New York's new year opened to an onslaught of variously configured survey exhibitions ranging from the ubiquitous hohum presentations of gallery artists, to more ambitious and less predictable efforts. Two of the largest and most spectacular groups this season, I Am the Enunciator curated by Christian Leigh at Thread Waxing Space and Fever curated by Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberman at Exit Art/The First World, offer significant points of departure on the relevance of the group show.
For the past few years Christian Leigh has been constructing a curatorial persona around Alfred Hitchcock, with big shows that share titles, and little else, with the director's movies. In this latest extravaganza, of over a hundred paintings, sculptures, videos and films, the show's title is taken from a theory put forward by Raymond Bellhour that analyses Hitchcock's work according to his implication in a masculine-biased perspective. The idea of the 'male gaze' occupies a central place in contemporary discussions of art and film; and Hitchcock has often served as a site for many feminist-influenced theorists, including Laura Mulvey, Victor Burgin and Tania Modleski. Aware of all of this, and hoping to gain from it, the press release for I Am the Enunciator announces that: 'a new voice can be created out of many familiar voices. This new voice challenges the status quo of traditional gender roles, sexual preferences, and patriarchal order.' Funny how this so-called 'new voice' sounds just like the old one.
The individual works appear to have been chosen according to their attempts to establish meanings contained by ideas of masculinity, femininity and sexuality, but in the context of this flea-market cum circus-installation, all difference is rendered into sameness. There are so many canvases lining the walls, so many objects crowding the floor, and so much sound emanating from so many monitors that I Am the Enunciator produces an indecipherable noise rather than a distinct voice. And by crowding Mary Kelly with Richard Prince, situating Millie Wilson under appropriated porn, juxtaposing Lutz Bacher and Mel Ramos, throwing Jean-Michel Basquiat alongside any old canvases, the show falsely suggests that these artists are all working within and for the same interests. They are not. In blurring distinctions, the show renders them invisible; by doing so, it effectively strips away all criticality. I Am the Enunciator looks as if it were installed under the ego of a Jan Hoet according to the process of Action Painting. Maybe that's what Psycho is really about.
I Am the Enunciator includes many of the most commercially successful New York artists of the last decade, including Jeff Koons, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel. Fever, on the other hand, is devoted to work by 47 young New York artists, many of whom have never shown before. Perhaps the most notable and somewhat ironic distinction between the two shows is how much more respect Fever gives its 'unknowns' and their art.
But Exit Art has always played a role different from that of most New York galleries. Since opening as a nonprofit organisation in 1982, Exit Art has presented a number of influential solo shows of artists such as David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Archie Rand, David Wojnarowicz, Jimmie Durham and Nancy Grossman. While their previous exhibitions have tended to be distinguished by a commitment to re-evaluating mid-career artists, Fever seems to indicate a decision to expand the Exit program towards emerging artists. With 17,000 square feet in a new space that also houses a café and will eventually include a theatre and a gallery for fashion, it's possible, if not inevitable, that Exit Art/The First World will become the leading alternative space in New York in the 90s.
The 200 pieces by 47 artists, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, are thoughtfully installed throughout the expansive new gallery. Curated by Exit Art founders and co-directors Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberman, Fever is a loose survey of art that is rowdy, unpolished, defiant and frequently derivative - in other words, young. Much of the work exhibits two qualities common to young art of any generation: a tendency toward self-involvement and a propensity to use inexpensive and found material. And social concerns - sexism, racism, homelessness, pollution, AIDS - are visible.
Annetta Kapon has lined the hallway to the women's room with a grid of bathroom scales, suggesting the tyranny of both conventional femininity and Carl Andre. Lynne Yamamoto presents a strand of hair locked within an old washing machine wringer. In a dictionary placed on the floor, Gregory Green planted a bomb. In his 'paintings', Fred Tomaselli draws lines with aspirin tablets. A cage-like cell by Michael Yue Tong holds family snapshots from China's Cultural Revolution and a piece by Andrew Castrucci is composed of bottled urine that refers to the artist's life in a squat on the Lower East Side.
The human body is a central motif of Fever. The artists represented seem to have been most influenced by Kiki Smith, Robert Gober, Rona Ponick and other body-based strategies than by work less derived from the figure or figuration. And in contrast to the wild and manufactured colours and synthetic materials that dominated New York art of the 80s, Fever art tends toward wood, unpolished metals and other 'natural' hues. Whether or not this is the look of young New York art or only the eye of the new Exit Art/The First World remains to be seen.