The I-Don't-Get-It Aesthetic

The art we don't understand—it's a big, constantly changing category. This is partly because the longer we look at most works of art, the more understandable they tend to become. Nevertheless, there are holdouts—art that never seems to let us in, that stays evasive. Sometimes we don't mind; we're intrigued or tantalized. Sometimes we're pissed off, or mildly irritated. We've all got artists we harbor grudges against. Other times, we're just embarrassed or think we're out of the loop. For example, I never feel I really get Jorge Pardo's work, even though I like the way it looks.

I often think the art we don't understand falls into three loose categories. First, there's the art we don't understand and hate, secretly wishing it would disappear. Last month this subdivision was personified for me by the British Marxist-conceptualist collective Art & Language, whose supersolipsistic survey at P.S. 1 consisted of wall-to-wall philosophical texts, political posters, card files, and re-creations of famous paintings. A quarter century ago, Art & Language forged an important link in the genealogy of conceptual art, but subsequent efforts have been so self-aggrandizing and arcane that their work is now virtually irrelevant. Then again, sundry young British artists say that early on, Art & Language was one of the things they were reacting against, so all's well that ends well, I guess.

The other two categories are more complicated. First there's the art you don't understand and like, maybe even love. At the moment, the access code to this division can be gleaned in a wonderfully culled posthumous exhibition at Nolan/Eckman of Martin Kippenberger's drawings on hotel stationery and collages. Since his death in 1997, at the younger-than-you-would-have-thought and wise-beyond-his-years age of 43, Kippenberger has garnered more recognition as the hit-and-miss heavyweight he is. Running amok in delirious pandemonium, Kippenberger was a superior example of a basic fact: Most great art is a mystery.

A conceptual artist's conceptual artist: John Miller's Turn Into Earth (1999) on the wall behind Lexicon (detail, 1999) at Metro Pictures
photo: Robin Holland
A conceptual artist's conceptual artist: John Miller's Turn Into Earth (1999) on the wall behind Lexicon (detail, 1999) at Metro Pictures

Finally there's art you don't understand or are ambivalent about, while being somewhat intrigued by or passably interested in it—at least enough to make you not dismiss it outright, though sometimes you wish you could. Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, and Jim Shaw belong to this brotherhood, as do Stephen Prina, David Robbins, and Christopher Williams. Right now, former Art & Language member Sarah Charlesworth's flirtation with the decorative shores of inscrutability on view at Gorney Bravin + Lee (though a little sterile, her best show in years) fits this bill, as does sly fox Allen Ruppersberg, who has covered his old work and the walls of Christine Burgin's new space with scores of yellow Post-Its that all begin with the words "Honey, I rearranged the collection . . . " A perennial in this category is John Miller, whose latest exhibition at Metro Pictures is baffling-to-form, sometimes comely, but ultimately disappointing.

A practitioner of the 20th century's oldest aesthetic profession, impressing low culture into high culture, Miller is a conceptual artist's conceptual artist, a slippery fish who hasn't been visited by the kind of consensus or acceptance many of his clan have enjoyed. As others went mainstream, Miller remained hardcore—the devotee who stays behind while the gang gets away. Now 45, he seems almost success-proof, which is one of the things that makes him interesting to me.

Miller is best known for his chocolate-colored constructions and shit-like paintings, piled with the detritus of commodity culture. These works were so totally low and insane, it looked as though he was ready for his close-up years ago. He was included in numerous group shows, including "Just Pathetic," the seminal 1990 bicoastal exhibition of the "abject" or "slacker" aesthetic that was prevalent in the art of the early '90s. Probing some unfathomable bottom where formalism and scatology touch, these compost paintings almost made Miller the Yves Klein of brown. Then his Brown Period stopped.

Here, in one plastic-fruit-encrusted, mirrored mound thing, Miller appears to be thinking about New Age Robert Smithson, though to what end I'm not sure. A series of semiabstract digital paintings (based on the Price Is Right set), two flower-covered disco balls, brightly painted walls, a sound piece, and an arrangement of carpet-and-Plexi-covered cubes suggest he's looking into American vacuousness and game shows.

But the show feels hollow. The sound piece (which reiterates jingles) is bogus, the hanging globes are strange and resemble kitschy televangelist props, and the paintings are deadpan impersonations of utopian landscapes. Miller may be taking incomprehensibility to new depths, but he's reasoned much of the life out of his art. Like many of his cohorts in this category, Miller has a hard time translating thought into anything interesting to look at. Veering toward the cute and the commercial, this show gets by on garden-variety critique and latter-day Neo-Geo; we are told little we didn't know, in visual terms that feel deficient and unimaginative.

This subject matter isn't iconic enough, or maybe it's so of the moment it's already been processed. I recall an episode of Seinfeld—in which Kramer installed the set of The Merv Griffin Showin his living room—as being more provocative and perverse. Previously, Miller made things that amused him, and occasionally rattled us. Now he's backtracked into the everyday realms of irony. Intentionally or otherwise, Miller has found another way to pass through the art world's net undetected, though I suppose undeterred.

 
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