Three Artists Guide the Way for NYC’s Aesthetics of Decline


In this village where we live, the future hasn’t happened yet, but it will. The aesthetics of decline—a gathering movement that features artists and other creators shedding the mode of bling for blight—has yet to take over New York, but it’s on fire around the globe. Landfall in Chelsea is predicted for sometime later this year. Whatever the precise ETA, one thing is for sure: From L.A. to Ljubljana, this cresting wave will proudly rock the downwardly mobile look.

There are, as one might expect, important precedents for the coming invasion. At the early end of things, one finds Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins. A weirdly influential little postwar book by an English novelist and travel writer (it was published in 1953), it gave modern voice to the history of architectural decay. For the Artforum set, there was Robert Smithson’s The Monuments of Passaic, an illustrated, mock-documentary essay from 1967 that channeled the dystopic screech of New Jersey’s Rust-Belt sprawl. For the citified Carhartt crowd, Gordon Matta-Clark remains, like Twilight‘s Edward Cullen, an undying love: By power-sawing empty Bronx buildings and abandoned suburban homes in the 1970s, this romancer of urban neglect transformed condemned eyesores into storied, ageless cenotaphs.

For our downturned, downsized present, though, nothing beckons like the memory of 1970s downtown New York for sheer gritty punch (even if 2012 Gotham won’t yet confirm the encroaching inevitability of its CBGB past). A spikily fecund period that saw the emergence of punk, graffiti, and experimental art, the Nixon/Ford/Carter years stand today as the golden age of irrepressible creative decay. Like it or not, and barring the Great Depression, that era was our Big Burg’s finest hour of bootstrapping. Leaner, dirtier, and more resilient than any hungry cohort since, Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation” looked survival in the eye and instantly recognized its Spartan vitality.

Last week, as I made my way around several Manhattan gallery neighborhoods, I spied some of that spirit’s gutsy kin. These shows and others represent strong proof that the groundwork for the coming artistic mood is being laid across the city as we speak. We might live in a period of epic indecision, but rest assured. When it comes to what certain pundits have termed “recessionary aesthetics” (that is, art-making distinguished by the use of inexpensive, everyday stuff that connects in material, method, or mood to today’s drastic economic shifts), there are pioneering artists out there setting examples for the commitment-phobic bandwagon-jumpers who will come after.

One such artist is 38-year-old Marianne Vitale. A media chameleon who has used a variety of tools throughout her brief career—sculpture, stop-motion animation, performance, video, installation, you name it—she first gained attention at a milquetoast 2010 Whitney Biennial with a bossy, funny video titled Patron (in it, she harangued museum visitors about a new movement called “Neutralism,” loudly commanding them to do things like “spit at the ceiling” and visualize themselves “soaking in gopher urine”). With her first solo outing at Chelsea’s Zach Feuer gallery, titled “What I Need to Do Is Lighten the Fuck Up About a Lot of Shit,” Vitale has opted for a silent but no less incendiary approach. An exhibition of three large wooden sculptures made from discarded lumber, the show features the following back-country entertainments: a nail-filled wall piece titled Hammered, a jury-rigged outhouse Vitale trucked into the woods and riddled with bullet holes, and an actual 24-foot bridge (it’s based on a real covered bridge) the artist charred into a ghost of its former self. The structures are messy, splintered, and uneven; they are also forceful, inchoate, and defiant. As I walked around them, I had a stubborn thought: If these sculptures could talk, they would scream three-alarm fire in a MOMA movie theater.

A second artist currently celebrating disorderly conduct is veteran bomb-thrower Joyce Pensato. A painter with a long history of violence committed against some of America’s favorite comic characters (Mickey Mouse, Krazy Kat, Homer Simpson, et al.), her new exhibition at Friedrich Petzel Gallery mines her usual nightmare pop-culture preoccupations, while serving as a valedictory for the legendary Williamsburg studio the artist recently vacated. (As a visitor, I can attest to its genuine squalor and decay: It was full of bird shit and freezing in September.)

Titled “Batman Returns” (with a nod to the Tim Burton film), the show features assemblages of paint-spattered stuff (clippings, stuffed toys, coffee cans, and old brushes) along with Pensato’s signature noirish canvases. In keeping with past work, Pensato’s applications remain heavily clotted and viscous—in a word, grungy. Done in black, white, silver, and a few flecks of color, her multiple versions of the Dark Knight portray a Warhol-style icon done in rough de Kooning brushstrokes and serrated Pollock drips. Nothing could look more ridiculous. Or scary.

A third figure to explore American culture’s eroding self-confidence with aggressive, slapdash energy is Rashid Johnson. Titled “Rumble,” his first exhibition at the uptown outpost of the Hauser & Wirth empire features wall-based, floor, and stand-alone pieces done in a variety of exotic materials but one single decidedly mixed-up style. Working from what the artist calls a “Creole puddle,” Johnson’s “sculptures”—the term should be used loosely—articulate a welter of fluid concerns. Many of these have to do with seismic changes suffered by black culture and American society at large over the past four decades. His works tend toward standing and hanging palimpsests, complete with drips and splats and scratches. One typically impure example is made of mirrored tiles, black soap, wax, leather-bound books, shea butter, oyster shells, paint, and the cover of a 1970 Ahmad Jamal LP. In its damaged jaggedness, it is both bewildering and revelatory. Fittingly, it is called The Awakening.