Eye Level: Overwhelmed

New York

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It’s quixotic, not to say risky, to try to derive broad cultural conclusions from a day’s sweep of the galleries in Chelsea—or anyplace where there are more than a half-dozen of them within walking distance of one another. Then again, it’s borderline nonsensical not to. Unless you’re merely a superficial seeker of entertainment who might be happier at the Cineplex, a hidebound formalist who’s checking up on whether postgraduates have retained their Beginning Design lessons, or an activist sociologist compiling a stat sheet on how many this’s and who’s are getting exhibited as opposed to how many those’s and who-ain’t’s are not, seeing a lot of art without making some deductions isn’t very satisfying. If contemporary art is serious business in more than the sense of money-making, then there should be something profound afoot that—after some visual repetition, after some pondering—makes itself evident. And this is especially true if you’re not seeking out proof of some preconception—say, “young artists are doing marvelous things like never before” or “this time, they’re really all going to hell in a handbasket.”

At the end of one cold, damp day of perambulating through 50 or so art emporia, here’s my take: artists are looking a little overwhelmed these days. Not by the ongoing (if diminishing) recession, or the withering competition for the slightest fingernail hold on the climbing wall to art-stardom, or the number of intractable social problems that don’t seem to be mitigated in the slightest by what gets put on the walls and floors and in those black-curtained little video rooms nestled within galleries. Rather, I think, it’s by the sheer amount of stuff—material stuff, electronic stuff, emotional stuff, psychological stuff, journalistic stuff, theoretical stuff and satirical stuff—that comes bubbling up out of (or, much of the time, blasting forth from) the society in which we live.

Old news, you say. Perhaps. The term “information overload”—which refers to the glut of words, pictures, facts and opinions that modern life forces down our gullets like corn mash down the throat of a pâté goose—is about 45 years old. On the scale of time measured by Internet traffic, that’s antediluvian. And information overload itself followed by just about a generation the surfeit of material goods that, in America at least, burgeoned after the Second World War. During the first half of the 1940s, Chrysler, GM, Ford, GE, Westinghouse,

U.S. Steel and the rest had been producing tanks and guns to beat the band. When World War II ended, all those pumped-up factories quivered for something else to make. So, bulbous cars that eventually grew enormous tail fins, washer-dryer twin sets, refrigerators with huge freezers, TVs, steam irons, electric mixers and air conditioners came rolling off the assembly lines and into the increasingly overstuffed homes of middle-class Americans. That surfeit of goodies furnished much of the subject matter of Pop art and—via the indirect and peculiar ways that artists have of absorbing, digesting, transforming and re-manifesting material for their subject matter—“funk” art, Imagism and photorealism as well.

But things are different today (I hear every mother say). Not only are the aural and visual dins almost deafening and blinding, and not only is the speed at which they’re conveyed approaching simultaneity, but the analysis, punditry and attendant bloviating are delivered just as fast. And quicker than you can say “Jaron Lanier,” the second round of analysis, punditry and bloviating attendant to the firstarrives, and so forth, practically ad infinitum. As a result, it’s extremely difficult for an artist today to take any sort of stand, except a stand against taking a stand, or a stand that mocks all stands, or a stand that blankets all stands. Lately, in concrete terms—that is, the aggregate of all the materiel in all those esoteric rooms in a gallery neighborhood—taking a stand has amounted to the likes of laying fluorescent paint over brown old-masterish glazes, displaying crates that the video monitors were shipped in alongside the monitors, pasting cartoony glyph faces on Classical bodies and writing more words across a single drawing than there are in this essay. There are endless variations—collaborative and individual—on “Exquisite Corpse,” endless and usually unintentional solo-show variations on the Duchamp-designed 1938 Surrealist exhibition in Paris and an overlay of Jean-Michel Basquiat on practically everything. The dominant operative philosophy in all of this is the absolute opposite of “If in doubt, leave it out.” (I wish I could think up a rhyming equivalent, but I can’t.)

Is this bad? Not necessarily. (It’s almost impossible to make a charge of “bad art” stick these days; for every plausible opprobrium, there’s a plausible huzzah.) It’s just, well, dispiriting. What you want—OK, what I want—from serious art is distillation, an actualized sense of the tenor of the times being presented not in merely smaller replication or aleatory lists, but in concentrated form, in visual synecdoche. While I may not know that quality the minute I see it, I know it later, trudging home from the galleries, when a work of art I’ve viewed an hour or two before sneaks back into my consciousness, with a piercing summary of the zeitgeist that silences the accumulated cacophony of what I’ve seen. On my most recent gallery cruise, I saw two such works: a video by the Korean artist Junebum Park and some small, deceptively realistic-looking pictures by the British painter William Daniels.

Photo: Junebum Park: Hypermarket 4, 2008, HD video, approx. 61⁄2 minutes. Photo courtesy Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York.

In an exhibition at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, “Speed & Chaos: Into the Future of Asian Art,” which closed in mid-February, Junebum Park showed a video titled Hypermarket 4 (2008). It opens with a plain, static mid-distance shot of the facade of a large, restored, but still relatively dull and conventionally historicist building in Berlin—the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art—with a curving driveway circumscribing a grassy circle and curb. Then the artist’s hands and forearms appear, as big as the building, at either side. Ah! We’re looking—probably down—at a photograph or a digital grab. The hands go to work in speeded-up motion, applying photo-collage elements of commercial signage and other geegaws, and then they disappear for a moment, so that we can gauge the morphing. First, the building becomes a Lindner-chain hotel, the Hotel Berlin. Stores (Jopp, Kamps, Bauhaus, even a little porno parlor) open up, awnings appear, commercial vans pull in and park, and the H&M and Mercedes-Benz logos rise atop the museum-cum-hotel’s two towers. In 6 minutes and 20 seconds, this austere public museum of modern art is transformed into a retail free-for-all. 

At first, Hypermarket 4 seems a little didactic, obvious, and it’s not unlike those precisely illustrated children’s books in which a street corner or a small town is altered over the years. But what makes the video so ultimately disturbing is its visual reasonableness: everything the artist slaps onto the building seems to fit so nicely that we shrug and think, “Why not?” Junebum Park isn’t overwhelmed by the hypothetical commercial defacing of a venerable public building, but in being able to distill the horror of it, he beautifully conveys the idea that we should be.

William Daniels, who used to paint trompe-l’oeil oils of cardboard collages that imperfectly replicate old master paintings (he made the collages himself, then threw them away), now paints small, equally “realistic” pictures of silver foil maquettes that are so elaborately lighted and tightly cropped that they’re functionally abstract. At first glance, the off-square paintings—not much over a foot on a side and rather over-preciously distributed, one or two to a big white wall, in his most recent show at Luhring Augustine—look like Richard Pettibone miniatures of mid-1970s de Koonings. Upon further review, however, Daniels’s paintings reveal what they really are: receptacles of myriad visual signals from the always inchoate, frequently maddening, world around us. Daniels plays an intriguing double game, though: his wrinkled silver foil thingies are obvious metaphors for us—receiving the signals but not able to make anything coherent out of them. Only when the painter paints “illusions” of the silver foil does the world make any sense. At that, it’s only a provisional sense, which toggles between figuration and abstraction and back again, depending on how far away we are and how attentively we look.

Daniels makes us work harder to “get it” than does Junebum Park, but that difference may lie in the difference between painting and video. The former is inherently untrustworthy, and the latter retains the residue of a presupposition of documentary authority. But both artists manage to absorb the jumbled excess of postmodern life and channel it into rigorously intelligible art. Encountering a work or two such as theirs during a round of the galleries is what prevents a critic from feeling, if you will, overwhelmed.

Photo: William Daniels: Untitled, 2009, oil on board, 113⁄8 by 105⁄8 inches. Courtesy Luhring Augustine, New York; Vilma Gold, London; and Marc Foxx, Los Angeles.