More than 80 exhibitions opened in Chelsea on the first big night of the art season, a couple of weeks ago. Most are mediocre, as usual, and this many so-so shows early on makes one suspect that a pattern is forming. But amid mediocrity, the needle does seesaw, and three shows (one good, one bad, one terrible) stood out as I made the rounds.
First, the worst. At Jack Shainman, Shimon Attie has a bad case of Bill Viola. Attie’s egregiously overproduced multichannel video about a racetrack uses Viola’s signature gimmick of extended slow motion, and reaches his level of ponderousness as well. In a large, dark room, we’re treated to slowly moving images of the former denizens of a defunct auto-racing track in Bridgehampton. Figures pose in their old uniforms against black backgrounds. The gallery says that this exercise in emptiness is a comment on “rampant development.” A critique of the Hamptons: great. (If this is a deconstruction of Andreas Gursky’s recent racetrack photos, it’s a poor one.) The only good thing about the framed still shots of the poor souls in the video is the guilty pleasure of thinking about those other poor souls who will spend a lot of money on them. (This installation closed over the weekend, but another Attie tape has gone up in its place, should you be so inclined. Viewer beware.)
The shockmeister Andres Serrano has opened a new show as well, and it’s another doozy. Serrano rocketed to notoriety in 1989 when his otherwise humdrum photo Piss Christ, an image of a plastic crucifix in a yellow murk of urine, made senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms wig out. (Serrano had received a $15,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant.) The culture wars were on; Serrano became a cause scandale. The jacket flap of his 1995 monograph carries a quote from Helms saying Serrano “is not an artist.”
Helms was wrong about everything cultural, and most other things, too, but he was onto something there. Serrano is at heart a commercial artist. His work is not visually or conceptually original. His photos are slick and snazzy, and often have a momentary effect thanks to their scale and rich color. He’s a button-pusher with a talent for lurid or sensational subjects, photographing dead babies, semen, Klansmen, and people having sex. For his latest attention-getting ploy, Serrano has mounted a show titled “Shit.” Each image is a close-up of excrement—human, rabbit, jaguar, and so forth. Some carry punning titles like Holy Shit or Bull Shit.
All I could think of while looking at these dull pictures was What’s next? Placentas? Serrano wants to shock and please at the same time, a bad combination that makes the pictures simultaneously ingratiating and desperate. The subject matter isn’t the problem; it’s that he’s done nothing with it. Every image is the same, a close-up against a colorful background. Serrano has a gift for playing to the crowds. However—and as many of us have had to learn—when a grandstander falls flat, he’s in danger of appearing like an asshole.
By rights, another gallery show that opened in Chelsea those first nights should be as irksome, dull, and derivative as Serrano’s and Attie’s. Yet, except for one terrible clunker of a metal sculpture, Neil Campbell’s show is rivetingly mysterious. Campbell paints black blips, circles, and other shapes on the wall. That’s it. But his pitch-perfect way of blending architecture, placement on the wall, size, and edges produces retinal and phenomenological power. Two black ovals painted at solar-plexus height make the room go rubbery and space wobble. The wall seems to disappear as you imagine you’re looking through the gallery into a parallel universe of dark matter. A nearby grid of dots is like a Mondrian in space. The black and yellow circles make one aware of the inconsistencies of vision, the little ghosts, floaters, and halos that form when one looks intently at something. This piece doesn’t stop popping.
Campbell is revisiting older ideas and artists, and shades of Lawrence Weiner, James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and Bridget Riley hang over this mesmerizing outing. But so does the spirit of something deeply committed, convincing, and felt. Campbell’s show demonstrates that if you see only one good thing in a day of viewing, you’ve had a good day. That’s how strong powerful art is.