James Bishop, stanley brouwn, Sara Deraedt, Robert Gober, Wade Guyton, Agnes Martin, Helen Mirra, Laurie Parsons, Sara Rapson, Rosemarie Trockel, Jackie Windsor - Concerning Superfluities: Shaker Material Culture and Affinities - Essex Street - November 3 - December 22, 2019
Georgie Nettell - The Vivid Present - Reena Spaulings Fine Art - November 3 - December 15, 2019

Essex Street
Reena Spaulings

I like museums, but every time I visit one I end up thinking about the irony of their purpose. A museum preserves cultural artifacts, but the inclusion of a culture's artifacts in a museum proves that that culture is definitively dead. Like pinned butterflies, their beauty is preserved but their life is taken from them. The thought recalls something of what Henry Flynt and Tony Conrad had in mind when they protested New York's cultural institutions in the 60's, but rather than a disavowal of the staidness of historical culture it makes me think of the impoverishment of the present. This doesn't apply so much to paintings and sculptures, which were always intended to just be looked at, as it does to ritual and utensil objects. Greek vases were made to hold wine, Egyptian jewelry was made to be worn, Persian rugs were made to be walked on, every culture produced religious objects for ritual purposes, etc. These things had utility, but they were imbued with significance by their envelopment within the system of the culture that made them, and their importance within that system is what led to them being beautiful. Our society, dominated by ineffectual mass-production, feels banal and bereft of meaning in comparison. This seems to be the current impasse in art: given the robustness of culture in the past, what are we to make of our current poverty? Both Concerning Superfluities and The Vivid Present address this problem, albeit in quite different ways.

Concerning Superfluities at Essex Street is about Shaker furniture. Their works dominate the exhibition space, which is interspersed with pieces by modern and contemporary artists. Frankly, it's difficult to distinguish the line between the two even with the checklist, given the visual similarity of most of the artworks to the Shaker furniture. The press release focuses entirely on the Shakers and sidesteps justifying the relationship with the artists in the exhibition by appealing to inexplicitly conveying "resonances, tendencies and affinities." The intent is obvious enough: combine the imperviously authentic cultural context of the Shakers with the highbrow contemporary art gallery context, to the mutual benefit of both parties. This doesn't happen though, because the show hangs together more like an antiques showroom. The Shaker aesthetic is the core of the show, and most of the affinities are a superficial connection through artworks that are or resemble furniture, or have a rustic New England sort of look to them. Sara Deraedt's photos of vacuum cleaners are the only real visual outlier, justified by the association with domesticity. So the resonances are quite literal. The problem is that there is no mutual exchange. By taking furniture, putting it in an art context, and pairing it with art that looks like furniture, you get a room full of furniture, not a room full of art. These artworks initially had an arts context where the piece's relationship to furniture had its own meaning. Juxtaposing them with furniture does not change their context as artwork, it erases it. The art, and the contemporary art world in general, has nothing to offer the Shakers. They are revered, authentic, and the art attempts to share in that authenticity by visual affiliation. This is the show's attempt, and failure, to address our cultural void: find some culture by copping the amassed cultural credit of the past. Because the contemporary art in the show lacks the ability to recontextualize or even contrast with the Shaker work, it only serves to underline its lack in comparison.*

Georgie Nettell's The Vivid Present at Reena Spaulings is by contrast concerned with the present, as the title implies. The layout of the exhibition is self-consciously strange: a set of six flatscreen TVs hanging from the ceiling with another laying on the floor, each playing a short looped video with breaking glass and the text "see whats happening" moving around the screen, four buttons with pictures of the artist on them that when pressed play a short voice recording, and, most substantially, another TV placed awkwardly on the gallery attendant's desk with a longer looped video of things like a stop-motion sequence of a water bottle, a sneaker, and Macbook spinning in circles, a spinning hand picking a lemon out of a bowl of water, buttons being pushed, a disco ball, and more breaking glass. The only thing on the usually focal white gallery walls is one of the buttons. The room feels empty and the work feels slight, but this is clearly intentional. What's immediately striking aside from the layout is the show's lack of aesthetics. Unlike at Essex Street where the room is dominated by the aesthetic sensibility of the Shakers, these works are too mundane to have any particular visual sensibility, which is not to say that they have no sensibility at all. Both in the use of the gallery space and the footage on the desk TV there's a clear sense of working with physical space, using the gallery and the apartment in the video as sites for concrete activity that feels opposed to a transcendental or escapist art based on aesthetics. This contrast becomes explicit in the press release text (link above), a short tongue-in-cheek post-apocalyptic fable where the line between reality and the imagination has collapsed and daydreams begin to resemble society before its collapse, and in the voice recordings on the buttons such as Escaping is just engaging on a different platform. Nettell's assertion seems to be that escape, fantasy, pure aesthetics, etc., is just an illusion of freedom that actually replicates the systems it seeks to avoid, and I agree with her. This has many ramifications, but most pertinent is that there is no escape, there are no pure aesthetics. Fantasy is always borne out of reality. On some level it feels ridiculous to have to assert this, because no one could have thought otherwise before the internet. With the rise of Instagram and Tumblr it became possible to curate imagery with complete aesthetic consistency, but at the cost of context. Pairing things by visual affinity without attention to material context is ultimately a shallow exercise, a move that tries to flee from reality but ends up only reiterating the impoverished present. What Nettell posits as an alternative is a return to materialism, not in (just) a Marxist sense but immanently in the vivid present, as a method for clearing out the glut of aesthetics in our lives and returning to the sense of play that can turn an egg, a wine glass, an apple, and a water bottle into sufficient subject matter for an artwork.

* As a bit of irony, the press release quotes one of the last Shaker Eldresses as saying "I don't want to be remembered as a chair." In the text it comes after a list of Shaker inventions such as the clothespin, so the author seems to be saying that they are remembered as more than a chair because they are remembered as a chair and a clothespin. I don't think that's what she meant.