Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 8, 2006
Alanna Heiss, Klaus Biesenbach, and Glenn D. Lowry Greater New York 2005 Long Island City, NY: P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 2005. 392 pp. Cloth (0870709879)
P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, March 13–September 26, 2005
Matthew Day Jackson. Burial Ship (Sepulcher). 2004. Wood, vinyl, and fabric. Approximately 144 x 96 x 204 inches. Photograph by Bill Orcutt. Courtesy of the artist.

On the evening I attended the Greater New York 2005 exhibition at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, I was surprised to find that the line queuing around the block was not there to see the works of one hundred and sixty of New York’s freshest artistic talents hanging in the galleries, halls, stairwells, bathrooms, and boiler room, but was waiting to join the mass of bodies slowly packing into the building’s courtyard. As it turns out, on summer Saturday nights P.S.1 hosts d.j.ed dance parties with liquor licenses (my admission ticket was a self-stick fiberglass wrist band). Much of the crowd overflowed into the building to see the exhibition, packing the galleries as densely as MoMA on a free Friday afternoon. A common complaint about Greater New York 2005 is that there is just too much art in a congested space. Fill the halls with visitors, and the effect doubles. While shuffling sideways through a mass of people may not seem like the ideal ambiance for art viewing, the excess of both art and visitors cohered. Rather than the work creating a viewing experience for the visitors, the visitors managed to create an environment instructional to reading the work itself.

Although Greater New York 2005 is intended to showcase up-and-coming talents, included amongst the curated selection are established artists previously installed in the same venue. A procession of William Kentridge silhouettes labor through a stairwell, while James Turrell and Alan Saret are represented by ceiling and wall installations. These examples of works from the recent past provide context for many of the artists featured in the show. Opposite the stairwell through which Kentridge’s migratory figures trudge, another stairwell becomes a forest of silhouettes of trees and birds at the hands of Ernesto Caivano in Into the Woods (2005). While Kentridge’s figures bear the weight of apartheid and exile on their shoulders, Caivano immerses the viewer in his created environment, thereby shifting the focus from the work itself to the viewer’s own experience of the piece as a character venturing through the woods.

Creating environments by drawing on, painting, or papering the walls themselves is a popular practice at Greater New York 2005. José León Carillo deploys this strategy in The X without X and Vanitas Tas (both 2003); in the latter, Carillo papers a restroom in black-and-white photocopies of a colored print framed and hung on the wall. In the space of the restroom it is difficult to back away from the wall far enough to make out the pattern. Looking in the mirrors above the sink, however, skulls emerge to show that the print is a camouflage of skulls embedded in a field of flowers. This becomes apparent only at the moment that the viewer sees herself or himself foregrounded as part of the work. While Caivano’s piece allows the viewer to be absorbed in the experience of viewing, Carillo catches the viewer in the process of looking and situates her or him in the vanitas image itself, eerily reminding the viewer of the evanescence of her or his own life. This effect would have been difficult to capture outside of the scale of a restroom. However, the effect of placing it in a restroom simultaneously allows it to sneak up on the viewer like death itself, while making the viewing experience derisive.

Kent Henricksen also takes over an entire wall with his wallpaper, Sheep Toile II (2005), which he patterns with a youthful black shepherd and his sheep. Tapestries of romantic couples stuffed into nineteenth-century formal wear and mingling in lush landscapes are framed in ornate gilt and hung against the wallpaper. Henricksen has embroidered black and white hoods over the figures, juxtaposing the couples’ trysts against the horror of lynching in the “old” South. Here, the decorative arts merge with the lifestyle of brutal racism, substituting banality for violence.

Like Turrell and Saret, many of the artists intervene in the structure of the building to create alternate worlds within the space of the gallery. Nearly disappearing into the wall like a structural dilapidation in need of repair, Valerie Hogarty’s Birch Tree (2005) emulates the wall and floor to create the effect of the drywall and linoleum tiles peeling away and falling to the base of a birch tree that emerges from within the wall to suggest a pre-history of the site and a return to nature. Similarly, Daniel Arsham penetrates the smooth surface of the gallery walls in Building Cavity (corner) (2005), carving a negative space in an undulating tunnel that resembles the science fiction caves of the two paintings hanging next to his wall sculpture. In each gouache, Arsham re-situates an example of modern architecture in an icy fantasy landscape that calls to mind the cover art of a sci-fi paperback. Buildings that were never meant to sympathize with their environments fit perfectly in the future space of Arsham’s imagination. Michael Graves’s white monolith rises out of a craggy iceberg in Michael Graves got lost and found himself floating on the sea, affecting salination levels in the North Atlantic (2004). Whereas Arsham places recognizable buildings in imaginary places, Graves’s burrow situates the science fiction within the physical space of P.S.1, suggesting a microcosmic world of creativity behind its walls. Wangechi Mutu abuses the gallery wall in Once upon a time there lived a people who loved to kill, but even more they relished watching one another die . . . (2005), indicating not so much the possibility of a world within as the aftermath of violence from a reality without. The wall has been pockmarked like an execution wall shot with bullets. At the same time, it remains clear that this is a fantasy scenario, as it is inhabited by butterflies collaged from wire and magazine cutouts of legs. The wall’s wounds are stained red, presumably by the bottle of wine that hangs upside-down from the center of the gallery next to a black wooden bench. The “once upon a time” fantasy theme dispels the discomfort one might expect when faced with the work’s combination of violence and celebration; it does so by replacing with the distance of this fantasy the recognition of our own culture’s fascination with killing.

Whereas Arsham’s hole in the wall is a novel wonder, and Mutu’s gouges a wincing farce, Karen Olivier and Bethany Bristow engage the gallery in an inconspicuous whimsy. In Untitled (coffeetable) (2000/2005), Olivier has altered the apparent structure of the building by constructing a false, white rectangular pillar in a place where it would be logical to have one, then truncates it just low enough to slide a wooden coffee table underneath. The table emulates its environment by humorously bearing a weight it could never support. In Insinuate (2005), Bristow has melted glass jars into blobs stuck with feathers and corn syrup, which drips off of windowsills and down walls. They are placed at the same location on each floor, thereby giving the impression that they had melted through the floors, finally pooling at the ground level in the foyer.

None of these works interfere with their environments as institutional critique so much as they penetrate into them as a celebration of the imagination—to encourage questioning what other worlds might exist within the structure of the museum as a space for creativity and enjoyment. The gallery becomes the other world that must conform to the narrative of each piece as its material and contextual support. It is neither a void in which to hang hermetic works nor an institution whose actual structural system will be exposed and critiqued by them. Even most of Greater New York 2005’s more sobering works critiquing the United States’s methods for maintaining world hegemony are downed with a spoonful of irony. Pieces by Jules de Balincourt, David Opdyke, and Nebosja Seric Shoba are some of the most clearly stated among them. In Shoba’s 2002 video Let There Be Light, the earth rotates backwards in a black void eclipsing the sun whose halo defines its roundness. The only country on this spinning sphere, however, is the United States, which glows white, sending gleaming beams of light out into the blackness. Opdyke’s USS Mall (2003) portrays U.S. hegemony via a model of a shopping mall as aircraft carrier in which U.S. culture literally becomes a war machine. De Balincourt’s work is similarly straightforward, although more faceted in its critique of U.S. self-aggrandizement, blindness, and ignorance. In US World Studies #2 (2005), an upside-down map of the United States is misshapen and the states mislabeled. A number of select international countries are squeezed to the edges of the panel and undefined as rectilinear blobs.

Related to this work, Nate Lowman’s enormous, grainy blow-ups of appropriated color photographs of oil fields and tankers are striking in their depiction of fires and streamers of smoke. Given titles of popular children’s names like Alexis, Blake, and Krystle, the prints (all 2005) become portraits of evil and dystopia in the guise of innocence and potential. With her watercolors We Know It. We See it Anecdotally (2005), Blue/Red (2004–5), and We Can Leave Today, Of Our Own Free Will, Whenever We Want (2005), Amy Wilson’s work presents one of the more nuanced political commentaries in the show by addressing issues of memory, 9/11, and conspiracy theory through highly self-conscious soliloquies penciled in dialogue bubbles that float above identical blond girls in matching dresses. Rina Banerjee similarly integrates text into her Tropical Fatigue and the seven wanderings: You are not like me (2005) to address the exoticizing impulse of contemporary consumer culture among (presumably) white citizens of first-world countries. This piece presents an assemblage of suitcases spilling out a fountain of feathered wings, flowers, ostrich eggs, butterflies, glass beads, glitter, and shriveled banana leaves on which the artist has written poems about the self-congratulatory heroism of tourists and the persistence of authentic culture.

Much of the work at Greater New York 2005 is fun in one way or another, and the great diversity of practices and themes in such close proximity creates productive juxtapositions to the benefit of each individual work. The show may be congested, but here congestion creates a community of works that speak to each other. Whether through the fantasy of imagined lands or ridiculous scenarios, critiques of consumer culture and U.S. politics, or interventions into the space of the museum itself, many of the works on display harmonize with each other as well as with the Missy Elliott bassline that reverberated through the walls of the building.

Lily Woodruff
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Art History and Design, Michigan State University