, anal-retentive galleries, or in a Jersey City warehouse where you need a bodyguard to go to after dark. The wall panels wanted to be peeling veneer in a flophouse, or graffiti’d bunkside surfaces in a jail. So why did Kelley’s sugarcoated malaise sit in Gagosian’s super-clean, light-drenched fine arts palace? Because that’s the kind of place where big-time art—and Kelley is now firmly big-time—is sold. Presumably with the approval of the artist himself, the gallery offered up a curiously antiseptic, Greenbergian-formalist rationale for Kelley’s dystopia:
Kelley has devised a spatial push-pull effect through the arrangement of large polychrome panel paintings and smaller framed canvases. In the untitled colored reliefs, individual colors pop or recede in relation to each other. The colors of the flat support panels are determined by key colors in the organically shaped panels that are attached to them.
The press release also ventures an explanation of how the whole exhibition was supposed to work: “Base moldings that give [the works] an architectural quality, linking them to stage sets or theatrical space whereas the small framed paintings on canvas, hung individually or in tight clusters, operate like windows in the gallery walls.” But that’s not the whole story, nor even the main point of the construction, which was for the colored panels to lead the eye to the paintings installed on them via the eponymous “horizontal tracking shot.” That’s all well and good—didactically—but the pristine props and didactic devices kicked the exhibition over into the category of what an artist-friend of mine calls “produced art”: erstwhile art objects that have an untouched-by-human-hands or little-touched-by-human-hands merchandising quality about them. In Kelley’s case, it was a sideways, irrelevant glancing-touch-by-human-hands. What the exhibition amounted to at the Hollywood producer’s “end of the day” was a metaphorical behind-the-scenes peek at the making of a big-budget grunge movie.
Another friend of mine, a grumpy journalist who’s skeptical, to say the least, about contemporary art, said to me on a gallery crawl a few years back, “Face it, Peter, they all want to direct.” (Some of them do or have—Julian Schnabel with great success, others with considerably less.) What “they” really want to do in addition to making art is to make everything else. And sometimes they do make everything else, so that what you get in one of their art exhibitions is an announced mere fragment of the artist’s protean abilities. The net impression is that the artist is a pretty busy fellow whom you’re damned lucky to catch between appointments.
A case in point lay down the street from Gagosian, with Ritchie’s “Line Shot,”at Andrea Rosen. Ritchie’s trademark embellished paintings (a phrase which is rather like describing a Madonna concert as embellished cabaret) have shrunk from being featured performers to veritable afterthoughts in a show that also embraced film, music and architecture. The paintings were like Miss Havisham’s chandelier in the room she kept as a memorial to being abandoned at the altar in David Lean’s 1946 classic film of Dickens’s Great Expectations: noticeable if you look for it, but otherwise lost among the cobwebs. To wit, included in “Line Shot”(not just the name of the show but also of a specific work in it, an hour-long animated film with music and dialogue) was The Dawn Line: “a modular structure [of black anodized aluminum] that is part of The Morning Line: a vast architectural, film and musical collaboration created with architects ArandaLasch and Arup AGU with commissioned music by Bryce Dessner & Evan Ziporyn, Lee Ranaldo, Thom Willems, Jon ‘Jonsi’ Birgisson and others.” In the gallery’s words, Ritchie’s process of synthesizing and expressing complex systems and cosmologies to create new forms and explore new myths has increasingly expanded across disciplines and into collaborative projects with physicists, composers, writers, actors, architects and engineers, aimed at developing a group of visual and performance environments that can theoretically sustain not one, but every possible representation of the universe.
Kelley and Ritchie are members of the postwar generations (Kelley a Boomer, Ritchie a Gen-Xer) for whom career mashups of all the arts are commonplace. But even older artists, operating from an old-fashioned painting/sculpture paradigm, can go in for the overproduced. Ever since his 1967-71 “Protractor”series of colorful acrylic paintings, Frank Stella has made practically a devotion of it. His physical maximalism, on view in Chelsea [Oct. 1-Nov. 7, 2009] at about the same time as Kelley’s and Ritchie’s exercises in all-inclusiveness, in a Paul Kasmin show titled matter-of-factly “Polychrome Relief,” seemed almost quaint by comparison. Stella makes painted whirligigs from a high-tech sheet material called ProtoGen and props them up with crisscrossing tubular steel shafts. Meanwhile, at the capacious PaceWildenstein Gallery on 25th St. [Oct. 29-Dec. 24, 2009], the dependable David Hockney installed huge paintings of the East Yorkshire landscape in full—albeit quite brief—bloom by cobbling together grids of smaller canvases. But Hockney and Stella, both in their 70s, seem much more comfortable with, and much less desperate about, spectacle than either Kelley or Ritchie. For me, it’s Kelley who comes a cropper the most. Ritchie may clutter a room into a 21st-century version of Dickensian wedding gothic, but it’s Kelley who turns Miss Havisham into a chick with a dick.