Art Yuppies Strut Their Stuff in P.S. 1's
"Greater New York" Exhibition and
MoMA Gets the Pick of the Litter

Not long ago we saw an exhibition at Center Gallery, Fordham University, Lincoln Center, by a young artist named Meghan Mullaney. The paintings were acrylics on small plexiglass panels of fragmented human figures and cartoon animals in flat bright colors. They belonged to a familiar genre of coyly obscure narrative art already well represented by Amy Cutler, Shahzia Sikander and others­­ which is to say they were nothing really new or special.  But the title of the show, "My First Paintings," seemed a stroke of genius. It was not at all naive or self-effacing, as one unfamiliar with the direction that much recent art has taken might  think. Instead, it was cunningly disingenuous, showing a sophisticated grasp of calculated callowness as a post-postmodern  (if one may coin a term whose time seems to have come) success strategy.

However, Ms. Mullaney miscalculated in one important regard by not bypassing her college gallery altogether and submitting her freshman project to "Greater New York  2005," which continues at MoMA's Long Island City satellite, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, through September 26. For it is in this follow-up to the first "Greater New York" show in 2000, which launched several bankable reputations, that The New Callowness truly comes into its own. Featuring 167 artists, most in their twenties and thirties, some barely out of school, the exhibition sprinkles a handful of already well-known names such as the aforementioned Amy Cutler, Wangechi Mutu, and Guy Ben-Ner, among a horde of hopefuls whose inclusion now gives them a very good chance of becoming the next wave of hot new art stars.

A big red municipal structure that takes up a whole block in an area of industrial blight, small residential dwellings, Pentecostal churches, and mom and pop bodegas, P.S. 1 actually used to be a public school. A photograph of its 1947 graduating class sits behind the lobby reception desk and the school atmosphere persists rather eerily in its long, narrow halls, still painted the drab institutional green that those of us who attended such thinly disguised urban penal institutions remember all too well. Glancing out one of the windows in the stairwell we noticed what appeared to be a drug deal going down right across the street, which added further to the Blackboard Jungle ambiance. Even the silhouetted figures and tree-limbs that flow from the walls up onto the ceiling in the stairwell look like out of season high school Halloween decorations; except, rather than being cut from black construction paper, they're a tossed-off site specific installation called "In the Wood" by Ernesto Caivano, whose much more accomplished ink drawings on paper were featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial.

In keeping with the new curatorial style of sensory saturation, the artworks at P.S. 1 even follow you into the lavatory, where there's a video installation with loud, discordant punk music so annoying that I concluded my business there as promptly as possible without bothering to get the perpetrator's name. Stuck in corners of the long, green, deja-vu-all-over-again hallways and suddenly turning up on the windowsills like those rubber novelty store vomit puddles that somebody used to put here and there in my old Lower East Side alma mater Seward Park High School, were several odd little configurations of molded glass, feathers, and corn-syrup by someone with an apparently similar sense of humor named Bethany Bristow. Such oddly plopped pieces seem to be a new sculptural tendency also evident in the work of Michael Mahalchick whose woolen sock-puppet soft sculpture "The Clown" I initially mistook for an article of clothing someone had dropped in a corner of one of the galleries.

Every high school seems to have one creepy janitor about whom the kids love to fantasize and spread rumors that he tries to lure the girls­­or boys, for that matter­­ down to his lair in the maintenance cellar. At P.S. 1, his effigy lurks down there in a corner of the building's ancient, musty-smelling cellar, past the boiler, squatting on the cement floor under the pipes, surrounded by old bird cages filled with empty pint wine bottles. A lifelike but ghostly white figure wearing a weird jumpsuit covered with long white fur, he is the centerpiece of an on-site installation by Marc Swanson called "Killing Moon 3."

Installations featuring grotesque figures straight out of horror movies seem to be an emerging tendency among several artists in this show. You climb a flight of stairs to peer down into "The Pit," in
Will Ryman's piece, at a crowd of lifesize papier mache mutants wearing real sneakers who stare back imploringly, as if to say, "Get us out of here!" In another sprawling room-size installation by Peter Caine called "Overseer," you are confronted by a cottony arctic wilderness where whole families of furry white anthropomorphic creatures and their reindeer-like pets wiggle kinetically while flashing lights enhance the sensation of having stumbled into some kind of funny/scary polar nightmare.

By contrast, Saya Woolfalk's installation seems like a slapstick tropical vacation. Brightly colored floppy fabric sculptures, surrounded by stylized palm trees, become costumes for manic dancing to tribal drums in an accompanying video. But then you enter another room (these former classrooms are just the right size for assailing the visitor with serial installations) and you are jolted back to down post-911 reality by Nicola Lopez's floor-to-ceiling ink on paper explosions and tiny circling helicopters, ironically titled "A Promising Tomorrow." And then there's "The Epic Town," a real monstrosity of an installation by Ian Burns, made from huge wooden structures and winding mazes of metal pipe. It suggests nothing so much as the bare skeleton of a vast electric train set-up and seems to attest only to the lengths of wasted effort some desperately ambitious artists will go to in order to create something ungainly and monumentally useless.

At least Kate Gilmore's video of herself  trying to extricate her foot from a can of plaster was amusing in a dumb, Three Stooges kind of way; Karyn Olivier's untitled sculpture of a coffee table seemingly impaled on a square column jutting from the ceiling was a real head-scratcher; and Valerie Hegarty's site-specific simulation of a  tree breaking through the wall in the hallway, shedding shards of wallpaper like institutional green leaves, was oddly lyrical.

As for painting, no one in this exhibition is "reviving" it, no matter how many of those articles slick mass circulation magazines run from time to time with pictures of fresh-faced kids, dressed like the dummies in the window of The Gap, who are supposed to be breathing new life into it. Painting does not need artificial respiration from recent art school grads, nor from feature writers in search of novelty, thank you very much. It goes on and on, century after century, regardless of the whims of the market or the cluelessness of the critical establishment. There will always be people fascinated with putting paint on canvas no matter what other people are doing with various newer, more technologically trendy media. And some of them are doing it very well at P.S. 1.

Dana Schutz is one example. There's already a lot of buzz about her, because although she only recently graduated from Columbia, her last solo show at Zach Feur Gallery sold out, she's been collected by both Saachi and the Guggenheim, and she reportedly has a waiting list of wealthy collectors eager to buy anything she cares to paint next. Obviously, like all instant art stars, Schutz is grossly overrated, and needless to say, it's grossly unfair, given all the just-as-good or better older artists who've been paying dues for years and are still scuffling. But that's not Schutz's fault and certainly shouldn't blind anyone to the fact that her ten by fourteen foot oil on canvas of a Frankensteinian autopsy in progress, witnessed by an audience whose faces register emotions ranging from nausea to ghoulish fascination, is a tour de force of a certain sort.

Of course, one could carp that Schutz has a way of stylizing her figures that harks back to Ruth Gikow, the late social realist painter wife of the better known social realist Jack Levine­­a mode which would have been considered passe a long time ago. But Schutz's slightly queasy sensibility, vibrant palette of hot hues, and tactile painterly engagement make her work more than microwaved social realism. Certainly it has more to offer than the hammy heroics of Julian Schnabel and the kinky Academicism of Eric Fischl, among a previous generation of artists who were once hyped as painting's saviors.

Another good painter, nowhere near as well known as Schutz but equally promising in a less showy way, is Daniel Hesidence, whose group of small, grotesque heads in oil on board make him sort of an anti-Elizabeth Peyton. Which is to say, the people he paints are as ugly as Peyton's are pretty, yet he shares with the better known art star a succulent way with oil glazes and a genuine involvement  with his subject matter that makes his heads resonate. In any case, that Hesidence has found a way to capture something truly harrowing about the human condition without imitating Francis Bacon certainly makes him some kind of an original.

Cheyney Thompson's life-size oil on canvas of a newsstand, with every candy bar, magazine, and Lotto sign evoked in great detail was interesting as a kind of tromp-l'oeil painter's take on installation, and others, too, put a bright new spin on painting: Garth Weiser with deliciously confectionery gelato-like pink and purple oil impastos troweled onto a large canvas with a palette knife in a pyramidal abstract color construction; Ena Swansea with a weird image of a crouching red devil in Clark Kent hornrims, juicily conjured on a swirling gray ground; Andrzej Zielinski with semi-abstract oils of computers, their textures built up in a manner reminiscent of Nicholas De Stael, as if to demonstrate a tactile sensuousness and hand-made vitality that still eludes technology.

Jules de Balincourt, on the other hand, seems overrated to a puzzling degree, given the triteness of his paintings, which look like overblown panels from a bad graphic novel with their stiff little figures inhabiting grim urban vistas. Nor does his work get any more interesting when he departs from his narrative mode in one picture to map U.S. world dominance and oil interests in an obvious manner that looks like an amateur hybrid of Jasper Johns's maps and that already much-imitated Saul Steinberg poster of New York City upstaging the rest of the country. For that matter, isn't it time for a merciful moratorium on bad imitations of Johns that use his familiar motifs to make sophomoric statements about rampant militarism or consumerism, such as Phil Frost's equally obvious collage painting of a flag plastered with S&H stamps?

An awkward term we've been hearing recently is "almost outsider," to designate those schooled artists who take inspiration from the posthumous popularity of Henry Darger and other unschooled isolates and idiot savants. Elif Uras' faux primitive oil of a family of hunters in their gun and game decorated den, with all manner of carnage transpiring outside the picture window, could belong to this category, as could Dasha Shishkin's horror vacua drawings of intricate feline orgies, and Mika Rottenberg's pencil doodles of childlike figures in office cubicles. But none of them possesses anywhere near the edgy energy that we see in the work of authentic outsiders whose free ranging superegos are not reined in by M.F.A. selfconsciousness. That said, without seeming to strive for an overtly outsiderish effect, Min Kim does achieve a Darger-like oddness in "Deliberately blinding the evidence of distance-always," her large, irregularly shaped work in graphite, color pencil, gouache and acrylic on paper, with its cut-out figure and exotic foliage layered like a blown-up version of one of those Hallmark pop-out greeting cards.

Often, video art can be an intrusive presence in shows such as this one, either obnoxiously loud and transgressive or simply silly like Meredith Danluck"s video of a  grunting tapdance by a bodacious woman in a tux,"Superbad," a schoolgirlish sendup of gender roles. The Israeli video artist Guy Ben-Ner, however, justifies all the buzz about him with "Elia ­ A Story of an Ostrich Chick." Ben-Ner, who will represent Israel at this summer"s Venice Biennial, enlisted his wife and children to manipulate animal puppets which are juxtaposed with a real forest setting and voiceover narration. The funny family effort simultaneously spoofs the Disney true wildlife film genre and tells an affectingly sentimental children's story.

Much-hyped Goth guy Banks Violette's whole roomful of glossy black and chrome hardware flooded with fluorescent light is an overblown monstrosity.Talk about your instant art stars: this former tattoo artist (another Columbia alumnae) is all of 31 years old and presently having his first solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Eagerly impressionable, as always, in its role as cultural arbiter, the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section recently ran a breathless feature on Violette's connection to "black metal," a genre of rock music rampant in Norway and supposedly saturated in sinister death obsession and stagy Satanism. But even with names like "Hate Them" and "Anthem (to future suicide)," Violette's glitzy pieces come off as boringly benign as pseudo-sado-masochistic furniture design.

By contrast, Tobias Putrih's heroic  torso-like forms, made with layered cardboard, are genuinely beautiful, with light playing through their corrugated crevices, making them at once monumental and ethereal. Then there are the lifesize paper figures of Ryan Johnson, with their slacker outfits and every minute bit of stubble painstakingly in place; Matthew Day Jackson's vast mixed media replica of a Viking burial ship cleverly fitted with a Mondrian sail; and Hope Atherton's "Brown Unicorn," a mythical beast made from lambskin, felt, and leather, hanging limply by a nail from the wall like the crucified carcass of New Age whimsy. Utterly disappointing, after all the hype and considering that MoMA has already purchased one of her works, is Wangechi Mutu's sprawling collage installation, with its ponderous title, suspended bottles, and butterflies fashioned from spread porn-photo legs.

Another much buzzed-about artist, Carol Bove, personified the "Duh" mentality when she was recently quoted as saying, "When I graduated from NYU, I just wanted to draw pretty girls. But then I thought, that is so dumb!" One of Bove's pretty girl drawings, in fact, made it onto the cover of Artforum, possibly proving that she wasn't nearly as dumb as the magazine's editors. At P.S. 1, however, Bove is represented by an installation of three prefab shelves of paperback books from the 1960s. Titled "Adventures in Poetry," the piece plays off the conventions of still life painting and sculpture with a deadpan insouciance that is also quite dumb, when one comes to think of it. But like the "Bad Painting" that enjoyed a brief vogue in the late seventies, "Dumb" can be good, right?

Although P.S. 1's chief curator Klaus Biesenbach is credited in the press release as "the leading force behind this exhibition," credit is also given to a co-curatorial team from the Museum of Modern Art consisting of Ann Temkin, curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, and Glenn D. Lowry, the museum's director. Obviously, MoMA will get the pick of the litter when it comes to selecting promising new contenders, either to include in future shows or add to its permanent collection. So how could such a show not suggest a climate of art-yuppyism­­especially since, as has been pointed out elsewhere, so many of the participants are graduates of prestigious and expensive art schools such as Yale and Columbia?

That the latter school alone boasts 28 exhibitors in "Greater New York" suggests  that class, even more than race, sex, or ageism, may be the biggest bastion of inequity in an art scene where even the scruffy, politically progressive young are implicated in preserving the status quo.

(Is it even possible anymore for someone of what used to be called humble origins to get a fair shake in shows such as this ­­ or have all the prestigious, career-making exhibitions gone the way of affordable housing and the criminal injustice system?)

None of which is meant to suggest that "Greater New York 2005" is not worth a visit. It most certainly is, because there are some very worthy works of art to be seen there, and others that, while less worthy, illustrate the zeitgeist in often enlightening ways.  

­­Ed McCormack

(Note: P.S. 1 is at 22-25 Jackson Avenue, at 46th Avenue, in Long Island City, Queens. TEL: 718-784-2084. wwww.psl.org.)

All images courtesy of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center