BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 01 NOV 09
Featured in
Issue 127

So it Goes

Looking for art that reflects these troubled times

BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 01 NOV 09

What did Karl Marx say about an old world dying and the new one not yet ready to be born? Well, whatever he said, the state of exhaustion combined with anxious anticipation in which we find ourselves has that nerve-wracking quality, but minus any clear indication of what the ‘world historical’ significance of the limbo we inhabit might be, or much promise that what comes next will resolve the ‘contradictions of Late Capital’, as Neo-Marxists persist in believing.

Basically we are sweating out a world-historical hangover with no hope that new intoxications will ease the headache or make the days ahead brighter. Indeed, they will just make our stomachs queasier and our heads throb more. In politics as in culture we need a 12-step programme, whereby we learn to accept the things we cannot change, to change the things we can, and to seek the wisdom to tell the difference. I have cribbed that ‘serenity prayer’ from Kurt Vonnegut’s whimsical 1969 anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five where it appears elegantly lettered between two breasts cartooned by the bibulous, dyspeptic author/artist. Vonnegut is out of fashion now, but for a variety of reasons has been on my mind lately.

One is that I read him in the late 1960s and early 1970s when both the present and the future seemed pretty bleak, and his brand of gallows humour was cheering because his message was that things would only get worse so one might as well savour the absurdity of it all. Vonnegut’s ‘Hey ho, so it goes’ cynicism is a cheap pick-me-up if you haven’t swallowed the dregs. But Vonnegut had drunk deep as a P.O.W. in Dresden when the Royal Air Force dumped everything it had on the city and on him. When his book came out, I was just getting my first taste of them as the Vietnam War ground on and my draft number rose in the lottery. (A year after my student deferment ran out, I was saved by the bell – that is by the 1973 Paris Peace Accords.)

Currently, wars are fought with a ‘volunteer’ army primarily recruited from the poor rather than with draftees called from all social strata. And once again they are, as Pete Seeger sang in 1967, ‘waist-deep in the big muddy’ looking for a way out, though since they’re on the Middle Eastern front, mud has changed to sand and rock. On bad days I wander the New York galleries hoping that someone’s work will reflect our malaise but up the ante artistically and intellectually even at the cost of heightening our unease. 

So in early September I pointed my nose toward Chelsea to see what this sobering season had to offer and walked into a giddy block party where the denizens of the art world mingled with those of New York Fashion Week. Galleries were ablaze with light, thronged with people and full of glossy new work desperate for attention. On 24th Street, however, one gallery, Fredericks & Freiser, was totally blacked out by heavy curtains. Behind them were two screens on which I found exactly what I was looking for. The show consisted of a pair of black and white videos – Sadie, the Saddest Sadist and The Queen’s English (both 2009) – in which the artist, Mary Reid Kelley, appears costumed as a nurse, a munitions factory worker and a sailor from World War I and recites patriotic poetry in front of hand-drawn sets and animated backgrounds.

These cartoon/Cubist décors are a synthesis of Robert Crumb and Fernand Léger – who, while a soldier in the trenches, rhapsodized over the sun’s gleam on the barrel of a cannon – and the poetry is punning, doggerel variants on Rupert Brooke and other doomed lyricists of the ‘War to End All Wars’. The rest is all Kelley, who, in the guise of a chipper vaudevillian, briskly, wittily, bitterly projects our current multi-fronted conflict and the sexual politics of warfare back in time so that its rat-a-tat-tat anachronisms and ironies ricochet around the viewer. That Kelley’s work is nevertheless wholly of its time and place is plain from its barbed self-consciousness. The artist’s script is replete with defiant declarations – ‘I want to be a modern girl / I don’t care if you approve’ – and sly jabs at the theoretical underpinnings of her artfully contradictory work: ‘I’ve read the whole library / Since I’m verbally inclined / I judge books under their covers / And I love the ones that rhyme!’

Throughout is evidence that when ‘global’ Postmodernism seeps into American soil, its worst academic toxins are filtered out while the remaining compounds enter into solution with groundwaters that alter their character and effects, much as orthodox Surrealism was diluted but also metabolically transformed on contact with our native weirdness. The chemists of that gradual process ranged from H.C. Westermann – a disabused veteran of the ‘last good war’ – to Mike Kelley, debunker of the counterculture. Another Kelley seems to have synthesized the homeopathic antidote for our present self-poisoning. She is one to watch.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.