Incipient culture wars, a repressive right-wing government, the proud ostentation of unalloyed greed in public and political life: If that sounds like the immediate future, it’s worth remembering that those things also characterized the 1980s. Back then, a group of young New York artists centered on a few scrappy East Village galleries took the art world by storm by intellectually appraising the underlying causes of those deplorable conditions. Cool, ironic, witty and perhaps too smart for its own good, their work took its cues from the Pictures Generation as well as from Conceptual Art. It found its first flowering outside the city in a 1985 traveling exhibition called “Infotainment.” The timely and ambitious show at Elizabeth Dee Gallery looks back to that moment, assembling some of the original works from “Infotainment,” along with others by an expanded list of artists in the same orbit.
Much of the art has kept its bite, including works by some of the major figures of the movement. Peter Halley’s 1983 Rectangular Cell with Conduit—an early example of a now decades-long series of diagrammatic abstract paintings that imagine the world divided into prisonlike spaces and communicating networks—seems more descriptive than ever. The elaborate structure of Ashley Bickerton’s 1990 wall-mounted sculpture Commercial Piece 3 serves only to protect and present the corporate logos painted on its surface—a snarky, increasingly trenchant critique of art as advertising for moneyed interests.
Themes of the corporate and the carceral, in fact, run throughout the exhibition. In Gretchen Bender’s Wild Dead, a mesmerizing dystopian installation from 1984, animations of the AT&T symbol, among others, gyrate rapidly on four monitors to the sound of video-game shooting and breaking glass. Steven Parrino casts an oversize bondage device as a monochrome painting in Stockade (Existential Trap for Speed Freaks) (1988–91). The security bars of Window Gate (Bob Hope) (1987–88), by Time Out New York’s own Editor-at-Large Howard Halle, bear a cryptic caricature of the retardataire comedian. Works like these not only point to the media and systems of control as issues of concern but also demonstrate that many of these artists were acquainted with au courant critical theory such as Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.
Others take on consumerism or the repackaging of emotions as commodities. Exhibiting a vertical strip of a photographic billboard she found near Times Square, Jennifer Bolande allows the mountain sunset of 1987’s Cascade to puddle on the floor, its image becoming abject object, its grandeur reducing to sales technique. And amid the exhibition’s welcome rediscoveries, Thomas Lawson’s 1981 painting Don’t Hit Her Again offers a grim warning: Depicting a winsome toddler with a black eye, derived from a tabloid photo, it cautions us about the damage that cruelty and violence can wreak upon the future.