Isa Genzken - Nüsschen - Galerie Buchholz - October 28, 2020 - January 30, 2021
Art Club2000 - Selected Works 1992-1999 - Artists Space - October 21, 2020 - January 9, 2021
Jef Geys - No. 83 Montre bracelet transparente or Doorkijkuurwerk (Transparent Wrist Watch or See Through Time Piece) And Other Works - Essex Street - October 21 - November 15, 2020
Many (most?) of the great shows I see aren't contemporary. Often the work is old and being reshown, or it's new work by an old artist who constitutes their own context at this point, like Jasper Johns or Gerhard Richter. This begs the question of whether art really better in the past, which begs other considerations: Are we only seeing the artists that deserve to be remembered, unlike contemporary artists? Are we influenced by the reputations of these artists, that they've become canonical and therefore create a bias towards accepting their work as great? Is it nostalgia, that it's easier to like work that comes from a previous era? That the answer to all these questions is "yes" makes things all the more complicated, and they bear keeping in mind when looking at historical art. In the case of these three exhibitions, however, it feels fair to assert that this work is simply better because they showcase working strategies that are still common now. Technological art, ironic critique art, and social practice art are all prevalent clichés at this point, but in each case these shows work successfully within their respective methodologies. That they do so is not the result of their reputation or any nostalgia but because the content of their work is not preceded by their genre. These works are the product of the artists' ideas and concepts, and whatever formal categories the work can be placed under are secondary. This is in contradistinction to the aestheticized formal branding of much of contemporary art, where one declares their identity as a tech artist, an ironic artist, or a political artist, and such a statement precedes the work itself and presumes to imbue significance by association.
For instance, an artist that uses technology is presented as "investigating technology's influence on contemporary life, etc etc." when in reality they're simply participating in the aesthetic format of "art made with a computer" without any apparent thought or investigation regarding the technology used. Isa Genzken's "Nüsschen" is art made with a computer, but that fact isn't the focus of the work itself. The show centers around a single sculpture that lends the exhibition its name, a pair of connected wooden hyperboloid shapes. The other works are mostly preparatory modeling for that sculpture and others from the series, sketches and modeling printouts. There's also a photograph of an ear. For starters, the work dates from 1980, a period when computer technology was still a fringe interest for specialists, and certainly the IBM-style continuous paper printouts lend the preparatory pieces a retro nostalgia simply due to to the work's age. By the same token, the work's age is instrumental to its quality because few in 1980 would think of making art with computers unless they were actively concerned with the technical possibilities they enable, unlike today where technology has become so pervasive that almost no one at all, let alone artists, can conceive of new horizons for its use. Genzken's use of computer modeling is simple and elegant; I have no idea how the sculpture was made, but it seems safe to assume that carving such a precise shape without computer assistance would be near impossible. She puts the technology in service of her interest in geometric shapes and by those means is able to turn a mathematical model into an existent object, a making-real of the possible that is (still) the crux of art.
Now compare Genzken's realization of pure mathematical forms with Genevieve Goffman's "Here Forever", currently up at Alyssa Davis, which I haven't and won't see in person. 3D prints look better in photos anyways, which already practically says it all. In spite of whatever claims the press release may make asserting that miniatures constitute a rupture in our experience of temporality, these "micro-architectures assembled from digital assets" (which I take to mean collages of 3D models made by other people) are simply appropriations of the childhood mental imagery of a girl who grew up reading fantasy novels. That's it. There's no metaphysical investigation involved, just an aesthetic curation that's somewhat more sophisticated than Tumblr. If all art is essentially a yearning for the always unrealized realm of the possible, this work reduces itself to a yearning for yearning, a desire for the naivety of childhood, as though jamming aesthetically similar images together will recreate the experience of looking at Yoshitaka Amano drawings in middle school. But there is no return to adolescence, no convincing ourselves that our acceptance letter from Hogwarts is still coming in the mail or that Santa Claus is real. And rightfully so, the sooner we accept there is no escaping reality the better. Where the conversion of computer-generated hyperboloids into a sculpture results in the object's own novel presence by making abstract mathematics into a physical thing, 3D printing castles and dragons is an action akin to the desperately infantile obsessiveness of an otaku's anime figurine collection, which is a criticism that I don't think I have to expand on. To be more precise though, Genzken succeeds because her sculpture succeeds on the level of sculpture, as an object that has been created out of consideration of its formal qualities, weight, line, etc. Goffman simply plucks virtual images and combines them into a collection of virtual images, which are physically printed but remain purely virtual and aesthetic objects, carriers of an abstracted fantasy "vibe" that the artist has taken no part in creating. She's cheating, essentially. Genzken has created a formal object that necessarily carries an aesthetic by virtue of existing as an object, but those qualities are secondary. Goffman has made aesthetic objects that are backed by only a perfunctory formal backbone; they are not "real" objects, they're two-dimensional fictions that happen to have been printed in three dimensions. An appropriative meta-fantasy is simply fantasy one step removed, where the child's act of aesthetic immersion in a world of castles and dragons is itself aestheticized, a downstream affectation of immersion in the virtual without achieving it, which seems to me to be an entirely pointless exercise. Maybe if I was into ketamine I'd get it. Beats me.
Art Club2000 levels essentially the same critique against their contemporaries in one of the more articulate works in their exhibition, a scrolling LED sign with text that outlines the prevalence of content appropriation by a number of then-major artists like Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Matthew Barney, for instance dismissing Barney's work as an appropriation of Nike athleticism and mythology. They elaborate that at first glance such artistic strategies could appear to be a subversion of the individualistic status of the artist, but in reality only serve to reify that status by codifying their appropriated categories into a "personal brand" despite the content being lifted wholesale from realms outside of art and the labor of the artists themselves. It's almost jarring to see how prescient the show's attitude is, with its aloof ironizing of popular culture and the art world's preoccupation with itself that was bold at the time but is de rigueur today. Where this differs from, say, Brad Troemel, is that their attitude is grounded in substantive critique rather than the gleeful sneer of a troll. The only unirionic positions I've ever seen from Troemel have been that he prefers numismatics and college wrestling to art, and that Stefan Simchowitz actually has a solid business model (he doesn't). Overall, his general attitude speaks more to a barely concealed resentment towards the art world for not letting him sell out than a principled refusal to selling out. By contrast, AC2K's work is grounded in a cogently critical stance, where the progressive commercialization of the arts and New York City itself represent a downward trend to be resisted in favor of an uncompromised approach to art. One could fault them for doing little to articulate what that uncompromised approach would be, but at the time a notion of authentic art was still alive, I think, unlike today. That distinction is key: AC2K's critique is a refusal of the Debordian mass-media spectacle from a position that implies a real culture in opposition to artifice; the prevailing attitude now seems to be a cynical acceptance that everything is always already compromised by the market with, at best, a dim awareness that what one could earnestly call authenticity might have once existed. This is to some degree just their luck of having been in less hopeless era, but also the group's methodology established a critical mode of art production that is still being used, even if it is played out at this point. What contemporary art lacks today is not a theoretical basis for its ironic criticism, but the means of creating modes of working that are not the tired recapitulation of decades-old methods.
Having said that, Jef Geys is one of the very few artists whose old methods bear further scrutiny, and I'm unaware of any other artist who has managed to absorb the lessons of his work into theirs. Geys approaches the political in art at an inverse from the contemporary norm; to paraphrase Godard, he does not make political art, he makes art politically. Popularly, political art is an end product, where a work posits meaning because there is political content in a painting that says "Fuck Drumpf" or the work of a black woman with chronic illness even if that work is just some furniture, i.e. the last show at Essex Street by Carolyn Lazard. This profoundly confuses art's function through the presumption that such statements and actions are elevated by virtue of being art, that artistic significance is assured simply by labeling oneself an activist. But a painting of a slogan carries no more meaning than a sign of the same slogan carried at a protest, just as a chair or a sink are not suddenly granted significance simply because you say they're about your marginalized identity. The onus of political meaning is on the work itself, it is not simply given, which is the importance of making art politically. Geys' works come as a result of an animating political thought, ideas that problematize the existence of the objects themselves and art's function in general. Building a watch, building a house, pedagogy, lists of works, mass produced paintings covered over with black paint, each of these artworks examines and expands the conceptions and limits of the conception of art. Unlike political artists, who assume that art has a significance that resonates outwards to life as a whole, Geys approaches art from a perspective of the preponderance of life to art. Friendship, teaching children, gardening, labor, etc., is empirically more important than art, but many who feel the real truth that fact simply lose an interest in art. That Geys manages to hold onto that contradiction as an artist, and to moreover propel his body of work by the force of that contradiction, is his genius. Social problems never have clear-cut or final answers, of course, but his perspective seems to me to offer an alternative strategy to nearly every heteronomous norm in the contemporary art world that has led to our current state of cynical defeatism. It goes without saying that sustaining an art practice founded on the insignificance of art is easier said than done, but having a moral role model does help some.