Roll up! Roll up! See erudite Postmodern weltschmerz hardly distinguishable from real life images! The absence of gravitas was fairly total in 'the americans. new art', and, in a wretched sort of way, fascinating, which was undoubtedly what the curator, Mark Sladen, intended. Most of the 30 artists included in this exhibition are based in New York, a third in LA, a few from elsewhere, but nudged ribs and rolled eyes were driving the thing at such a pace that there was no time for any East Coast/West Coast dick-measuring contests.
Sladen's comment that the exhibition may be the first and last of its kind lent the show a good deal more grandeur than it deserved. He made it sound like F. Scott Fitzgerald noting that the resources of the last two centuries of civilization had been used up just by pulling off World War I. 'People will be more cautious of making work which foregrounds an idea of decadence now', quoth Sladen sombrely.
How a show based on playful, ambiguous comment functions in a culture that has pretty much vitiated and co-opted all artistic rebellion, is a much bigger question, however.
Roe Ethridge's photographic portrait of a bloody neo-party boy, Andrew WK (2000), may be a useful point of departure here. So too was the presence of Irish boy band Westlife, consummate ironists who were the subject of Amy Adler's vast process-based print. The work seemed to be calling out: ingest me! Prove you're consumer enough! It was a challenge of sorts for art-goers whose attention spans have probably withered after years of high-intensity spectating.
Rob Pruitt's glittery pandas have had their dwindling libidos commented on in the Western media to such a point of exhaustion that they must be welcoming the siren call of extinction by now. This is, of course, the same Rob Pruitt whose 1998 Cocaine Buffet was a 30-foot long trail of cocaine laid out in a gallery for the visitors' consumption. Like 'Snapshot', the recent survey show of young East coast artists at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, 'the americans. new art' (all lower-case, which makes it look as if it should have a .com at the end) shared the same puppyish enthusiasm for its touristy selections.
The Barbican's floor plan and the relentlessly cheery quality of the work on display made the show feel like an art fair, particularly on the upper floor, where booths are the norm. Nevertheless the range of careers on display was considerable - from Fred Tomaselli's well-known and gorgeous laminations of resin and pills Gravity's Rainbow (1999) to Rachel Feinstein's Yesterday (2000), a free-standing stage-set-like screen featuring a cartoonish 18th-century couple.
The catalogue essays were set in Ricci Albenda's supremely saccharin font (Albenda bold), which changes colour with each letter; a 'randomised prismatic system' which, according to the catalogue, 'says something about all the information we process these days and how it is banal and beautiful and sublime'. In the same catalogue Bennett Simpson played up to the element of graduate school lingua franca that glues this show together: 'the practical necessities of being an artist; how to get a gallery show, the acquisition of the theoretical knowledge particular to contemporary art's critical self; understanding the importance of Lacan, or the legacy of the Frankfurt school in debates about postmodernism'. No shit that Adorno would have the howling fantods in here, but he might be grimly reassured to see the same pressures of Postmodernist change still intensifying, not diminishing; dependency and conformism.
Only a few works seem part of a larger agenda, let alone a political one. Keith Edmier's fibreglass model of his pregnant mother, Beverly Edmier 1967 (1998), is a portrait of a mother, and a self-portrait by the child, but her pink Chanel suit and bobbed hair evokes an image of Jackie O., or Parker Posey in the same suit in Mark Waters' cult film The House of Yes (1997). Erik Parker's Texecuted (2001) includes the names of all the people executed under George W. Bush while he was governor of Texas. Kara Walker's silhouettes are here too, but small in size and context.
At its best the work in this show mines a deep vein of Ed Ruscha, privatizes the public realm and background radiation of cities and makes them transcendent. Evan Holloway's Gray Scale (2000) and Paul Pfeiffer's The Long Count Rumble in the Jungle (2001) are in this ballpark. But what it means to have a nation-based show about American art in late 2001 is a hellaciously big question, and it wasn't one that was properly addressed here.