The history of ideas is often the history of their displacement. In our own time, cell phones turned pay phones obsolete, cable news made mincemeat of Time and Newsweek, and Facebook and Twitter rendered actual human relationships redundant (too touchy-feely!). In the visual arts, postminimalism recently gave way to Some New Thing, though no one has yet been able to identify that slouching beast. At times like these, I am reminded of the words of Samuel Johnson: “There is nothing uglier than that on the verge of beauty.” Let it be said that this is probably the most charitable thing I will write about the “Greater New York” show currently on view at P.S.1.
A quinquennial exhibition to match the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum’s “generational” triennial (barring a miracle, all three will go head-to-head in 2030), “Greater New York 2010” is—in the serrated lingo Tennessee Williams used to describe Horton Foote—a pineapple ice cream soda. Squarer in its American Apparel nonconformity than a tramp stamp, this show is the spiritual heir to car commercials scored by Dirty Vegas and backward trucker hats, as well as an unflattering mirror held up to certain obscure micro-trends in Chelsea and Lower East Side galleries. Now in its third iteration, this “Greater New York”—curated jointly by MOMA’s Klaus Biesenbach and Connie Butler, with freelancer Neville Wakefield—doesn’t so much own the discovery of new art developments as much as lease their passing novelty. The forms of newness are there, but inside P.S.1, it is—to quote the Sex Pistols—pretty vacant.
If I had to find a single word to describe this exhibition, it would be “muddy.” A mish-mash of 68 artists and artist collectives with barely a memorable piece in it, “Greater New York 2010” makes much of its laudable emphasis on “the process of creation and the generative nature of the artist’s studio and practice.” It has given over museum galleries “as studio space to create work on-site,” embraced a workshop aesthetic that enables artists to present ongoing pieces (Ryan McNamara, for example, will invite professionals to teach him how to dance through the duration), commissioned productions by art-world insiders (Sharon Hayes’s bloated five-channel installation features the, yawn, radicalness of gay-rights rallies), and generally allotted entire rooms to emerging folks to use “as if each were mounting a small solo show.”
But what happens when—to take a page from Courtney Love—the artists are way not ready for their close-up? The answer is the stuttering artistic opacity clouding the whole of this year’s model. Rather than a proper survey of emerging art in the five boroughs, this exhibition pips cool, energetic, largely clueless young artists for a rundown that proves a swampy, unproductive, talent-sucking bog.
It should be said that “Greater New York 2010” is nothing if not strenuously politically correct. Some 43 percent of its artists are women (when the ratio of women to men in an exhibition actually changes its quality, someone please let me know), it is overwhelmingly filled with video and installation (as if those mediums don’t sell!), appears as the least “white” of such displays on record (if the works devoted to “blackness” are any guide), and proudly promotes itself, in the words of one wag, as “the gayest show ever.” No matter—black Jesus floating down from on high with a strap-on would not improve this disaster of an assembly one iota.
The show’s impeccable right-thinking, on the other hand, loudly underscores the hippie-dippie self-satisfaction permeating many works on view. It congratulates Vlatka Horvat’s room-size installation, crammed with 30 nearly uniform collages and as many sculptural doodles made from trashed tape and toilet roll tubes. It high-fives Amy Yao’s lazily inchoate painted sticks with bits of New York Times headlines stuck to them. And it virtually bro-hugs Brody Condon’s video Twentyfivefold Manifestation—a handheld record of a dopily screaming, drum-thumping, flower-power celebration crossed with a Renaissance Fair that makes the tree-hugging New Age inanities of Robert Bly look positively brilliant by comparison. (And why is everyone in the video dressed like MGMT?)
Unfortunately, the neo-tribalist vibe animating Condon’s work is just the tip of the iceberg for what is certainly the exhibition’s largest trend. What “Greater New York” exposes is a mountain of inarticulate art hiding from the conceptual rigors of the ’90s, the salesroom-ready enterprise of the noughties, and the tough responsibilities ahead. Its fallback position is the circularity we routinely term self-expression. How else to explain, among many other gifts, Debo Eilers’s hot-pink molds of manhole covers, Erin Shirreff’s daftly unallusive 28 grayscale prints of nothings, or Alisha Kerlin’s frustrating combination of sloppy paintings and photos of tubers? Works like these only really make sense inside an MFA program. Before the crit.
Of course, “Greater New York” does include other, less emblematic works. Among these more worthwhile efforts are LaToya Ruby Frazier’s black-and-white pictures of rust-belt miseries; Ishmael Randall Weeks’s installation-cum-treatise on architecture and its discontents (which could use some pruning); Elisabeth Subrin’s silent 16mm elegy for what she pegs the Lost Tribes and Promised Lands of Italian-American Williamsburg; and, finally, David Benjamin Sherry’s Teletubby-inspired, acid-colored photo landscapes and self-portraits. And then there is Leigh Ledare: A shutterbug whose only subject is his relationship with his exhibitionist mother, his pictures teeter between twisted and unsettling in exact proportion to how they frame the literal meaning of the word “motherfucker.”
Good works that merit interest but not praise, these efforts prove the exceptions to the rule that it is always easier to reach out for lousy art than its opposite. There are far better shows on all over the city today than P.S.1’s selection of talent would suggest (consider, for instance, the young photo show “American ReConstruction” at Chelsea’s Ed Winkleman Gallery, or “painter” Blake Rayne’s outing at the LES’s Miguel Abreu). Ignore this turbid, whiny exhibition and seek out greater art than the clubby, blinkered curators of this hot mess have rounded up.