Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Unbearable Crappiness of Being Trendy

Conveniently located less than a half block from the Bowery Mission, ensuring your entrance and exit takes place on litter-strewn streets where you'll be accosted by one or more of the Bowery's colorfully authentic crazy, drunken vagrants, New York's imaginatively named New Museum is the latest in a series of art venues recently built or refurbished in a desperate attempt by the benefactors of American culture to prove that the American people can still build buildings. With the latest in trendy retro-minimalist design, sporting a "new"-themed coffee shop, and nestled between a pair of fully functional and therefore ironically chic restaurant supply stores, the New Museum is the logical conclusion of the last decade's best funded cultural memes. Somewhere in the mix, there's something about art -- or so I was told.

The New Museum

New Museum's building architecture is engaging when viewed from the outside, but one trend the venue does buck is the recent trend of museums whose interior architecture completely overwhelms the art inside. The lighting could be better, as the flood of over-bright fluorescence is more K-Mart than Guggenheim, but otherwise the interior is relatively art friendly. Inside each gallery, I found myself able to completely focus on the artwork rather than the architectural details. Unfortunately, this situation wasn't permanent.

For the inaugural show, the New Museum decided to curate a four-part extravaganza focused on contemporary object recontextualization art: sculptural collage, two-dimensional montage, sound manipulations, and digital works. This ambitious undertaking is compelling in idea and scope, and based on the crowds, is clearly achieving the goal of drawing visitors to the recently opened venue.

Though it has received accolades from a number of art critics who apparently haven't been in a university dorm room within the last twenty years, Unmonumental would in fact have been better titled Uninspiring. During my grueling two hour attempt to separate the "what?" from the crap, Unbearable is a word that also sprang to mind. As an onslaught of works ranging from the mediocre to the Double-Plus Ungood assaulted my senses, I soon found myself checking out the museum's stylishly cracked coated-concrete floors and exposed ceiling details.

A tour through Unmonumental is like a tour through a college dormitory. Far too many of the works seem taken straight from the aftermath of a marathon session of dropping acid and listening to Rage Against The Machine. Some works resemble the cut-up porno and Tiger Beat magazine collages, dripped-wax constructs, and Pop Tarts box "sculpture" such collegiate inspiration produces, while others merely resemble the floors and walls of the dorm after the participants have passed-out.

"Huffy Howler" by Rachel Harrison, coming soon to a dorm near you

Given the size of the show, it was inevitable that even with what seems like a curatorial mandate of "bore and/or irritate the patrons," a few genuinely compelling, professional grade works could be found hiding in the psychic shadows cast by the literal piles of rubbish surrounding them. Works such as Marc Andre Robinson's "Myth Monolith," John Stezaker's headshot cut-ups, and Kim Jones' ink drawings on photos all starkly set themselves apart from the bulk of the show by betraying the fact that those artists actually have skills. The stand out works in the show looked well thought out, planned, and (gasp) finished, unlike far too many of the surrounding works.

"Myth Monolith" by Marc Andre Robinson, flaunting its coherence

Found objects and imagery, even trash, are used in assemblage and collage work as a matter of course. The material is not the issue with this show. Rather, the problem with many of the pieces in the show is that they come off as not only Unmonumental, but also uninspired, unskilled, and undeserving of the laurels accompanying their inclusion in the first show of a new major museum. The actual piles of trash on the street in front of the museum were more thoughtfully and thought provokingly arranged than some of the work inside.

"Naive" work by "hip" artists is a trying proposition at best, but this show is not even the best of that dubious style, rather it's an insultingly "hipper than thou" collection of utterly hackneyed attempts. While some may revel in the "refreshingly unsophisticated" lack of cohesive thought reflected in many of these works, I found it frustrating that such predominantly thoughtless work is being held up as the pinnacle of contemporary assemblage work when there is so much better work out there.

Missing from the show are (as the NY Times also noticed) many of the usual suspects, including Bill Viola, Jeff Koons, and Matthew Barney. The bigger name draw is instead provided by lesser works from Thomas Hirschhorn and Martha Rosler, both of whose works in Unmonumental fall squarely into the "not bad, but they could do better" category. But never mind the usual suspects, if it's fresh talent the art world is hungry for there are a number of less well known artists whose superior works could have been included, such as: Winston Smith, Ala Ebtekar, Hank Willis Thomas, Chris Kuksi, Elizabeth McGrath, Jill Miller, Saira Wasim, Banker White (whose garbage sculpture at the Headlands Center for the Arts "Close Calls" show blows away any pile of trash in Unmonumental), James Gouldthorpe, and a host of others.

The audio portion of the show seemed tacked-on. Presented as ambient sound in the galleries, it reduced the contributions of the sound works to a background role at best. Like the rest of the show, most of the works were forgettable, and I have no idea who composed the ones I liked (they didn't make it very easy to find out). Noticably absent was Christian Marclay, and, less surprisingly but still ridiculous to me was the lack of any work by: The Evolution Control Committee, Masami Akita (Merzbow), G.X. Jupitter-Larsen (The Haters), Ryoji Ikeda, Zbigniew Karkowski, R/Y/B/N, Andrew McKenzie (The Hafler Trio), or any one of a number of contemporary composers working with found and manipulated sound.

There is also an Internet Art component to the show, shown on computers in the gallery and also hosted online by Rhizome. All of the digital work, except for Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung's amusing political mash-up, ran the gamut from irrelevant to annoying. Admittedly, there is very little good Internet Art to choose from, but in that case why not open it up to all digital, media, and machine art works and be able to include very good works from the likes of Jim Campbell, Gary Hill, Ken Goldberg, Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, Alan Rath, Mark Pauline, Matt Heckert, Chico MacMurtrie, John Maeda, Paul DeMarinis, Jordan Crandall, Raqs Media Collective, Futurefarmers, eToy, Builders' Association, and so on?

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, "Black on White, Gray Ascending"

On the digital art front, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries has a work being shown on the ground floor. This piece, called "Black on White, Gray Ascending," is not technically part of Unmonumental. But, despite being nothing but text and sound, it is a great piece, substantially better than ninety-five percent of the work in the main show -- digital or otherwise. Even if there weren't other pieces in Unmonumental that deserve to be seen, and there are, it would still be worth going down to the Bowery just to experience the Young-Hae Chang piece.

All in all, the best way to describe Unmonumental is to say it lives up to its name, and then some.