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According to the art of the moment, the end of the world should arrive any day now. This season in Chelsea, show after show has foretold all sorts of doom: political, ecological, environmental, industrial, post-industrial, and more.
The season’s discontent is not generalist and it has, surprisingly, avoided agitprop of the sort the artists often express five years into the term of a President that they don’t like.
The place to start our journey through Chelsea’s winter is at Paula Cooper Gallery, where Hans Haacke’s art still has the political zeal that got him kicked out of the Guggenheim almost 35 years ago. Central to Haacke’s exhibition is an impossibly large section of the American flag. The only section of the flag on display is the white-on-blue star field, and it is torn almost in two, the division of the 50 stars serving as a metaphor for red state-blue state, with-us-or-against-us, pro-choice or pro-life, Litmus Test America. (The flag’s 13 red-and-white stripes are nowhere to be found. Is Haacke seems to be saying that the fundamental principles on which 13 states formed the nation are still intact, if momentarily hidden or forgotten.)
Haacke’s metaphor is almost too easy, but it still seems right. It updates Jasper Johns’ flags, David Hammons’ African-American Flag, even Leger’s fascinating, grateful American flag from his underrated Man with Hat (1920). The Haacke is surrounded by other emblems of a crumbling society. Most of them would mostly appeal to the Ann Coulter v. Michael Moore set – and are equally dismissible. (Witness: A dot-matrix computer printer, spewing out news-wire copy about American disasters onto a roll of paper, captures the never-ending cycle of bad news in a visually pungent way. The paper piles up.)
In front of the torn starfield, Haacke has placed a small orange tree. It is bent, beaten down as if it had been out in the wind for a while. But it’s still green, it still bears fruit, and it is still standing. (Related: Nathaniel Stern.)
Few of the other artists showing in Chelsea this season bother with optimism the way Haacke does. (They’re younger, they’ll learn.) At Bellwether two shows pointed toward ecological devastation. In Adam Cvijanovic’s occasionally sloppy but gripping show, a tornadic force of some sort rips through apart strip-mall America.
In Bellwether’s next show, Marc Swanson presented a post-apocalyptic forest in which someone seems to be living amidst six-pack yokes, beer bottle-filled bird cages, randomly strung pennants (no American flags here), and garbage. Swanson gives us none of the romantic forest, the place where Shakespeare sent lovers to discover magic and each other. This is forest as after-the-disaster hell. (Related: From the Floor, Phantastic.)
At Elizabeth Dee, Josephine Meckseper creates a storefront wherein capitalism has broken down and gone out of business. The premise is panicky, the execution is a little too precious, and the whole idea of the show is rooted in the breakdown of the only system that will certainly survive the present condition (the danger is capitalism run amok, Russia style, not the death of the system), but somehow it works. (Related: James Wagner, with pix.)
Chris Doyle gives us a similar whiff of the reactionary at Jessica Murray Projects. Doyle has constructed a giant eagle out of cheap wood and fluorescent light tubes. It seems to be swooping down toward us, its talons open. Is Doyle’s eagle a symbol of freedom or is it attacking us? Unfortunately Doyle didn’t trust the power of his visual, and a goofy installation in the back of the gallery extends his point too far: The eagle, lit up, has been turned into a giant LCD-screen belt buckle. In case you still don’t get the W’ian allusion, the belt is stamped “Max Lang, Houston, Texas.” (Related: Amp power, and Whimpering like a little girl, where you’ll need to scroll down a frame or two in the video window.)
Plenty of other shows this season have taken on similar themes: At Paula Cooper, Sam Durant proposed a re-conceptualizing of DC’s monuments, Nick Lowe gave us penciled-in dystopia (strangely, not on John Connelly Presents‘ website), Ian Burns made a bid for best-show-of-season by presenting modern geopolitics as a crazy series of amuseument park rides at Spencer Brownstone, and at Charles Cowles, Edward Burtynsky photographed effecient, union-free manufacturing scenes from China.
In this environment eye candy doesn’t stand a chance. Tim Bavington’s new paintings at Jack Shainman are as delicious as ever, especially the parallelograms which extend Bavington’s language a bit. But at Pace, John Chamberlain is still making crushed-stuff sculptures, but in veering off into making hunksa metal into curlicues he left me shaking my head. One of his structures even looks like a shuttlecock. (Thanks Claes & Coosje.) LA Wal-Martist Matt Johnson, the inexplicable posterchild of the Hammer’s Thing show, showed some cute but vapid tricks at Taxter & Spengemann. Bill Viola looks stuck in a cliched Tristan rut at James Cohan, showing studies/rejects/etc. from his opera accompaniment at James Cohan.
My two favorite shows were Jessica Rohrer’s paintings at PPOW and Ryan McGiness’ design-infused decorative modern-life upchucks at Danziger Projects. Rohrer is updating the heyday-of-industry-loving precisionism of Sheeler and Demuth and placing it in suburban America. The glimpses of the natural world in the windows of her buildings (see the trees there on the right?) hint at the world we’ve abandoned. McGinness is easier, poppier than Julie Mehretu or Benjamin Edwards, but that’s OK. Like them he creates engaging visual puzzles for us to get lost in, almost Choose Your Own Adventure paintings. (Related: Rose-Colored Glasses, a personal moment from McGinness’ previous life from BlogChelsea, SuicideGirl Raven, Thuggery & Skullduggery.)
Meanwhile, as artists show us our worst fears, as they show us how relevant creative people are, everyone I know is discussing the feverish state of the art market. I go through cycles when I’m sucked in too: “The market reigns at the expense of everything else,” I wrote in one particularly overheated moment. “The art world has never been so flush with money,” Jerry Saltz wrote in his annual Babylon column.
There’s certainly some truth in all this. Galleries are flourishing. Dealers converge on grad student studios. MoMA has long had a flip attitude toward engaging the art market through deaccessioning, but this season it has been joined by LACMA and even, as first reported here, by Harvard. (MoMA is the seller of the Avery at left.)
Naturally all of this talk of market influence has led to a certain fear of market influence. “There is a jittery feeling that we are heading for something like the slump that hit the once dominant French art market in the fifties, in the decline of the Ecole de Paris,” Robert Hughes wrote. In 1984.
Oh. Fortunately lots of artists seem to have got the moment just about right.