21st-Century Express

Pipe-cleaner dreams: Lucky DeBellevue's Chenille Stems (1997).Photo: courtesy of Joe Barron

So many people mobbed the opening of Greater New York at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City last week that the line waiting to get inside seemed to stretch halfway to Brooklyn. Amazing. A line around the block for art … in Long Island City? Is that legal? It helped that there were more than 140 “emerging” artists in the show, most of whom have extended families of friends. Even so, this exhibit developed into a must-see because it symbolized something important to the lofts of New York. Many young artists in the city have long felt overlooked by the mainstream museums. With this show, P.S. 1 and the Museum of Modern Art, which joined forces last year, declared that they hope to keep abreast of what young New Yorkers are doing at the turn of the century. It was the directors of the two institutions – Glenn Lowry of MOMA and Alanna Heiss of P.S. 1 – who actually led the team of curators that assembled the show. According to Heiss, “the artists reveal what it is to be a New Yorker at the beginning of a new era.”

Organizers of these enormous surveys typically adopt one of two approaches. They either parse the contemporary scene into various movements and trends, or – dismissing that as Procrustean – simply scatter around the art they admire. Curators like to compare this second, scattershot approach to a “laboratory” (thereby making any lack of focus appear open-minded, the result of dispassionate intelligence and a flair for the experimental). “Greater New York” is that kind of laboratory. No assertive groupings of the like-minded. No signposts to the Zeitgeist. Just a vast array of more and often less interesting video projections, installations, paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, and various things in between. Reviewing every in-and-out of such a show is impossible; announcing picks and pans reduces art to a report card. So I’ll just venture a few brief generalizations about the evolving shape of contemporary art. Scientists often say that what does not happen during an experiment can be as important as what does – Sherlock Holmes noticed that the dog did not bark – and the same holds true for this laboratory in Long Island City.

Painting – which once dominated art – does not “happen” in this exhibition. Many viewers will hardly notice its presence, although there are plenty of pictures hanging on the walls. It may be that the curators are not interested in painting today, or, more important, that most emerging artists find it irrelevant. The fact remains that with a few exceptions, even those calling themselves painters in this show display little or no interest in the sort of acquired skills and visual values that have inspired painters for centuries. They are illustrators of Warholian themes. Photography and sculpture – as traditionally understood in the modern art of the twentieth century – also display little strength. They seem reduced to the status of minor genres.

As for subject matter, you will not find in “Greater New York” the angry political tone typical of so much work made in the past twenty years. What overtly political art there is instead has a witty, delicate edge. In his depiction of the BCCI scandal, for example, Mark Lombardi has drawn an elegant genealogy of corruption that shows how the affair makes relatives of hundreds of people around the globe. The same holds true for the treatment of sex. Instead of delivering the usual package of sexual shock, this show, with a couple of exceptions, is PG-rated; the approach to sex seems more wry and satirical than angry. (Tracey Baran’s idea of dirty is to photograph two copulating flies on a towel.) Could it be that the “Sensation” show in Brooklyn marked an end rather than a beginning?

The most interesting not in “Greater New York,” however, is that the city itself doesn’t seem supremely important to the character of emerging art. New York may still attract ambitious artists from around the world, but most of this work could as easily have emerged from London, Tokyo, or São Paulo. In the twenty-first century, there is no emblematic city of the new, no capital of the modern – at least not in the way Paris and New York once embodied the dreams of the future.

The heart of “Greater New York” lies with film and the new technologies of image-making: Its light comes from the flicker of the moving image. Instead of painting an abstract geometric picture, for example, Jeremy Blake uses digital technology to create ever-changing grids of color. Johhna MacArthur projects a circle of light on the floor to tell a story. Viewers look down upon a white-clad figure who cuts a round black hole in the ice of a lake, as if to find comfort and sustenance there. (The work has a poignant, Beckett-like bleakness and severity.) The tradition of the Dada object, the Dada jape, and the Dada gesture also continues to attract much interest from emerging artists. Valeska Soares has created an object that resembles two large rubber-tipped droppers; they seem medicinal, but the shadow they cast looks like the bowler hats in Magritte. Mi Young Sohn places dozens of different bottled waters on a table. They would make a fashionable spread at an opening for artists in AA.

In the art of the past two decades, there are some revealing pairings of feeling – at once antithetical and complementary – that continue in the emerging art of the twenty-first century. If some artists celebrate sophisticated high tech, for example, others depict the quirky infantilization of modern society. In addition to TV monitors, the show is filled with plastic gewgaws, toys, and what looks like primitive, homemade stuff. Lucky DeBellevue makes a sculpture from zillions of junky little pipe cleaners. Mick O’Shea uses toy trains to spoof the art world. His locomotives pull tubes of paint; the cities are paint cans, the suburban houses folded-up artist announcements. If the show in general reflects the sensory overload of contemporary culture, moreover, a few artists insist upon a meditative clearing of space. Stephen Vitiello uses sound to define a room that’s empty except for several handsome windows framing the fascinating cityscape beyond; in an old boiler room in the basement, Ricci Albenda creates a white room of evanescent and edge-dissolving purity.

At the outset of the twenty-first century, many forward-looking artists are also intensely nostalgic and sentimental – dreaming, as artists often do, of the noble beginnings of long ago. More often than not, the dream today isn’t for the middle ages or for classical Greece but for the origins of the modern era. Many artists love early machinery, old movie projectors, blurry pieces of film. At the center of “Greater New York,” Julian Laverdiere has built what looks like the funerary platform of a hero. It contains a high-tech coffin in which lies a model of the sunken clipper ship that first tried to wire the world a century and a half ago by laying the transatlantic telegraph cable. Scott Fitzgerald would have smiled: We beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.

21st-Century Express