Tuesday, February 12, 2008

From the Outside Looking In

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1981–1982, 2007. Documentation. © Tehching Hsieh. Courtesy of the artist and The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection, Detroit

In the book and exhibition New York States of Mind: Art in the City, Shaheen Merali presents an outsider’s take on the sociopolitical and cultural leviathan that is New York City. Using primarily the work of contemporary artists and filmmakers, Merali praises New York “as a constant space for re-birthing and of cyclical transition, where the throbbing multitude is in itself regarded as cultural capital.” However, Merali also sees that powerful space shrinking in the face of commercialism and “the obfuscation that now stands for contemporary New York and American political discourse and art” painting “critique… as anti-patriotic and debate as politically arousing.” Where art was once “a place of disruptive strategy” in the New York scene, it is now “fully integrated into the marketas fashion and product design.” Merali first curated this exhibition in Berlin at the House of World Cultures, providing the physical and ideological distance necessary to take an honest appraisal of America and New York free of the distortions of being too close to the subject, in every sense of the word. With such distance, works of art such as Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1981–1982 (above), in which the artist, then an illegal immigrant from Taiwan, recorded his year spent on the streets of New York and never once entered a building in a prolonged, highly physical examination of the state of homelessness and of non-citizenship, can be seen as insightful and provocative social commentary rather than fodder for conservative talking points.

Iona Rozeal Brown, "a³ … blackface # 78", 2004. Mixed media on paper. © Joshua White. Courtesy of private collection, Los Angeles, CA. and Sandroni Rey

Merali’s non-American perspective allows him to push forward the internationalist elements of the art of New York, which reflect the immigrant past as well as the present of America. Iona Rozeal Brown’s "a³ … blackface # 78" (above) marries the worlds of African-American hip-hop and Japanese Kabuki in a visual representation of those two subcultures interacting within the larger American culture through the collision of the growing black and Asian communities in large cities such as New York. “In the Kabuki and Bunraku they use images in black, which is the color of invisibility in Japanese theatre,” Brown says in her interview, one of the many Merali conducted with the artists in the exhibition. Just as Ralph Ellison equated life as an African-American with invisibility in his novel Invisible Man, Brown equates blackness with invisibility, but with the added factor of Japanese culture, stirring up the pot of cultural associations even further. In another interview, the artist Ian Burns expresses his concern that the social aspect of art is under a threat of being “trivialized… as a safe ‘yes’ conversation without leading to any particular uncomfortable situations.” Just as previously confrontational art forms such as hip-hop verge on mainstream acceptance and “trivialization,” artists such as Brown change things up, create a wholly new cultural matrix of Asian art and the world of Cristal-swigging rappers.

Kehinde Wiley, St. Francis of Adelaide, 2006. Cast marble dust and resin. Courtesy of the artist and CEREALART

Another figure who takes the African-American experience and adds a different, transformative twist is Kehinde Wiley. “The trouble with painting is that there’s so much history to contend with,” Wiley believes. “I try to embrace the history and somehow operate as though it never occurred.” In St. Francis of Adelaide (above), Wiley makes a secular saint of a young black man, transforming the loose clothing currently in style into the draped robe of a medieval saint. The incongruous use of marble for a contemporary subject jars us into re-evaluating our opinion of such young men, a demographic in danger in twenty-first century America, and literally places on a pedestal lives too often disregarded by society. As Rosten Woo says in his interview, the goal of much contemporary art is “to try to cash the check of democracy.” Wiley’s St. Francis of Adelaide demands to be paid in full, with interest.

In addition to these contemporary artists, Merali presents the work of filmmakers who have made New York their greatest subject, from well known figures such as Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Spike Lee, and Martin Scorsese to little-known figures such as Jack Smith, the subject of a documentary film by Mary Jordan that hails him “simultaneously as the founding father of performance art, a ground-breaking photographer, and the William Blake of film.” As diverse as the body of artists Merali gathers together is, he always seems to be able to keep them together within his framework of presentation. The selections for the film program seem more slippery and problematic, spilling out of the framework and muddying the waters for those trying to take it all in—a testament to the diversity of the art itself and Merali’s choices, but a point of frustration when trying to come away with a coherent meaning. When Merali puts Darren Aronofsky’s film Requiem for a Dream under the category “Drugs and Reaganism,” he stretches the concepts much too thinly.

David Hammons, African-American Flag, 1990. Dyed cotton fabric. Courtesy of Ellipse Foundation – Contemporary Art Collection

“The art audience is the worst audience in the world,” laments David Hammons, creator of African-American Flag (above). “It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?” Such words echo the cosmopolitan yet anti-establishment spirit of Marcel Duchamp, the patron saint of Merali’s exhibition whom he evokes at the very beginning to inject a sense of disruptive fun. Duchamp embodied the original and perhaps quintessential “New York state of mind” through his rejection of the art world and all its certainties and safety for a playfulness and adventurousness in art that mirrored the state of a fully lived life itself. New York States of Mind: Art in the City strives to take back the streets and bring the art out of the elitist galleries and back into the lives of the everyday person, specifically the everyday American who needs these images to reflect upon and recognize the state of the world around them. Merali brings together art that should bring people together by revealing not only the connections exploited by these artists but also the commercialism and divisive political rhetoric that divides us.

[Many thanks to Saqi Books for providing me with a review copy of New York States of Mind: Art in the City and to the Queens Museum of Art for providing the images from the exhibition shown above.]

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