Music

Bones’ Beat: Younger Than Jesus at the New Museum

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The reborn New Museum on the Bowery is a lark. The wildly hyped novelty of the new building and the institution’s avowedly 21st-Century mission has apparently worn off, but the building remains a discreet and floaty friend to the surrounding neighborhood. You can always find the bloody thing. It is a landmark for the Lower East Side, a monument that the downtown blocks will grow into as vampire developers and trust-fund babies and scrabbling creatives and Chinese people negotiate the turf’s future. At its busiest the New Museum is less crowded than New York’s other art museums at their least crowded, they play music in the lobby–Black Sabbath when I visited, on Good Friday–and the staff is small and friendly.

The Generational: Younger Than Jesus is certainly the museum’s showiest, most patently discussible exhibition in the two-odd years since the new space debuted: a 50-artist group show, a proposed triennial event, featuring artists 32 years old or younger from all over the world. Curation was done at the speed of the web, by referral and jpeg from one plugged-in global cognoscento to another, meticulously harnessed in-house at the Museum. I know a handful of the artists and their work intimately, and I’ll call a handful of them famous. I’ve heard of about half of them (I defy even the most panoptical pro in our business to cop to much more), and a good number are a total mystery and revelation, young artists from small faraway scenes in Turkey, Poland, Algeria or the Czech Republic.

The organic, permissive vibe, projecting a core idea that the Museum is listening to the young, makes Younger Than Jesus feel like a laid-back parent, a cool dad. The work and the way it’s put together is emphatically inconclusive, comfortable with the fruit of its own sophistication and conviction while entirely lacking in lessons or spittle-spattering theoretical bluster. One wanders around, basically, eyeing things and things’ wall-texts, then wandering off. The cadence of the work is unflirtatious and lacking in hustle, either in the football-team or the corner-boy sense. Stakes seem low, and rank narcissism–a unifying characteristic of young artistic practice–is deflected in a way that will shock anyone who’s weathered the barely-legal photogenic mania in the preening New York art scene of the last five years.

Anna Molska’s video has two choreographed Adonises in leather merkins and warrior helmets pushing big building blocks around and taking it slow, experimenting, rather than triumphing in the fashion one expects from men quite so fit. Tris Vonna-Michell’s No More Running in Circles Just Pacing Within the Lines of a Rectangle is mostly a headphoned artist’s talk on cassette tape; Vonna-Michell stutters and careens through it with the brio of an auctioneer with Asperger’s. It is both uneasy-making and rather impressive. Mark Essen offers a video game of his own invention that has no discernible goal and can be played forever. On a print in popping letterpress-poster style, Brendan Fowler describes the backs and forths of a long old beef with a band over its name, AIDS Wolf, a simmering battle in a hip scene boiled down to a page or two of reading. It doesn’t seem to matter that there is an artist duo calling themselves AIDS-3D a matter of yards away. Chu Yun offers a real live woman crashed out on a platform bed in the center of a room, markedly tranquilized–her face heavy and unusually susceptible to the forces of gravity–thanks to a sleeping pill noted on the piece’s placard.

The thus-far critical champion of this show is Cyprien Gaillard, a Frenchman showing a documentary film about the brutality of European housing projects. It’s incredibly effective–the heart races at the moment the two Russian gangs clash over turf in a sprawling parking lot–and it hints at what this show is missing. The fifth floor of the museum is used as a sort of annex and research center for this younger than Jesus generation. The unmistakeable rasp of Ice-T narrating breaking-news footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots came over the speakers during curator Brian Sholis’ 30-minute video compilation of visual events since 1977. “If you put a man in a cell, and they can’t get out,” said the rapper as chopper footage showed block after tattered block, “they’re going to set fire to their own self.” A thought crystallized about the absence of oppression.

These young artists are not raging, freaking out or self-destructing, because there’s no cell they can’t get out of. For all its pleasures, the measured coziness of Younger Than Jesus is synthetic and temporary. Perhaps that’s the point, and the next installation of this show will paint a brand new playing field, but this approach patently benefits those older than Jesus, not younger. I enjoyed this show immensely, and was grateful for the chance to relax with it. But right now, we youngers need a cause more than we need a platform.-Bones

The Generational: Younger Than Jesus runs until July 5th. Top boy local critics Holland Cotter, Jerry Saltz, and Peter Schjeldahl have all dutifully weighed in on the show already, and the exhibition is proving as provocative as anyone could have hoped.

Next week, Bones follows on from this week’s installment with an examination of Younger Than Jesus artist Ryan Trecartin and his first New York exhibition of collaborative sculpture, with Lizzie Fitch, at Elizabeth Dee Gallery in Chelsea. We’ve further to go with this thought.

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