In an essay accompanying her influential ‘Drawing Now’ show at MoMA, New York, in 2002 Carnegie Museum of Art curator Laura Hoptman argued convincingly that much recent art was marked by a rekindled imaginative rapport with history and culture at large, characterized by both Pop inventiveness and genre-bending narrative and draughtsmanship. New art was less beholden to weighty conceptual concerns or processes than it was gripped by an almost skittish referential wonder about the look and visual mechanics of things, about melting-pot imagery and personal Postmodern liberties being taken.
Two years on, in her opening remarks for the 2004 Carnegie International, Hoptman made rather starker claims, stating that the ‘impulse towards the ethical is the primary engine driving art of the last decade’ while elsewhere floating the uncharacteristically blunt and utilitarian position that art is ‘a vehicle through which to confront pressing but unanswerable questions’ – the age-old metaphysical ‘Ultimates’, as the exhibition literature repeatedly refers to them. From this perspective the vanguard is no longer concerned with the ‘micro’ – the autobiographical or quixotically personal or whimsically digressive – as might have been the case in various eddies of ‘Drawing Now’; it’s now all about deeply ‘macrocosmic issues’.
Although mounted in 2002, it could be argued that ‘Drawing Now’ belonged to what neo-conservative politicians love to call a lingering ‘pre-9/11 mindset’, and that in the intervening 24 months History with a capital H has stepped in and begun to act on everyone everywhere and on a grandly tragic scale. (The exhibition catalogue is peppered with phrases such as ‘the dire turn of events of the recent past’.) The problem that arises is that, while we are unquestionably doomed to ‘live in interesting times’, little of this unequivocal and portentous post-11 September thesis is borne out with any similar consistency in the work of the 38 selected artists and the over 200 works on view, which could just have reasonably been brought together under any number of less epic theoretical umbrellas. One has to wonder, for example, what someone such as the master caricaturist of late 20th-century American workaday misery, mediocrity and lust Robert Crumb, included here in an generously installed reading-room of sorts, makes of being shanghaied into a poker-faced quest for ‘the Ultimates’. The same goes for artists as diverse as Eva Rothschild, Jim Lambie, Anne Chu, the Japanese Superflat devotee Chiho Aoshima and the LA painter Mark Grotjahn, whose high-gloss geometric abstractions slyly undermine the solemnly mystical absolutism of mid-century Modernism that they at first seem to emulate.
Conversely, manufactured grandiosity – epitomized
here by Ugo Rondinone’s Roundelay (2003), a hexagonal video installation showing two stylishly morose young hipsters separately bumming around Parisian streets backed by a generic Philip Glass score – can only help to erode whatever remains of the barrier between actual emotional conviction and slick advertisements for it. With minimal adjustment the unintentionally comical piece could easily have functioned as a TV spot for Gucci or Prada. Similarly, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, whose photographs of anonymous office workers in Times Square were steeped in an unsentimental elegiacism that would have served this exhibition’s concerns well, is instead represented here by the more calculatedly titillating chiaroscuro images of strip club pole-dancers.
As with any thematically framed survey, jury-rigged meaning can be worse than no meaning at all, and glossing over the inevitable contradictions can make organizing principles that are basically sound on paper look in practice like trying to herd cats. But whatever the shortfalls of its calibrated wishful thinking, this sprawling show (and its almost embarrassingly sumptuous catalogue) accurately, if not entirely surprisingly, mirrored much current art-making, with enough pockets of inspired thinking and simple pleasure to keep things from stalling completely. And as with ‘Drawing Now’, Hoptman’s selection of artists is as always solid and ever respectful (every artist gets
a room to him/herself).
Bringing together Crumb (the creator of ‘Fritz the Cat’ having been thoroughly absorbed into the high art canon whether he likes it or not) and the sculptor Kathy Butterly, for example, was one stroke of quiet brilliance, with Butterly’s squishy, abstractly corpulent, teapot-scaled ceramics expressing in glazed clay much of the fleshy, scatological vulgarity that Crumb can pull off with a pen on paper towel. Likewise, letting artist Peter Doig duke it out on painterly grounds with the Swedish painter Mamma Andersson, whose soft-focus angst and neo-Munchian canvases quote everything from Monet to Ingmar Bergman set-pieces to Doig himself, proved a congenial showdown.
Handing over certain of the Carnegie Museum’s pompous Neo-classical spaces or odd non-art cul-de-sacs to artists who knew what to do with them also produced some memorable moments. Maurizio Cattelan nimbly turned a small ornately vaulted off-limits chamber known as the ‘Founders’ Room’ into a dimly lit imperial funerary chapel for a lifelike wax sculpture of John F. Kennedy lying in state in an open coffin – Now (2004) – a scene less tragic than creepy. Elsewhere, in the museum’s miniature peep-show-like period rooms, Jeremy Deller inserted tiny flat screens showing videos of war buffs re-enacting famous battles in contemporaneous doll’s-house settings that similarly try and fail to summon the past. Screened nearby in a cramped antique passageway was Paul Chan’s Now Let Us Praise American Leftists (2000), a video loop of continuously morphing facial hair types – ‘Black Panther’, ‘Weatherman’, as if each were available at your local activist barbershop – made using the latest computer imaging software developed for law enforcement agencies. The work, whose title references Walker Evans’ Depression-era photo-essay of America’s weary and forgotten, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), is one of Chan’s finest: nostalgic, sardonic and politically precise at the same time.
Also on the plus side were Harun Farocki’s machine’s-eye view film assemblages of automated warfare and unmanned surveillance, Fernando Bryce’s lovingly rendered ink drawings of old newspaper clippings and outdated ads, John Bock’s hilariously inscrutable bit of Brechtian slapstick filmmaking Meechfieber (2004) – involving tractors, creative uses for liverwurst and barnyard animals, and Rube Goldberg-like science experiments with uncertain outcomes – and an entire hall devoted to the almost completely unknown oeuvre of the Croatian artist Mangelos (1921–1987), whose cryptic tempera text paintings, school lesson books delicately hijacked by Absurdist poetry and drawings, and cursively inscribed desktop globes are a discovery worthy of re-examination.
Several artists appeared to be represented by less than their best efforts. The hard-to-define, take-it-or-leave-it Conceptual work of Trisha Donnelly seemed to get lost in the mix – her projected text Night is Coming (2004) slowly appeared and faded relatively unnoticed over the museum’s grand staircase – while Francis Alÿs’ video of surreptitious street actions, which might have better fleshed out the show’s thesis, was bookmarked by his more slight illustrative drawings and small paintings. Meanwhile the truly overexposed Neo Rauch (who seems to crank out satirical Surrealistic makeovers of Socialist Realism faster than the Soviets ever did) need not have alighted here.
If any one work encapsulated the tricky gap between metaphysical aspirations and ambiguous results, it was Carsten Höller’s specially commissioned Solandra Greenhouse (2004). The mini-conservatory housed the tropical plant Solandra maxima, a flowering vine reputed to exude pheromones and trigger an emotional response akin to falling in love with anyone within photosynthesis range. After ten minutes of expectant loitering and deep breathing, I can vouch that the humid, jungle environment induced a noticeable sensation of sweaty, light-headed nausea. And in the end, that may be close enough.