A few weeks ago, I ran into artist William Powhida who started to tease me that I don’t really write many art reviews anymore. I got a little defensive but after thinking about it, I realized he was right. The reason? I have lost faith in the art review as the best way to communicate ideas in and about art.
I’m not saying that the literary form doesn’t still have life in it — and there are certainly some fantastic practitioners of the craft — but I do think it is an antiquated form, and the traditional art review (you know the type, it has a few photos and discusses an exhibition as a solitary experience) is better suited to group shows and surveys, maybe even thematic exhibitions, but it doesn’t work as successfully for solo shows, where it feels reduced to a sales vehicle for people trying to move merchandise. As a writer, I find the form of little interest, and the general reader has little interest in it unless they have heard of the artist or are on their way to see the show.
Speaking to art history, art reviews may be an important record of people’s perceptions of a show or art work, but in the now the form feels less relevant.
The art review format we see today was really born in the early twentieth century with the proliferation of journals and newspapers that wrote about art and could reproduce an image of the work itself (almost always in black and white). Only during the last quarter of the century did color reproduction become commonplace, and until then artists and others predominantly saw works in more muffled, one-color versions. Even today, the problem of exact color reproduction is still an issue for many. In the 1990s I had a professor who advocated that all art should be reproduced only in black and white since color never does it justice.
My point? The art review needs an upgrade, but what will that be? More ambient conversations about art that involve pop culture or synergy with mass media? Should we be looking for ways to insert art into everyday life?
All of these issues swirled in my head when I visited the excellent Mark Lombardi exhibition at Williamsburg’s Pierogi Gallery. An obsessive artist, Lombardi’s work charted the interconnectedness of the shadowy worlds of finance, wealth and politics — essentially the “uses and abuses of power.”
In the 1990s, Lombardi researched the world’s extensive power networks and rendered them into art. It was as if he was trying to make permanent what he worried would be lost in the information flood zone we all live in.
In retrospect, his work is prescient. The artist was trying to make us see how the conflation of all of these worlds created a global disaster that we’re still recovering from. Lombardi didn’t simply post information for us to gawk at, but he composes his research into informational structures that can be as beautiful as a Takashi Murakami design or delicate latticework.
One drawing in particular “George W. Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens c.1979-90, 5th version” (1999) is shockingly relevant to our century, as Lombardi connects former US president George W. Bush with Al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden through James R. Bath, a Bush family friend and a close associate of the bin Ladens. The US prez and the mastermind of 9/11 are three degrees of separation apart. When I spotted this I looked around the room like I had just discovered a secret, though obviously it wasn’t.
I thought about Lombardi’s work and how the solo art review could never capture the power of his ideas and work. How can you collapse all his research into 800 words (or less) and a few images? Hyperallergic’s Kyle Chayka did a good job of tackling the show a few weeks ago but the write up doesn’t capture the richness of these objects and their stories; I don’t think any art review could.
New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote this about the Lombardi show at The Drawing Center in 2003:
I happened to be in the Drawing Center when the Lombardi show was being installed, and several consultants to the Department of Homeland Security came in to take a look. They said they found the work revelatory, not because the financial and political connections he mapped were new to them, but because Lombardi showed them an elegant way to array disparate information and make sense of things, which they thought might be useful to their security efforts. I didn’t know whether to find that response comforting or alarming, but I saw exactly what they meant.
An art review is read only by people in the art world, but the work of artists like Mark Lombardi go beyond aesthetic conversations and the fishbowl of the art world. He should’ve been on CNN during his time — or nowadays Al Jazeera — discussing these networks and his perspective on them. And Lombardi is not unique, there are other artists today, like William Powhida, who are trying to challenge the boundaries of the art ghetto and create conversations in other spheres of our culture.
The solo art review format confies artists to their relationship to the art world. What we need is to go beyond that and explore new possibilities. I don’t have the answers but I want to pose this question, how do we upgrade the traditional art review? I haven’t figured it out yet.
Also of interest, there are more photos of Lombardi’s exhibition here.
There has been a lot of discussion about this post and topic on Twitter so I wanted to post some of the highlights here for those who may not be following them:
@hragv Whether it works or not and how is up to the writer. There's nothing wrong/broken about reviewing solo shows.
— Tyler Green (@TylerGreenDC) March 18, 2011
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