A Voyage of Growth and Discovery + "1969"
The shadow of the 60s looms over two shows in Queens.
Mon Nov 2 2009
A Voyage of Growth and Discovery; Photographs: Courtesy of SculptureCenter
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>0/5
SculptureCenter, through Nov 30
P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, through Apr 5
Recently, I attended a performance by the Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey, a lecture cum light show called The Long Tail. The title referred to a concept put forth by Chris Anderson in Wired magazine about how the Internet caters to an infinite variety of niche tastes, which Leckey used as a point of departure for an extended meditation on...well, I’m not sure, exactly. He started out by discussing the very first TV broadcast, then wound up talking about the rage for “cybernetic thinking” four decades ago, which, he added, presaged the coming of the Internet. At that point, the evening devolved into a hot psychedelic mess of smoke machines, strobes and reverb audio. The 1960s may be dead and gone, I thought, but they’re far from buried.
With all due respect to Mad Men’s Kennedy-era milieu, it is that decade’s end that continues to stalk the social landscape like a zombie, especially in the art world: Artists of the period are objects of an almost necrophilic veneration (worshipped as “the greatest generation,” per Jerry Saltz), while their styles are endlessly recycled by art-school grads. Besides falling into the worst sort of academic tropism, this trend reflects a defeatist mentality, a sense that figures like Robert Smithson can never be topped, so why bother to try? Not surprisingly, this attitude is laced with resentment as well as admiration—a love/hate ambivalence that arguably underlies two exhibitions in Queens: Mike Kelley and Michael Smith’s A Voyage of Growth and Discovery at SculptureCenter and “1969” at P.S.1. Each suggests that the ’60s have become more of an albatross than an inspiration—and that maybe it’s time to move on.
Kelley and Smith combine video and sculpture to take aim at Burning Man, the annual gathering in Nevada where weekend rebels reenact the let-it-all-hang-out ethos of the Woodstock nation. (Actually, Burning Man is never mentioned, since the organizers zealously enforce their copyright over the name.) The action centers around Smith’s long-standing character, Baby Ikki, an overgrown man-toddler in giant diapers. He wears a white bonnet, and rarely goes anywhere without his pacifier or plush toy frog; he also sports a 5 o’clock shadow and sunglasses.
On a series of large video screens, we see him wander through the festival and across a vast desert landscape, taking in, but barely comprehending, such sights as a gigantic flame-throwing penis, a tent full of vampire goth chicks and a strange procession of masked figures emerging out of a dust storm. He points and gesticulates in typical baby fashion—an everytyke representative of an America in thrall to late capitalism’s sensory overloads. As if to underscore the point, the gallery is populated by jungle-gym sculptures, festooned with Kelley’s signature stuffed animals. Presiding over it all is a 30-foot-high welded-junk effigy of the Baby, pointing skyward like some demented version of a Lenin statue.
Kelley, whose work often deals with his Catholic upbringing, imposes a fairly rigid moral scheme on the proceedings, with themes of heaven and hell, damnation and salvation, percolating through the filmed sequences. But the thrust of the work is historical, linking the orgiastic excesses of Burning Man to their origins in ’60s performance and site-specific art. Interestingly, it’s a piece in “1969” by Walter De Maria, one of the pioneers of the Earthwork form, that makes this relationship clear: In Hardcore, a camera pans around the empty Black Rock Desert in Nevada—the exact spot where Burning Man takes place every year.
De Maria’s work, like all of those in the exhibition, was acquired by MoMA in the titular year. Basically a collection show, “1969” includes contributors expected (Minimalist Carl Andre) and the less so (color-field Abstractionist Helen Frankenthaler). There’s also a series of commentary “interventions” by young artists, most notably collaborative group the Bruce High Quality Foundation. In their most inspired effort, the collective rather obtrusively installs an old shop vac with a video loudly playing Billy Joel Boomer-nostalgia anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” in a gallery with Bruce Nauman’s grainy black-and-white video Pulling Mouth (a close-up of the artist’s face as he does just that) and Richard Avedon’s iconic portrait of Warhol’s bullet-scarred torso—a memento of Valerie Solanas’s attempt on Andy’s life.
The tone of this juxtaposition—at once caustic and depressing—is repeated throughout an installation that seems maximized to instill a sense of claustrophobia and exhausted possibilities, nowhere more so than in a Philip Guston canvas of a cartoony brick wall. It’s the perfect coda to a survey that presents the ’60s as a dead end: A cultural cul-de-sac that we’ve yet to escape.
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