Ei Arakawa, Darren Bader, Kerstin Brätsch, Alex Carver, Kate Cooper, Aria Dean, Harm van den Dorpel, Urs Fischer, Wade Guyton, Kate Mosher Hall, Rachel Harrison, Camille Henrot, Tishan Hsu, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Jacqueline Humphries, Alex Israel, Jesse Kanda, Scott Lyall, Helen Marten, Ezra Miller, Julien Nguyen, Albert Oehlen, Laura Owens, Seth Price, Richard Prince, Rachel Rose, Sarah Sze, Tojiba CPU Corp, Jessica Wilson, Jordan Wolfson, Anicka Yi - The Painter's New Tools - Nahmad Contemporary - June 22 - September 24, 2022
Gianna Surangkanjanajai, Bill Bollinger, Marie Angeletti, Marc Kokopelli, Olga Balema, Eli Coplan - Manhattan - Claude Balls Int - May 23 - June 24, 2022
Claude Balls Int
I had initially imagined this piece as a comparison between these two shows as competing perspectives of newness in art, but I decided that before I saw The Painter's New Tools. Although I was prepared to disagree with the show's thesis of technological means as a driving force in artistic novelty, I was unprepared for how thoroughly dated it would be; in spite of the majority the work being from 2021-22, this perspective feels trapped in an alternate reality where post-internet art is still in its 2008-2015 heyday, as if the pre-Trump art world's futurist positivism never went up in a puff of smoke, which it did. That was six years ago, but the curators don't seem to be aware of any changes in art since then in spite of their press release's rhetorical focus on the contemporary in art. Following the law of nature that nothing is more unfashionable than what just went out of style, the exhibition feels distinctly out of step and behind the times, much less a survey of something new. As such there's less of a debate here than I was expecting, but I had already started writing about Manhattan so we'll stick to the plan.
So yes, the digital. Photoshop, LED flatscreens, high resolution, the bright neons that come naturally in digital and digitally-assisted art, UV pigment, etc. These implements may be new in historical terms, but what is their value to us right now? Does any of it reflect something back at its audience that we're not already accustomed to? Isn't the digital precisely our norm? To be sure, you couldn't physically make most of the work without modern technology, so it is literally contemporary, but that doesn't guarantee a new expression of life in 2022. Not all of it is inherently reliant on these new tools, such as Julien Nguyen's contribution of, glaringly, another dead-inside twink painting, except he did it with a tablet instead of paint. The lack of difference from his oil paintings would almost be interesting if it weren't so matter of fact; new means leading to the exact same ends, and for what? Why is he even in this show? Isn't he supposed to be a classicist? There's a speaker behind the screen playing Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" as a feeble attempt at multimedia, which is inexplicable for being both a half-baked idea and a gut-wrenchingly embarrassing display of sentimentality, although I suppose he thinks of it as some sort of galaxy brain. Harm van den Dorpel and Ezra Miller, on the other hand, are the most overtly technological artists for their use of generative computer programs. Harm's pieces are a pretty effective utilization of algorithms as a means of generating formal arrangements that are unlikely, if not impossible, to be made by purely human means, although I don't know why they have to look like Star Trek interfaces. But then again, someone fascinated with generative computer programs would like sci-fi design, so I guess I shouldn't hold my personal tastes against him. By contrast, Ezra made a screensaver. I don't mean by my objection to the curatorial framework to imply that all of the work is bad: Rachel Harrison, Anicka Yi, Seth Price, and Jacqueline Humphries all render something compositionally attractive regardless of their means, Jibade-Khalil Huffman's transparency piece is simple and elegant, and Richard Prince, who I'm often wary of, pulls off the highlight of the show with an utterly demented collage of childish ghouls drawn on rainbow scratch paper layered over a photograph of a psychedelic hanging canopy at some hippie event in the woods. The Albert Oehlen is also brilliantly stupid, although it seems to fit in with the rest of the show more out of coincidence than from shared sensibility. The rest mostly falls into two broad categories: first, the frantic density of Photoshop collage and granular abstraction, and second, the austerity of polished techno-fetishism and hyperreal HD. Both tendencies come from the inherent qualities of digital tools and their ability to saturate and to enhance resolution, which as literal devices may be new tools, but are these qualities new? Are these digital abstractions new forms of abstraction, are these antiseptic artworks that romanticize Silicon Valley aesthetics categorically different from the minimalists that romanticized industrial production aesthetics 50 years ago? Photoshop collage is the only thing here that feels inarguably contemporary, but since it's the contemporary of the recent past it's also the most insufferably dated. Camille Henrot's Dos and Don'ts - [FS1], featuring digitally textured "paintbrush" wipes and Macbook tabs, feels like a revival of 2013 that should have stayed dead, and even if Helen Marten and Jordan Wolfson's pieces use less overtly tired imagery, the approach itself is nevertheless exasperating. In sum, most of what makes these works different from the past are the specific differences of color, print quality, the internet's influence on the imagery, and so on, but these differences are less a development of a technical revolution in art than simply the passage of time engendering a new palette. For most of history painter's palettes were limited to the pigments that could be made from resources in their immediate environment, and the digital era allows for a much wider range of means and materials than was available in the Renaissance, but history is not made by new colors alone. Novelty is not and has never been purely technological. New tools can lead to new possibilities, but to limit historical progress to technical methods is to reduce it to the level of an iPhone update; trivial and minute refinements of process. Actual newness is something else, a question of inspiration or vision, which is something that can be helped by technology, but a good artist with a good idea will always make do. Necessity is the mother of invention, not gadgets.
Let's look at three specific contributions before we move on: 1. NFTs, as represented here by Tojiba CPU Corp, are the height of this farce of technological progress and have negated whatever progressive potential net art ever had by reducing it to juvenile trading cards for gamers, whether or not they're "avant." The original era of internet art was interesting precisely for being fleeting, intangible, and unsaleable; turning it into a financial object isn't even an innocuous development, it's a craven regression that undoes the potential of the internet's place in art, and net art wasn't all that great in the first place. People like to claim that .jpegs are just the beginning for NFTs, but I have yet to hear of any specific ideas for what the next development could be. At any rate, the recent market crash seems to have put a cap on the stock broification of art. 2. Rachel Rose has four pieces, all of which are little alien blobs painted on top of prints of Renaissance paintings. What is this little daub on top of an appropriation supposed to accomplish? I guess the idea is supposed to be something about the invasion of the uncanny into images or the nonlinearity of time and history, but some goo on a Madonna is such a trivial gesture it's hard for me to imagine the pieces doing anything for a viewer beyond triggering a bit of whatever they already feel about Renaissance paintings. I gather that these works are probably part of a larger series that involves integrating information about the appropriated paintings into a historical commentary, but taking them out of context removes that information and, because none of that context remains in the works themselves, it serves to prove how little the art itself has any substantive relationship to her research practice. 3. As co-curator Dean Kissick explained on Twitter, one of Jessica Wilson's pieces was created through what sounds like a complex process of 3D scanning, photography, and digital modeling. I had no clue that was how the work was made until I saw the explanation because, well, it looks a whole lot like a photograph of a hand holding a sponge. I also don't care, because no matter how high-res the image is or how labor intensive it was, it's still just what it looks like. Technical means are only integral to an artwork if the artwork's substance was only made possible through those technical means, as in the generated architectures of Harm van den Dorpel's pieces, and even then the process is little more than background information. It doesn't matter that Jackson Pollock dripped paint on canvases laid on the ground, it matters that his method resulted in paintings that had new and compelling qualities. Although the methods used to make the works in this show are mostly new, there's very little novelty in the content. There are plenty of reasons for this, but most importantly the issue is simply that digital technology is not a contemporary horizon of possibility; it's been years since we reached a saturation point that triggered an overwhelming collective fatigue with the digital. Although no clear alternatives have emerged since then (we're still addicted to our phones), it seems palpable that increasing technological sophistication offers no future for us, or at least no future that anyone actually wants. In line with this, Richard Prince's piece is the standout success because it's the only work that feels antagonistic towards its technology. It recognizes the novelty of the medium but, instead of credulously embracing it as a frontier for new ways of working, Prince takes the piss and makes a completely idiotic and childish collage. Prince has been playing the enfant terrible card his entire career, of course, so thumbing his nose is nothing new, but regardless it feels fresh for its mockery of exactly what the show is positing: that technological progress is societal progress, that the painter's new tools are anything more than the emperor's new clothes. This attitude ultimately feels liberalized, a faith in the steady cumulative progress of society founded on a willful blindness to history and the real state of things as they are, a willingness to be wowed by every passing year's procession of novelties as if it were impossible that the present could be any less than the apex of civilization. Moreover, this belief in the present is now dated, ironically, because such an attitude has been untenable for nearly a decade and just comes off ridiculous in the face of our manifest reality. Positing the newness of new tools is little more than burying one's head in the sand, a naive willingness to believe in exactly what will never save anyone.
Manhattan has few tools, none of them new and all more or less misused. The exhibition is presided over by a 1973 work by Bill Bollinger, a sculpture in cast iron in the shape of the island of Manhattan, along with a preparatory drawing that's reproduced on the exhibition flier and lends the show its name. Bollinger had a sad but compelling artistic trajectory as a minimalist whose career never took off and is now mostly forgotten; despite being in his early 30s at the time, Manhattan more or less qualifies as a late work because his last gallery show was in 1975, 13 years before he died from alcoholism at the age of 48. The sculpture and drawing were on display in the office at Mitchell Algus Gallery and everything else was in Marie Angeletti's apartment courtyard, one piece per week and only at night, at least until the final week when her landlord kicked the show out (as well as Marie out of her apartment) and forced the relocation of Eli's piece to the playground behind Reena Spaulings, which, when I was there, made an angry waiter at Wu's Wonton King threaten for no apparent reason to call the police on the half dozen people congregating quietly in a public park. The struggles of staging a modest art show outside of a gallery recall the misfortunes of Bollinger's career, where talent and a disregard for convention clash with the conservative structures of the world at large. For instance, Bollinger chose to work with the gallery O.K. Harris Works of Art, who mostly showed photorealist painters, instead of the more fitting Sonnabend Gallery because he preferred O.K. Harris' exhibition space. By doing so he prioritized his work over his career, but being a good artist is unfortunately no substitute for art world savvy. Even in the open-minded 70s a talented artist could slip through the cracks, and these days the art world usually feels more actively antagonistic to authenticity than supportive. In spite of the art world's supposed thirst for novelty, there's precious few in positions of authority left who care to deal with anything truly novel, because a real dedication to art is a volatile risk in comparison to the easy investments of predictably safe hackwork. In the end, the art world prefers a polite bourgeois to a groundbreaking genius, which is why this show, probably the "newest" thing I've seen this year, essentially didn't happen in a gallery. Bollinger's Manhattan, almost 50 years old, still feels fresh, like the seeds of a possible direction for minimalism that didn't come to pass, an odd mass that looks more like a hunk of slag or a fillet of fish than a landmass, something that could easily pass for garbage if it weren't in a gallery. I'm not sure how conscious this was, but the rest of the show feels something like a revival of that fork in the art historical road that wasn't taken in Bollinger's time, a methodology of gritty semi-conceptual slag. Art's current trap is that the desire for newness has turned the art world into an ahistorical void where artists refuse to truly learn from history and are therefore doomed to ceaselessly repeat it, but the sleight of hand of these works is that they reorient themselves into a historical position, integrating past methodologies into a position with clear influences but differentiated from their models by knowing how to apply substantive thought to the present instead of reiterating thoughts that other artists have had in the past.
A brief outline: Gianna Surangkanjanajai filled a plastic tube with trash (I missed her piece in person so I can't comment more than that), Marie Angeletti spread shattered glass on the ground, Marc Kokopelli screened an educational video from the 90s about peer pressure directed by his mother, Olga Balema showed a sculpture made of three roughly semicircular foam curves which was a completed work until she brought it into the space and chose to take it apart, Eli Coplan set up an ultrasonic rat deterrent device and provided the viewer with a bat detector and headphones that made the rat device audible by lowering its frequencies. Gianna, Marie, and Olga's pieces were displayed with a single small spotlight illuminating the work in the courtyard, Marc's video was played on a television covered by a transparent orange globe, and Eli had to move his piece to the Captain Jacob Joseph Playground, as I mentioned. The general theme is detritus; three works are trash or trashed, the other two misuse found materials. They offer little as purely aesthetic objects, but in a way that encourages interest. Rather than positing a stylized visual imagination, they inhabit the barren and unromantic facts of downtown Manhattan, its accumulations of junk and abjection. This isn't to say that the art is bleak, just that it's concerned with reality. And isn't reality where novelty occurs? The net art modes of The Painter's New Tools feel dated because they came about in an era when the internet's domination of our consciousness was a new phenomenon that led to a fascination with its capabilities for focusing, refining, and exaggerating aesthetics. That process is not only no longer novel, it's precisely what we continue to be overwhelmed by even though we're sick of it. The realm of virtual fantasies has proved itself to be a hollow simulacrum, and tangible reality has therefore turned back into a new space. For instance, Marie's piece initially sounds simple, or even boring, but the uniformly rounded shards of tempered car window glass glitter under the spotlight like a gemstone or the night sky and is a surprisingly engaging installation. Moreover, the work is tactile and unceremonious (visitors were invited to step on the glass), and the process of acquiring the glass became a quasi-performative exploration of the city: she went around to mechanics to collect the material, something many garages have sitting around in buckets, and in the pile was a small piece of asphalt that she got from workers who were repaving Allen Street around the time of the exhibition. She threw a handful of glass into the unpaved roadway so that it would be buried by the new layer of asphalt, and when she explained the project to the workers they gave her a small bit of road in return to include in the piece. The whole process is uncomplicated and unreliant on any kind of contemporary novelties, but it feels entirely of the moment, gracefully ingenious, and aware of history (viz. Barry La Va's Shattered On Center, On Edge, On Corners - Two Layers at a Time (Within the Series of Layered Pattern Acts), currently on view in A Tribute to Klaus Kertess' Bykert Gallery 1966-75, Part II at David Nolan, which also has a number of works by Bollinger). Like the difficulties in staging the show, the piece feels new not for any innovations but for its adherence to an artistic idealism where one follows their desires and intuitions without any concern for social convention. The work is as much about the interactions Marie had to go through to get the material as it is about the finished product because the weird practicalities of having to realize such an offhand idea leads to these unconventional situations. That willful urge to go through that for the sake of showing people some broken glass on the ground is what being an artist is about, the faith required to follow an idea outside of the scope of normalcy towards something else that remains undetermined. It's in this sense that new tools are less important than new hands and new eyes. The newest methods and programs will only repeat old ideas without an artist's new ideas to fuel them, an aspiration beyond the bounds of what is already contained within society as we know it.
Really, what's sad is how painfully obvious this should be, the suggestion that art is something that should be done out of an authentic impulse. Instead, that notion has been almost entirely written out of the arts by the conservative mechanisms of moneyed interests inoculating us against whatever value art was supposed to offer us when we were young. As far as I know, the reason most people develop an interest in art is that it offers an image of life that is less alienated than working in an office, valorizing the direct experience of creative artmaking as a fulfilled way of being. Things are more complicated than that, of course, but they're nowhere near as fraught as the art world pretends it to be, with its carrot-dangling of the privileges of wealth, opulence, and spending August in the south of France as some kind of goal, as if the aim of art was the "beautiful life" of a compensated but defanged member of the bourgeoisie. I've never understood this mindset because I was mostly interested in experimental musicians who were too underground and unmarketable to be burdened with any possibility of money or success before I got into art in my mid-twenties, and I've taken that outlook for granted since then. In the absence of any market that can offer rewards, artists are left only with their work as its own reward, and the art world has apparently done everything in its power to make as many artists as possible lose sight of this drive. I watched a Guided By Voices documentary the other night and almost got whiplash from the perfect purity of their existence: some weirdos from Dayton, OH who managed to channel the richness of their childhood fantasies of being in a rock band into making an actual rock band, and have managed to keep existing in spite of being eccentric overgrown kids that grate against the polite social rules of Dayton, let alone the rules of an after-opening dinner with collectors expecting to have their intelligence flattered in exchange for a possible purchase. The value of this, because I have to spell this out for some of you, is that an artist who exists to flatter collectors is incapable of doing something new. Flattery of the wealthy consists precisely in reinforcing the doomed cycle of the world that we live in, so the only way to exit that cycle is to give up the allure of becoming a bourgeois lap dog for millionaires and, against all odds as someone in the art world, to actually dive into working with the actual conditions of the present. The world being so colonized as it is by media and competing aesthetics, art's contemporaneity ends up in a negation of style, the commercialized preciousness of objects, and ends up in the trash. Rather than upholding anything about the moral void we live in as a poor excuse for a society, these stylistically blank, valueless objects become the place where artists can push against the world we're presented with and show us how empty everything we're given to fill our emptiness is. The works in Manhattan manage to feel new because they capture this emptiness, they present a strange feeling of absence instead of the inoffensive precious spectacle so loved by the art establishment, and in doing so manage to feel something like an affirmation, an acknowledgment of how bad everything is instead of the baldfaced lie that polite paintings for rich people are still valuable if we only just make them on a computer. This sounds bleak, and it is, but it's also only possible to to create beauty with a clear-eyed view of the world. Anything less than that has no chance of emerging from the morass of societal bloat that we do so much to blind ourselves from, and in doing so make sure that all of us will drown in it.