The New Museum turned 32 this year. And as Massimiliano Gioni, its director of special exhibitions, himself only 33, suggested at the press preview for “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus,” the museum has more than a bit of self-consciousness about age—specifically, its transformation from young upstart housed in a crumbling Soho warehouse to an institution entrenched in a chic stack of concrete blocks. As with many a growing establishment, self-consciousness about attracting a young audience seems to have had a tremendous effect on their current programming. Hence “Younger Than Jesus,” an immense group show filled with artists from around the world, sharing only one thing in common—they’re all under age 33.
Of course, the show title lays bare the shallowness of the exhibition’s ambitions. Why compare a group of artists to a great, famous figure by one of His least important qualities? By that token, the next show should be called “Taller Than Napoleon.” But on today’s Lower East Side, superficial intentions don’t cancel anyone’s plans, and the easiest way to gather young folks is to tell them they’re young and that they matter, because, as Twitter and Facebook demonstrate, they’re obsessed with themselves.
Determining quality by physical proximity to fame is easily defended as ironic, of course, and it’s certainly in keeping with the conventional wisdom about Gen Y. And, like the stereotypical kid of the millennial generation, “Younger Than Jesus” is globally focused, pushy beyond its abilities, and eager to draw attention to itself despite a deficiency of substance.
Organizing a massive art show around a concept as broad as “artists under age 33” means risking an atmosphere of both vagueness and immaturity. But you’d expect that a gathering of so much promising youth in one place would foster an electric feeling and a sense of possibility, to balance out the Second-Year-MFA-gallery-show blahs. Not exactly. As the show sprawls out over five floors, the visual noise gets pretty loud, that need for attention almost palpable. Yet the splashiest pieces, if initially arresting, are universally unintriguing (and only partially because they have so much company). Somehow, the quietest, most resonant work is the only stuff with the proper RDA of ideas, but that may have as much to do with their context as their content. One feels rewarded to have noticed any subtlety at all amid the hubbub.
The prize for squeakiest wheel certainly goes to 27-year-old Texan installation artist Ryan Trecartin. In two East Village–studio-apartment-sized rooms, he has assembled K-Corea INC. K (Section A) and Sibling Topics (Section A). The former refers to air travel, as Trecartin has bracketed the walls with faux-fuselage panels and airplane seats. He’s inscrutably filled the rest of the room with fish tanks and CD racks, and affixed an iron bedframe to one wall. Focus, however, immediately goes to a video within the bedframe, in which the artist and a gaggle of male friends in auburn and blond wigs jabber unintelligibly in chipmunk voices. Buried in this piece is some theme about gender identity and privilege, but it merely looks like a racially indeterminate gay boy broadly satirizing Texas belles and stewardesses. You get the sense that he feels pretty clever, too, which makes him almost as annoying as a real sorority blonde.
Just as flashy and possibly even less substantial is the work of Mariechen Danz, a sculptor and performance artist based in Ireland, whose mixed-media humanoid figures resemble nothing so much as eviscerated storm troopers. These statues might pack a certain punch if they weren’t crammed into a corner, serving as decoration for a video of a related performance. There’s a sort of childlike (or maybe childish) aspect to this performance, in which someone—presumably the artist—meanders around similar sculptures while clad in a fat suit, yelping factoids about prehistory. But, like a lot of the gaudier pieces in “Younger Than Jesus,” its main objective is merely to grab your attention.
It may be the fault of the curators, but despite the international composition of the show, very little of this work has an interesting political angle. The pieces that do tend to be under-complicated, like Carolina Caycedo’s nylon banners reading “Trust Each Other” and “Don’t Pay Taxes.” Even fewer of them have a sense of humor. That’s why Lebanese video artist Ziad Antar’s two videos, La Marche Turque and WA, come as a delightful surprise, especially when considered as a diptych. The former is a black-and-white video of a pair of hands playing Mozart’s Turkish Rondo on a practice keyboard, without an attached piano, robbing us of melody and turning the music into an unfamiliar series of rhythmic thumps, like an ominous military exercise. WA, in contrast, is a video of two Lebanese kids in pajamas playing a song they made up on an obsolete Leslie organ. Piano-themed again, but life-affirming this time—the song is damned catchy, the title is the only lyric, the kids are cute without trying, and the piece fills you with joy.
Similarly unassuming yet intriguing are Iranian Tala Madani’s small, loosely brushed oil paintings, generally about 1 foot square, of cartoony bald men with beards involved in various ambiguous activities, many involving cakes and candles. In Original Sin, one of these characters simultaneously pisses and pukes on a blackboard; in Bright Eyes, another stares upward, his eyes replaced by unlit candles. The work recalls a more traditionally painterly, less violent (and perhaps less effective) version of Laylah Ali’s little black army, but Madani clearly has something to say, some progenitors, and a devilish imagination, which counts for a lot among her peers. In a more sober vein, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s arrestingly down-home photos of herself and her family lend a slap of realness to the show, this despite their placement in near darkness and proximity to Trecartin’s installations, especially a portrait of her “Gramps” staring at us suspiciously from a sickbed beneath a velvet poster of an impossibly buxom woman.
Most mischievous and funny of all, perhaps, is Chinese artist Chu Yun’s installation, This Is Laura (2006), re-created in the New Museum, in which the artist gives a female “paid volunteer” enough sleep aids to doze through the show under a very comfortable-looking duvet, oblivious to the cacophony. Putting a real, dormant person in the center of such an explosive, garish collection of young hopefuls can’t help but feel like an editorial comment. She needed to rest her eyes, it seems—or all the excess just put her to sleep.