Ripe With Gripe


Vapidity can blunt any passion, and—like the Vatican tour’s forced march through its gift shop—art-world annoyances call forth my inner curmudgeon. Below, just a few of the ways one might garner a “Dog of the Month” ribbon in this space.

During a recent Chelsea stroll, I wandered into one of the many galleries that, in our age of economies without borders, no longer observes the quaint tradition of closing up shop during July and August. Not for the first time, I was confronted with a TV monitor playing a video loop of weirdly tall, pinheaded protagonists (or, in other cases, figures as squat as Buddhas). One wishes these distortions were born of aesthetic inspiration, but they’re actually sad examples of visual artists who can’t get the freakin’ aspect ratio right. Combining poor production values with an art form that too often veers between self-indulgence and navel-gazing can generate a perfect storm of tedium. (Bonus aggravation point: the stinging siroccos of cement dust from the luxury-high-rise construction sites that dot the Chelsea art mall.)

Next up, the perennially stultifying prose of too many exhibition catalogs. While preparing for a panel on this year’s Whitney Biennial, I came across this explication of Ellen Harvey’s wan installation of mirrors and small canvases: “[Her] futile self-portraits are a testimony to her interest in the difficulty of adequate self-representation while they also, paradoxically and gleefully, reassert painting, acknowledging at once the medium’s often-postulated impossibility as well as the almost comic redundancy of its defense.” I’m not going to parse that syntax, but—just for laughs—let’s contemplate those glum souls postulating the “impossibility” of painting in the face of 30,000-plus years of material fact. In our age of lo-res, hyperkinetic imagery, this abiding art form remains capable of delivering a profound, even ineffable convergence of eye, mind, and gut in the viewer. Painting has supposedly been dead at least since Daguerre, but Photoshop and other miracles of digital illumination feel flat compared to the multivalent beauty of, say, Terry Winters’s empirical abstractions or Sigmar Polke’s polymorphous narratives.

Not to pick exclusively on the Biennial catalog, but this glib quote from Swedish-born artist Fia Backström also leapt out: “All artists are sort of like con artists.” Since she managed to cajole the curators themselves into fabricating turd-like letters in clay as part of her lackluster Whitney installation, she might well be perpetrating a con. But if I’m going to be conned, I’d rather purchase a snowball from the acerbically witty David Hammons or get lost in Cindy Sherman’s gorgeous genre manipulations. Too many of the artists I know are working so hard to make a dent in the public’s complacency that they don’t have the time to con anyone. Con jobs are best left to dealers.

Galleries, of course, provide a valuable service, but allow me a few gripes anyway, beginning with those small, out-of-the-way spaces whose minuscule staffs are laboring under the delusion that “We are bohemians, for whom time does not exist.” Fine, but if your postcard lists your hours—and please do, along with directions—make sure you’re actually open at said times. Professionalism sucks, but that’s why art is a way of life, not a hobby.

And here’s a memo to even the most successful dealers: Spare me tales of how artist X did at auction Y with collector Z. I know gallerists gotta eat, and God bless the artist who doesn’t need a day job, but the glory of art lies in its intrinsic worthlessness. (As a painter friend once said: “You can’t eat it, fuck it, or duck out of the rain under it.”) That we can conceive it, create it, and love it clearly separates us from the beasts—even more genuinely than religion, because art doesn’t proffer the quid pro quo of salvation. But what you can get from a good day in Williamsburg, along 57th Street, or across the Bowery is artistic communion, and there’s no collection plate. Sure, there’s a lot of dross, and if you make the trip on a regular basis, you may strain your pivot foot rushing from various shows. But every once in a while, beauty, relevance, and/or vexation stops you dead.

I think of a video I saw a few years back: Anthony Howard’s sublimely absurd Oui We. The protagonist, who croaks and blurts in ersatz French, horrifies passersby as he humps his shapeless sculpture on the steps of the Met, one of numerous desperate bids for audience love. “Pierre” considers himself an unappreciated art star, while everyone else sees a pathetic annoyance. Within that chasm dwells art even a curmudgeon can love.