Monday, August 22, 2011

4 Shows at the Whitney: Everson, Arcangel, Cha & the Founding Collection

Soon, the Whitney Museum of American Art, one of the icons of the Upper East Side's Museum Mile district, will abandon its striking Marcel Breuer-and-Hamilton Smith-designed home on 75th Street and Madison Avenue, and head downtown, closer to its original home, which still exists and is now the New York Studio School of Art, on 8th Street and 5th Avenue, for a new space near the High Line Park and New York's main fine art neighborhood these days, Chelsea.  I am agnostic on whether the move is a good idea, but it's in the works, and the museum's trustees and patrons support it and have raised the money (or most of it needed) to move, so it goes. I personally will miss going uptown to the Whitney, though. I have seen many great exhibits there, including several controversial Biennials, yet even when it's packed I've never found it to be the tourist trap the always remarkable Met sometimes can be (cf. my post on the McQueen show), it has never attempted to be as exhaustive (and exhausting) in terms of canonical modern art as MoMa (so when I go I don't worry that I'm missing 2-3 exhibits I would like to see but don't have the time to), and yet the focus is on the artwork, instead of the overwhelming architecture of the building itself, a problem the Guggenheim sometimes presents.  As I love looking at art, the Whitney often summons me forth. Five floors: a morning or afternoon usually will do. So I visited four shows recently: More than That: Films by Kevin Jerome Everson (April 28-September 18, 2011); Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools (May 26-September 11, 2011); Xavier Cha: Body Drama (June 30-October 9, 2011); and, for a hot minute, Breaking Ground: The Whitney's Founding Collection (April 28-September 18, 2011). I could easily write four long reviews, so I'll be succinct about the shows, focusing on the first two, which engaged me the most.
Image from a Kevin Jerome Everson film, "Act One: Betty," Whitney Museum
Still from Everson's film "Act One: Betty"

Kevin Jerome Everson (b. 1965-), a professor at The University of Virginia, works in a range of forms, from filmmaking to sculpture and photography, and his assured grasp of the pictorial and how film can play with the plasticity of imagery and the pictorial space come through in the collection of short films, many (most?) of them 16mm transferred to video, playing in the exhibit. All appear have implicit narratives, but they compel you more to look and think than follow as you would traditional shorts, yet their experimental brevity and disjunction is different from that of experimental filmmaking as I tend to think of it. All of the films here focus on African-American lives. They give glimpses, all seemingly drawn straight from life, of a coherent world, drawn from Everson's imagination and from appropriated footage that he expertly edits, that on closer examination might not be the sum of its parts. Sitting through the films, I enjoyed the realities they created even as I realized how fictional(ized) they were.  Often but brief reels of seductive visual poetry--and in one case, "Blind Huber" (2005), Everson literalizes the poetic by including a snippet of a poem on beekeeping by poet Nick Flynn, which the poet reads aloud--Everson's mini-takes are often sly and effective commentaries on reality he and others (I included) not only live it, but feel it.  Moreover, Everson manages to balance impressive artfulness (from his skillful management of composition, light and darkness, pictorial depth) and the prosaic, without the artistic pretense that screams: "This is an art film, in a museum/gallery, and thus it's important." The films exude their playfulness and seriousness in equal turns.
Still from Everson's "American Motor Company"
Still from Everson's film "American Motor Company"
While I enjoyed all of them, three films really stand out: in "American Motor Company," Everson depicts two workers methodically posting a billboard that is at first unclear and unremarkable but which, when finished, reveals a black man posing in front of the fake town of Volkswagen, Ohio. That's it. Yet the film captures so much: the invisibility and precarity, and the physical efforts required, of blue-collar labor (especially today), the global consumerist fantasy, capitalism's contemporary spectacle, and the steady corporatization of every aspect of our lives, down to municipal government themselves. Only this one has a black face fronting it. "According To" is an especially powerful example of how Everson sometimes puts archival and found footage to novel and evocative ends. In this short piece, he links three different tracks: one is footage of an elderly African-American man, living in the rural South, who recounts his experiences working as a paperboy; the second features footage of a body being dredged from a lake, intercut with clips of notable black people, ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Floyd Patterson, and what appear to be civil rights protests; the third features crisp audio local news reports, including some that appear to refer to the drowning. Everson skillfully torques each element, so that the elderly man begins to qualify his accounts, suggesting that he wasn't always paid and that his memory might be faulty. The news reports also shift, also changing the story of the drowned man and our feelings about the nature of his death, and adding other crimes, including one in which an "elderly Negro woman" died in a fire that appears to be a hate crime, and a black man readily admits to having killed a white man. The images shift into sync with this changed narration, showing what appears to be a black body on a gurney; is it the drowned man, who may have been murdered, and how objective can any news be within the context of our particular national, racial, ethnic, and gendered histories? The third film, "Ninety-three" features the same actor in "According To," attempting to blow out the eponymous birthday candles, which, as we come to see, are the trick kind. In the interplay between the slow camera speed, the elderly man's expressive face and the flames lighting it, Everson has captured a world, his world, mine, ours, and by extension, reveals truths more broadly about humanity, as effectively as a poem. Multiple ones.

Cory Arcangel's "Various Self Playing Bowling Games" (2011)
Arcangel's "Various Self-Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ)"
Cory Arcangel (b. 1978-) is a computer whiz with a great sense of humor, and skills.  His smarts, technical expertise and wit are on ample display throughout this exhibit, which examines the interplay between off-the-shelf technologies and the artist's (and one could add, the hacker's) creative interventions, thus revising our thoughts about the latter in light of evolving legal and aesthetic notions of hardware and software. Throughout "Pro Tools," Arcangel presents now-outmoded technological tools that still offer ways of thinking through our relationship with the electronic and digital, virtual worlds in which we all now exist. What once was the height of sophistication--getting sculptures to move via computer algorithms; pen plotting machines; interactive video games--become almost passé, not just scientifically but in terms of their status as commodities. Arcangel, however, is interested in returning to them and seeing what he can learn from them and what they can still teach us today. Often as I walked through the exhibit I could feel a philosophical and conceptual impulse underlining these pieces; what would it be like to? or what would happen if I? simplistic as such questions sounded, might be among his basic starting points. What connects such starting points is a throughline exploring the effects of technological tools and their relationship to art historical and popular cultural discourses. In "Various Self-Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ)" (2011), Arcangel presents a wall of multi-channel, large-scale projections of video bowling games from the late 1970s to the 2000s, and in each he reprogrammed them to bowl the ball into the gutter. (He also does something similar with a miniature golf putting game, "Master" (2011), in another room.)  His hacks here undercut our sense of the "interactive," suggesting technology that has gotten out of hand, literally; we watch, are enthralled by the colors, maddened by the noise, but we have no control over the games whatsoever.  I immediately thought, what a metaphor for capitalism as most of us, the non-plutocrats, that is, experience it.

Arcangel's "Palms"
Another set of pieces that I was drawn to were Hello World (2011) and Palms (2011), simple line drawings that Arcangel produced using now superannuated pen and pencil-plotting machines from the 1980s and 1990s. I can recall how expensive and rarefied such equipment was back then, having worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s in an MIT laboratory in which large-scale plotting and printing was sometimes necessary, but as Arcangel tells us, such equipment can be purchased for a song on eBay, which is what he did, and with a bit of configuring, can be put to work playing with the idea of reproduction and mimesis more specifically. What is a copy, and how carefully can our eyes tell the difference? In Palms, Arcangel creates a series of images of palm trees that confuse the boundary between machine and artist-created drawings, challenging the viewer to discern which was produced by the pencil plotting device and which was produced by the artist himself.  In Hello World, he wrote a computer program to create line 2-dimensional drawings connecting random points between 0 and 100.  (One drawing was a blank page, as the program picked the number zero, mirroring works from the early conceptual period of the 1960s, as well as earlier white and blank canvases from the 20th century Euro-American art-historical canon.) In and through such works, as well as the kinetic sculptures (see the video I took below), Arcangel is also reinserting into the art-historical narrative mid-1960s computer art, long written out of the contested accounts of the development of contemporary art history, theory and practice.

Arcangel's "Research in Motion (Kinetic Sculpture #6) (2011)

I'll only add that while I found Arcangel's various photoshop prints--chromogenic prints--fascinating, the large ones were difficult, at least for me, to look at too long. I have not yet figured out why I can look at heavily saturated, brightly colored abstract paintings or even photographs, at length, but struggled to look for any length of time at pictures such as his "Photoshop CS: 84 by 66 inches, 300 DPI, RGB, square pixels, default gradient "Spectrum" mousedown y=25100x x=0, mouseup y=0, x=19750" (2010). It was like, well, look at too much of something, something so bright and artificial and huge my eyes could not adjust. I wondered if there were some sort of psychocognitive or physiological effects underway, but it was not a Kantian experience, nor was it a moment of presencing and recognition, by any measure.  Instead, Adorno's dictum, from Aesthetic Theory, in which he says something along the lines of unresolved social antagonisms return in artworks as the immanent problems of artistic form, felt most appropriate.  I found myself admiring the technical skill, the artistry to pull these apparently simple-looking but actually-complex works off, but I also feel they, like the rest of the works in the show, are saying something directly and powerfully about where we're at as a society.  Though they grace the walls of one of the elite museums in this country or any other, and though quite a few theorists and critics, from the field of art history and others, have commented on and are talking about where we are in relation to digital technologies, Internet culture and fine art across media, I also know that much of this brilliant discussion--like Arcangel's work--has not entered the wider discourse.  But that will happen, as this exhibit suggests, requiring us to look back as we move--forward?

One of Arcangel's "Photoshop" series chromogenic prints
Arcangel's “Photoshop CS: 110 x 72 inches, 300 DPI, RGB, square pixels, default gradient “Yellow, Violet, Red, Teal,” mousedown y=16450 x=10750, mouseup y=18850 x=20600” (2009)

Of the other two exhibits, which I could not photograph (since photos are allowed only on the 4th floor, and I was told to stop photo'ing the Whitney's original collection exhibit and to delete the photos I'd already taken), I'll only say that 1) (Cha's piece) to stand very close to a talented actor spazzing out, with a harnessed-camera strapped to her, and shortly thereafter watch the video she produced projected on a monitor shortly thereafter, noting as I did so that this would happen over and over for the entire run of the piece, with differing actors, performances, videos, was a great way to start my museum visit; and 2) (the original Whitney collection) to see what constituted a portion of the early 20th century American avant-garde, as selected according to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's voracious yet judicious taste, confirms for me the Whitney's special place and purpose among New York's elite museums. While Mrs. Whitney concentrated on America's talented and somewhat to very daring for its time nth--including the Ashcan School, the Precisionists, the Regionalists, folk artists, and so forth--and sometimes drew in more than she needed to with her financial and aesthetic net, her initial vision, as the paintings, sculptures, drawings, and works in other media suggest, represented something quite rich, and I say that punningly and with irony, and daring for its time. I can imagine her husband and social set more than a little shocked as--if--they more than glanced at some of these works. But then again, if you're a Vanderbilt and a Whitney, I imagine you get cut a good bit of slack. Among the first things you see when you when you step off the elevator to see the show is a sculpture by the African-American artist Richmond Barthé; in more than a few works, the theme and metaphors of industrialism and machine age reappear, sometimes formally, often antithetically; the semi-reconstructed display room in the rear-most gallery suggests the performances that moved from Mrs. Whitney's head and life to the living walls and halls of her museum; and the artworks themselves provoke all sorts of conversations, among themselves and viewers. Leaving this show, I felt like the now-late founder would have been quite pleased with the other shows in her museum, as their antecedents were already in place nearly a century ago.

1 comment:

  1. Please for Christ sake help this poor boy from Haiti