Bones' Beat: 1992009 at D'Amelio Terras

This week Bones, intrepid art-world raconteur, reports back from D'Amelio Terras Gallery in Chelsea, where 1992009 juxtaposes contemporary stars from 1992 with the young gallery talent of 2009. What kind of shape are we in these days, anyway?

Courtesy D'Amelio Terras
Courtesy D'Amelio Terras

It is important to note that the nominal 'underground' of contemporary art has stable footing in the larger, overground art world. While the opacity of other industrial systems--record labels, ad agencies, skateboard companies--deliberately keeps the idea of counterculture at arm's length, all the better to maximize profits and exploit microtrends from season to season, the art world has a remarkably sanguine, even-handed relationship with its weirdo reverse. Excluding the enduring ghetto designation of 'folk' or 'outsider' art, the contemporary art world offers itself as a safe and open forum for marginalized, controversial, or insane thinking. Homosexuality and kink are norms that have always provided shelter to artists. Jack Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had it good. The burgeoning illegal wall-writing movement in isolated areas of New York sat easily, uncompromised, with the college-educated nous of contemporary agitators like Chris Burden, thanks in part to Norman Mailer's lionizing 1974 essay "The Faith of Graffiti." Jeffrey Deitch, Paul Kasmin, and Tony Shafrazi made a mint off downtown renegades in the 1980s, accepting them and promoting them on the artists' own odd terms, and while there were side effects and casualties, the system benefited the artists first.

So if nothing else, recent history has proved that an underground spirit can flourish within the four white gallery walls, neither sanitized nor manipulated. As we anticipate scrappier, edgier art times ahead--in reaction to the recent shiny, polite art market's cave-in--we'll benefit by considering the careful ways artists choose to express revolt in our nurturing art-world environment. 1992009, an elliptical, simmering group exhibition at D'Amelio Terras in Chelsea, will be our case study.

Bones' Beat: 1992009 at D'Amelio Terras
Courtesy D'Amelio Terras

As might be figured from its title, the show jumbles choice pieces around the focal year of 1992 with new work from the gallery's 2009 stable. Historical echoes between the two American moments--from Bush men leaving Presidential office to war in the Middle East and an enfeebled economy--act as both premise and explanation. A unified tender mood unveils itself, a spectrum of emotion from wounded insecurity, self-protectiveness, and brittleness to resilience, defiance, and pride. The show is muted, the atmosphere silent. Money has a niggling presence. Conscientious social awareness is high in the mix. Simple spirituality does not offer itself as a tonic or salve.

Robert Gober's three 1992 bundles of newspapers are actually manipulated remixes of newspapers, lithographs on archival paper that look exactly like newspapers. Close examination reveals a vicious argument in the reconfigured articles on the top page of a bundle, an indictment of the sallow, clueless early '90s crusade for family values as juxtaposed with domestic abuse and unchecked materialism. "Jury Convicts Man Who Locked His Children in Bronx Apartment" sits above a photo of dewy Dan Quayle having his Windsor Knot sorted out by his adoring wife; to the left is an ad, text removed, for a gleaming pot-and-pan set.

Jedediah Caesar's 2004-2006 Redwood consists of three ore-like brown resin chunks, buzz-sawn down to totable size, a horrible contemporary aspic with a suspension of splintered refuse in plaster, wood and hemp. It is both convincing as organic matter and painfully synthetic, with a nasty tang. Faith in the enchanted power of mineral formations fades with the apparent excavation of this new slice of the earth.

Kiki Smith's 1992 lifesize whitish wax figure leans low to the ground on her haunches, arms stretched out with palms up. She may be begging for money or mercy, stretching out her spine, or teasing out a secret taped to the underside of a sofa. It does not look like she should stay in that position for too long, but she does, and she will. The eye tends to flick back from across the room, and she's still there.

The work in this show gnaws. The idea of feeling's persistence carries more weight than feeling itself, as if themes are too big and too awful to bear verbalization. "Nothing we don't already know" reads a 1991 Louise Lawler wall painting beneath a photograph of artworks' framed spines lined up on storage racks. A 1991 Felix Gonzales-Torres jigsaw-puzzle work's image is a newspaper clipping about a celebratory military march. Dick Cheney is involved, spookily. The puzzle pieces have been put together, but the message of both the art and the fragment of the act it describes remain hazy. "'You couldn't even move,' said one teen-ager who fainted," reads the enlarged caption.

The nurtured underground abides, to educate and incite, in the terms that are needed for the times. 1992009 has a profoundly conspiratorial tone, agitating at a low, persistent level. The endlessly complained-about insularity and coolness of contemporary art can be unsuspiciously enjoyed here as a means to an end: This is a quiet riot. Noah Sheldon and Maggie Peng's 2009 Fence Post Wind Chimes are small differently sized metal hemispheres suspended in a roughly circular array from a steel disc. The weights rest against each other. Every now and then a motor spins the disc. The weights flare out a little with centrifugal force, the well-remembered fairground action of a Chair-O-Plane ride, then gather back together in their original formation when the motor slows. The sensitive tuning of the work--the gentleness with which disorder threatens and order returns, the cozy sound of familiarity that the caps make when clonking back in perfect order--speaks of hope for restoration and basic faith in a quietly cooperative, empowered private system. The work, hung smartly in the gallery's front window, is an elegant metaphor for the show. We discreetly divide to fight our battles, and then come back together.-Bones

1992009 runs until April 25th at D'Amelio Terras, 525 W. 22nd Street. As one can usually be in and out of a Chelsea show in 5 minutes or less, I'm compelled to report that I was in this exhibition for 40 minutes. The catalogue racks in the entrance area have a sweet selection of 1992 books and magazines: be sure to take a look at the catalogue for Post Human, a trailblazing early show about body identity and digital identity. There is more to recommend this exhibition, at every stage, than space allows.

Bones is off next week, returning April 9th with a refreshed calendar of NY art adventures.

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