Search View Archive

BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: Aesthetic Cleansing

The new gallery season has kicked off, and despite apocalyptic predictions and nervous jitters, the crisis produced by the financial meltdown is beginning to settle out. Unfortunately, the crisis of clichéd metaphors providing color commentary is on the rise. Is the art market the “canary in the coal mine”? Are we “only in the second inning of a nine inning game”? Will the “other shoe drop?” Is there “light at the end of the tunnel?” So stop with the camels and straws, fish and ponds. Two years ago most everyone knew the market couldn’t maintain its ridiculously overinflated state. Now, with a moderate correction, these same people think the world’s coming to an end?

Because of its DIY nature, low budget, self-financing, and borough-wide inferiority complex, Brooklyn has been hit with a double whammy. Not only have several longtime venues reached the end of their rope, (ArtMoving Projects, vertexList, Ad Hoc Art, Brooklyn Fire Proof, HQ, Pocket Utopia, McCaig-Welles, et al.) but the mainstream critical establishment has seen fit to scratch off most of the scene as nonexistent, reasoning that if these (not in Manhattan) losers are bumped from the roster of closings, the situation doesn’t look quite so dire.

In her September 3rd article in The New York Times titled “The Mood of the Market, as Measured in the Galleries,” Roberta Smith put a fine point on it with “it is hard to know if this summer has brought much more than the usual in the way of closings, along with relocations, expansions, contractions, splits, and alliances. So far the list of galleries that have closed is barely two dozen long, and only if you include galleries that closed several months before the crash; galleries that, to be blunt, will not be missed; neophyte galleries that had yet to establish either a financial or critical foothold.” After reading this, I realized that now we’re not only deciding what is and isn’t art, but what is and isn’t a legitimate gallery (perhaps we should expunge Robert Filliou’s Galerie légitime which, beginning in 1962, operated out of the Fluxus artist’s hat). I won’t argue with the numbers, or even the gist of Ms. Smith’s statement, but I’m glad to know that, in her world, maybe the sky isn’t falling after all. I will argue that these galleries will be missed, at least by me. That’s not to say their shows were always great, or that I went to every one, or that all the artists exhibited merited a “critical foothold.” But having visited plenty of “neophyte” galleries in scary neighborhoods, climbed rickety stairs to cramped apartments and lofts, and personally witnessed the sacrifices of time, energy, money, and passion with little or no chance of financial remuneration, I have to salute them. Even if it’s with a critical ding, I can’t sentence these enthusiasts to the damnation of nonexistence. They at least deserve the recognition of disapproval.

Ironically, in the past few years, institutions, curators, and this same critical establishment have become infatuated with “abject art,” “Impoverished Art,” “skuzz art,” or “crap on crap.” The last Whitney Biennial, the New Museum’s “Unmonumental” and “Younger than Jesus,” and last summer’s provocative installation by Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman, “Black Acid Co-op,” at Deitch Projects all wallowed in the grimy realm of grunge. But, like the fashionably stressed jeans that look like they’ve been worn by a skateboarding slackster for the last three years, sold for exorbitant prices in chic boutiques, these examples of the “abject” are simulations, concocted by well-funded, highly educated and skilled people attempting to imitate a patina of authenticity that their work would otherwise lack. Somehow a minutely detailed reconstruction of a shit-hole gallery is praiseworthy, but the real thing should just disappear? Miraculously, out here on the margins, crap is still real crap, and abject doesn’t just refer to works of art, it’s a socioeconomic classification. Maybe it’s time we began the challenge of exploring a brand new aesthetic horizon, the dark matter of our cultural universe, the aesthetics of failure.

Jessica Stockholder is a proponent of one brand of “crap on crap” but in her case things have a bouncy, just bought, nonchalant order. Her work is the surprising calling card for a three-person show at Klaus von Nichtssagend. “Untitled, 2009” (pillow, plastic bowls, acrylic paint, orange plastic flipper, green wire, yarn, hardware, plastic parts, painted pole, pole stand, wire) is a wall-commanding assemblage that sings with the coloristic and material tones of a Dollar Store window. Stockholder has superseded Rauschenberg’s ichorous paint-smeared quilt with a blue-and-white striped cushion adorned with acrylic red, orange, and yellow constructivist triangles. Bright hunks of plastic buckets and flippers are carefully arranged, surrogates for fully charged brushstrokes of color. A horizontally striped pole, about six feet tall and the thickness of a broomstick, stands in front of the piece, concentrating the viewer’s focus while seeming to lift the work’s bulk from the floor. Ian Pedigo’s “Untitled” (2009) channels the previous life of its main element, a black lacquered half cylinder, to productive ends. A subdued photo of roses wraps around the curving lower half of the sculpture, and a stack of “rocks,” recalling a meditation garden, balance on its carpet-lined top just below eye level. David Gilbert presents digital photos sometimes paired with quotidian objects. In “Light Impressions” (2008), a simple white towel is photographed hanging on a wall above an illuminated nightlight. The photo is a study in shades of pale ivories, off-whites, and evanescent pastel shadows. It’s hung low to the floor over a stack of folded towels whose edges have been airbrushed in mauve and cerulean, mimicking the shadows in the above picture. 

Out Bushwick way, Brent Owens’ ”Gnastic Pursuit” at English Kills is this artist’s solo debut. A couple of years ago Owens, along with Jason Eisner, was half of a show called “Knucklehead Blues.” One of his pieces in that show was a functioning moonshine still. Over the course of “Knucklehead’s” run, it cranked out gallons of hooch (and avoided the revenuer’s ax). The latest works, employing logs and found lumber, engage less in the low art practice of junk art, but Owens does shove a “Southern Fried” sensibility of chunky woodcarving and local vernacular signage in our faces. Wood may be a more traditional sculptural material than crumbly sheet rock, yellowing Styrofoam or booger-stained plush-toys, but our cultural tastemakers would be making tracks out of any town or “gift shop” hawking the stuff that Owens derives his craft from. In “And You…” (2009) Owens recycles the ubiquitous loading pallet with text and incised painting, carving “And you please just keep shutting up” into a horizontal plank that extends out to the left to accommodate the words. Zippy zigzag stripes in shiny beauty parlor colors fill the rest of the picture, their repeated rhythms echoing braided rugs or Indian beadwork. 

Though not technically “junk art,” the paintings of Derek Stroup’s “Station Pieces” at A.M. Richards Fine Art imbibe the materials and fabrication processes one might find in an industrial sign shop: sheet metal mounted on metal stud frames held together by a staccato pattern of pop rivets. A large piece features a narrow panel in white, red, and gray that’s held aloft by a shallow network of studs interspersed with pink fiberglass insulation. The sheet of white plastic that covers the upper half, and an exposed electrical conduit acting as a compositional horizon line, suggest a perpetual state of being under construction. Smaller paintings, employing tertiary shades borrowed from corporate logos, are coated with the immaculate enamel finishes of billboards or truck signs but with all residual hints of text removed. There’s a seductive formalism in Stroup’s “conceptual” painting and in his quirky use of materials, and their references have a relation to the “construction” paintings of Jim Lee that were shown at Freight + Volume last spring. Perhaps the only thing that might improve these pieces would be a couple years of exposure to the elements in the parking lot down at the local Quickie Mart.


James Kalm

JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene.  In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

All Issues