March 24, 2009

NYC's P.S.1 Offers The Good and The Ugly

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Over break I visited friends in New York City, where I had previously lived for five years. During that time I rarely schlepped out to Queens from my Brooklyn apartment — with one big exception: the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Museum summer parties. This time, I decided to take in the museum sans hipster-packed, alcohol-sopped outdoor rave. This trip made me wonder, though, whether beer-goggles were needed to appreciate the often vapid beauty — or more often, politicized disparagement of beauty — that crowds the contemporary art scene.
And/Or exhibited a variety of work in different media by Jonathan Horowitz, spanning nearly a decade. His technique of appropriating and juxtaposing pop cultural images produced little more than one-note punch-lines. In one piece, for example, a close-up crotch shot of Britney Spears has been carefully melded onto a slightly grainier picture of Katie Couric as she presents the evening news. Though the image is initially arresting, our prurient interest in the photomontage seems too over-determined by the celebrity culture it presumes to critique.
For another work, Horowitz created a 3-D hologram that viewed from one angle showed a “Support Our Troops”-type banner, while when viewed from another angle transformed into the gory, blasted skull of a soldier. We can’t tell which side the soldier fought for, or who is at fault in his death. The image has the shock value of second-rate agitprop, using the same veneer of photographic verité that right-wing abortion activists often use in their depictions of mangled fetuses. The piece fails to self-critically examine the iconographic similarities that the more “militant” factions of both liberal and conservative ideologies co-opt to short-circuit the need for rational discourse.
In another piece, an oversized figurine that looks strikingly similar to the cutesy sculptures of Tom Otterness is titled “Hillary Clinton is a Person Too.” Here, the juxtaposition derives entirely from the words since nothing in the sculpture itself suggests Mrs. Clinton. At first it seems to be a satire of artists like Otterness and Jeff Koons who create adorable yet ultimately empty public art projects. It could also be seen as satirizing Clinton, as well, for pandering to a moderate constituency, forsaking more extreme, socialist-leaning views for a fuzzy, neoliberal “humanist” version of populism. Yet, the work succumbs to self-parody since its positioning makes it seem like either an artistic or political in-joke, our short-lived titters proof we’re one of the sophisticates who catch its humor.
Leandro Erlich’s site specific “Swimming Pool,” on the other hand, floats in the mind long after it has been viewed. A 20’ x 10’ working swimming pool installed in the exhibition hall nearest the entrance, it reorganizes one’s expectations about the propriety of museum space as well as the proper organization of space itself. Though seemingly depoliticized, it shocked me into acknowledging how conservative I was being, obeying etiquette and resisting my visceral urge to skinny dip. While the pool is fully functional, the piece foregrounds its own contextual uselessness, humorously playing up the disparity between use and commodity value.
When one looks down into the pool, an illusory depth is created by an invisible pane of laminated glass: the viewer is tricked into seeing gallery-rovers on the floor below walking as if on the pool’s bottom. One is never sure where the optical illusion ends and one’s own disillusionment with spatial concepts begins; one questions how much of vision is a product of our phenomenal imposition of ready-made categories. If goggles are required for this piece, they’re the type that makes one increasingly aware not only of the world around one, but of the seemingly transparent lens that the world is being processed through, as well. The notion that any party — high or low, you or them — may have a secure space is effectively placed in the abeyance of a continual, trippy vertigo.