For Adam McEwen, the British-born artist educated at Oxford and Cal Arts, and now living in New York, the phrase “fresh hell” is more Dorothy Parker’s than Shakespeare’s. Fittingly, the tone of his grab-bag group show, “Fresh Hell: Carte Blanche aÌ? Adam McEwen,” encompassing everything from Gothic sculpture to Agathe Snow’s Wallpaper (2009), with its appropriated graffiti of the word “yes,” is more archly gloomy than deeply tragic.
The dance of death theme is one of the show’s more discernible iconographies. In Techno Battle (2007), Hanna and Klara Liden’s 5-minute video, two female figures (the Swedish artist sisters, in fact), one wearing a skel- eton mask, the other a silvery jumpsuit, trash a laptop computer, set it on fire and drag it around a deserted parking lot fringed with snow. In all its comic bleakness, the scene suggests a punk send-up of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal: a down-and-dirty, latter-day joust with death, toxic fumes and all.
McEwen (born in 1965) is perhaps best known for his text-based mockups of obituaries of still-living celebrities, but “Fresh Hell” seems a way of forging a coming-of-age story: that of an artist whose work gestated in London in the ’90s and has come into focus in post-2000 New York. Roughly the same age as the YBAs (pieces by Sarah Lucas, Michael Landy and Angela Bulloch are included), McEwen witnessed their movement’s earliest manifestations, mostly from the sidelines, it seems. “Fresh Hell” has a certain aspect of ’90s revival to it. By far the largest work on view is Landy’s Market (1990/2010), a sprawling, freeform installation comprising myriad permutations of stepped, red-metal grocery display stands covered in Astroturf and punctuated with columns of red plastic packing crates and video monitors depicting small groceries. This gigan- tic piece has come to life again in a huge curved gallery, where Landy’s system of readymades evokes a sprawling landscape of disembodied parts.
The exhibition has its share of severed heads. The show-stealers are, no doubt, a trio of oversize Gothic sculptural heads of kings cut down from the facade of Notre Dame during the French Revolution and unearthed only in 1977. Exhib- ited in contemporary vitrines against one of Rudolf Stingel’s DIY-graffiti walls, these archeological finds form the daredevil-glamorous entrance to the show.
There is a whole druggy contingent, too. But the drawings Henri Michaux made under the influence of mescaline in the ’60s, when paired with Dan Graham’s early appropriated diagram Side Effects/Common Drugs (1966), begin to seem cloyingly clever, holding up poorly in the cavernous white spaces of the Palais de Tokyo. Georg Herold’s resin-and-milk-powder Mountain of Cocaine V (1990) stands erect, recalling an oversize aquarium rock.
Authority figures loom large. A brilliant early video by Bruce Nauman and Frank Owen, Pursuit (1975), eclipses everything else in its riveting imagery of single figures jogging on a treadmill, with all those ’70s body shirts shot in an abstract, Warholian way. It sets an epochal tone of Sisyphean exertion. Martin Kippenberger is represented by a strange black inflated sack, Memorial of the Good Old Time (1987), and a delectable drawing from the ’70s of a simpering woman with a wedge hair-cut. The piece is framed in black leather, said to have been cut from the artist’s jeans. (Now there’s a cult item.)
Ultimately the viewer—and by extension the curator— gets a bit lost. Fortunately, Helikopter auf Brett (Helicopter on Shelf), 1998, comes to the rescue. In this one-minute video by Roman Signer, shown on a monitor, a motorized toy helicopter manages to take off from a piece of floating wood before the latter goes over some falls, then lands back on the diminutive platform afterward. This tinkerer’s experiment induces a sense of the wryly miraculous, which may be what McEwen wanted all along.
Photos: (left) View of Michael Landy’s installation Market, 1990/2010; (right) Georg Herold’s Mountain of Cocaine V (foreground), 1990, and three woodcuts (on wall) by H.C. Westermann, all 1975-76. Both in “Fresh Hell” at the Palais de Tokyo.