“Highly Sophisticated Insiders”

August 23rd, 2008 § 0 comments

A good deal of the artistic/gallery conversation last November in SoHo concerned what I assumed to be a new museum building in the area that was not yet open. Gallery owners talked about a possible shift in the epicenter of the art scene, leaving Chelsea or Williamsburg, and migrating toward Chinatown—an idea that seemed distasteful to everyone who did not already own a gallery in the area.

We stayed in Chinatown while looking at apartments this July, and after about four days we noticed a building incongruous enough to be something. With a bright steal exterior, a stacked sort of appearance, and a rainbow sign reading “hell, yes!” stuck to the framework, it turned out to be the “new museum” artists were talking about—now open and bustling. The last piece of the puzzle was finding out that The New Museum is not in fact new, (every time I say the Fossil studies at NSSR a similar mistake is made) but opened in the late 1970’s; “new” is confined in this case to the location on Bowery and the building.


Having visited twice in the past week, for particular reasons I will divulge later, I spent enough time loitering and lingering to have a real sense of the space. The only artist I know who is even more critical of museums than I sometimes feel, is Robert Smithson. His most memorable writings, despite the wandering style, were those scathing essays he wrote on museums: “visiting a museum is a matter of going from void to void.” Museums divide for me between old European style buildings that primarily house “ancient” art, and those “contemporary” buildings designed by brave new architects in the post-Gehry style of being completely incongruous with their surroundings. It must be my European bias that makes the older slightly less invasive. The Met is free if you read the sign carefully enough, and the guards are so wary of being asked directions to the bathroom or the café they leave you alone. Most contemporary museums, however, are guarded with the vigor of a large corporation protecting against shrink. As much as I would like to pull a Warhol soiled with urine off the wall, I think I can manage to resist.

The New Museum feels too new, it is white to an almost extreme extent, the staff is made up of pretentious artists with power over the public, and the overall vibe is trust-fund-hipster-chic. There is an interesting piece in the basement outside the lecture hall that maps out the donations for the museum, though more noticeably it states, in large black letters, the countries and businesses that did NOT contribute—Cuba and Iraq were prominent among them. On the free evening this week the staff forced the public to line up outside on the street with all the trash waiting to be taken out that night. In an institution-like reversal, we became not art viewers of all ages, but herd animals needing guidance and control in the form of rails, lines, and half filled elevators—letting the savages in is a great risk indeed.

The current exhibition, “After Nature”, a group show spanning four floors of the museum, deals with the current state of our landscape and our culture’s participation in its destruction. The general topic, though quite vague when you read the curator’s essay, treads heavily on trite ground, and the heavy-handed drabness of the work disappointed critics. I started at the top and worked my way downward, therefore I began with high hopes and ended at the bottom disturbed and annoyed. For all the show’s claim of using “art as a tool for mythmaking,” promoting a return to magic-realism, only the top group of artists retained that possibility—they were as well the most interesting. I found it ironic that the photographs I enjoyed most were made at the end of the 19th century and without the use of a camera.

I like Zoe Leonard and therefore tolerated her displaced tree, and I have written about Maurizio Cattelan before so I enjoyed his equestrian statue. The wall of black and white photographs by Roger Ballen seemed at first predictable, but in the end left room for humor and curiosity. The top floor felt strange and otherworldly instead of post-apocalyptic. Those four artists blended together what has happened with what might happen through what felt like a distinctly human imagination—it was the show at its best. Towards the bottom floor were excerpts from Herzog’s Lessons in Darkness. I left with a breathtaking moving image of burning oil fields rolling repetitiously in my head, punctuated by his German voice narrating the story of a charred landscape. Headless horses and a country rendered unrecognizable by war: someone, somewhere, did let the savages in.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What's this?

You are currently reading “Highly Sophisticated Insiders” at Escaping Artist.