In our time, progress shops at thrift stores. How else to explain the sudden efflorescence of ’70s Atari T-shirts, the weird resurgence of bicycles with banana seats, the invasion of Jim Morrison look-alikes on skateboards, and the boom in technically proficient painting of all possible stripes? To paraphrase cranky NPR commentator and poet Andrei Codrescu: If the modernist’s command was Ezra Pound’s “Make It New,” the imperative of our time seems to be “Get It Used.” The more used, the better.
These were some of my thoughts as I took in the ecumenical scope of “The Incomplete,” an exhibition of 258 paintings, drawings, and sculptures disgorged from the holdings of über-collector Hubert Neumann and flung, salon-style, onto the walls of 22nd Street’s Chelsea Art Museum. Hung higgledy-piggledy in a manner that recalls Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation—and, according to artist Ashley Bickerton, the art in Neumann’s own home—”The Incomplete” presents a riotously energetic, superficially pleasurable, strangely familiar show that blurts out unintended questions and reveals unasked-for answers. A portrait of a “Me, Too” decade that captures the teen spirit of much young art— especially painting—the exhibition, despite its admirable appeal for open- endedness, provides a stable, remarkably static view of art in the age of George Bush.
“The Incomplete” illustrates how far the pendulum has swung back from the era when painting and aesthetics were ars non grata, while providing a first instance—if memory serves—in which an active cross-section of young art dating from the late 1990s to the present can be assayed. The exhibition is also, perforce, a portrait of a collector—Mr. Neumann, who organized the installation along with museum curator Manon Slome. That portrait turns out to be of a crazy uncle (according to one artist’s testimonial) and a booster of artistic heterogeneity—at least in the sense that his hoard features myriad variations on a single theme: conceptually thin work in a good-looking guise.
Filled with marketable names and as uneven as a Led Zeppelin album, “The Incomplete” presents a generation of artists, above all, eager to please. There’s Wendell Gladstone: He makes elaborate mosaic-like paintings in acrylic of sword-and-sorcery fantasies that recall the visuals for the HBO series Rome. Or JP Munro: He mines similar territory by painting consciously arch, oil-on-canvas works that channel equal parts French neoclassicism and misty Giacomo Balla. Aya Uekawa, for her part, makes attractive pattern and decoration paintings featuring the same enigmatic female subject. A fourth artist, Tom Sanford, is one of several current painters of bling icons like 50 Cent, Paris Hilton, and Tupac Shakur.
What they all have in common, besides painting chops, appears clear in cramped proximity to one another: namely, an alarming paucity of deep, nettlesome intelligence—a deficit that would raise red flags in any other art market except ours. Fodder for a steady queue of patrons who prefer their expectations tickled rather than trounced, the works of these and other artists in the show (Sydney Chastain-Chapman, Kristin Baker, Justin Samson, and Ridley Howard, among others) have a strong vein of cork running through them: No matter how hard their creators try to push deeper, their art invariably bobs right back up to the surface.
It used to be that artists, especially painters, were obliged to fasten their practice to a conceptual peg (think Peter Halley) or at least substantially query their medium (think John Currin), but the cumulative effect of “The Incomplete” is—to take a page from Neil Postman—of a generation amusing itself, if not to death, then into a kind of art-as-medium-of-entertainment obsolescence. Handsome but unavoidably vapid, the works of these young artists and a few of the older ones—especially Ashley Bickerton, whose influence haunts the show like the ghost of Jeff Spicoli—provide artistic challenges akin to Nike advertisements. These demand simple acceptance—dumb like or dislike—since there are no assertions, one way or another, formally or intellectually, to refute.
This is not say that “The Incomplete” does not feature some fabulously satisfying work. It does. There is a painting-cum-sculpture by Chris Johanson, whose genuinely difficult work always outdistances description; the exploded imaginary architectures of Benjamin Edwards; the unsettling paintings and sculptures of Charlie Roberts (new to me); and the remarkably dynamic paintings of Christian Schumann, whose newest pieces one-up his previous blistered comic-book grotesqueries in obsessive-compulsive energy. Still, a quote from Mark Rothko, that Olympian of brood, comes to mind when considering the overall impression of “The Incomplete,” a show whose putative subject is an artistic plurality that, on the evidence, doesn’t appear to exist:
“It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.”