Jayson Musson’s latest exhibition, Exhibit of Abstract Art, lacks the sharp insight for which the artist is renowned. On view at Salon 94, the show skewers the lofty pretensions of modernism and the art world, but its broad critique lacks punch.
The exhibition is inspired by Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy comic strip, which ran from 1933–1982. Bushmiller’s illustrations frequently mocked the pomposity of modern art, whilst exposing the absurdity of its practices. Nancy, the strip’s eponymous character, is a precocious 8 year old whose adventures exposed the underlying farce of social customs.
Bushmiller caricatured modern painting by distilling it into a range of simple, economic shapes, including spirals, smudges, triangles, thunder bolts, and squiggly lines. Musson has appropriated Bushmiller’s language of modernist forms to realize an entire installation of work. As the artist wryly jokes in the exhibition’s press release, “I see a perfection of form in Bushmiller’s art gags. In his pejorative depictions of abstraction lay a symmetry, balance, and economy of form that is simply exceptional.”
Musson has adopted a late 1980s/early 90s aesthetic which fuses Bushmiller’s geometric approximations with a color palette reminiscent of The Simpsons. The artist has even installed a sculpture of a lamp opposite the gallery’s reception, which leaves the viewer half expecting a sculptural rendition of the Simpsons’ iconic brown sofa. The paintings, deliberately inoffensive, look like wallpaper designs inspired by the opening titles of Saved by the Bell.
The works are painstakingly immaculate. Every effort has been taken to conceal all signs of craftsmanship. Musson’s fiberglass sculptures are covered in powder coated paint, thereby avoiding the presence of visible brushwork. The use of Flashe (vinyl) paint for the canvases amps their artificiality, with every geometric form appearing perfectly sealed and content. The surface of the works look waterproof; If the gallery was a giant bathtub, the paintings and sculptures would be floating toys. The joy of the exhibition is that the viewer effectively assumes the role of Nancy, with the white cube of the gallery serving as the cartoon strip. Upon entering, the gallery goer becomes a character on a set, and as a result, we become warier of our own art viewing customs and aesthetic beliefs.
The work’s titles are unsubtle digs of modernist tropes (“Ascendent Form,” “Sculptural Allegory for a Specific Cultural Sphere”). There are also a number of painted signs, bearing messages such as ‘Abstract Painting $500’ and ‘Modern Paintings For Sale,’ which serve to ground the lofty, transcendent ambitions of modernism with the economic reality of art. Musson’s conceptual approach is thoroughly postmodern in its pummeling of high art via lowly popular culture. The artist’s last exhibition at Salon 94, Halcyon Days, followed a similar strategy, using Coogi sweaters as a medium for abstraction — the difference being that Musson’s Coogi-inspired works are beautiful and refined, whereas the paintings and sculptures in Exhibit of Abstract Art are willfully ugly and quotidian.
Nancy doesn’t make an appearance, so the cultural context of the exhibition would be lost on the uninitiated. Perhaps Nancy’s absence is a copyright precaution (though the character was the subject of a well known series of paintings by Pop artist Joe Brainard), or simply a testament to Musson’s confidence in the universal appeal of Bushmiller’s caricaturic forms.
Frustratingly, the show’s critique is broad and non-specific. In one of Musson’s Art Thoughtz videos as his alter ego Hennessy Youngman, he jokes, “if you can’t make it, fake it by over explaining it.” The problem with the works in Exhibit of Abstract Art is that they don’t tell us enough. Is Musson’s installation a send up of modernism, or of the art world in general? The artist’s huge canvases and sculptures conjure associations with Jeff Koons’ monumentalizing of kitsch. Musson has done much the same with Bushmiller’s parodies of modern art, but to what end isn’t clear.
By way of comparison, consider the Estate Paintings (1991– ), a series of works by British artist Keith Coventry. The works appear to be an homage to the suprematist paintings of Kasimir Malevich, but their titles reveal that the geometric forms on the canvas double as diagrams of notorious British council estates (the equivalent of what is termed public housing, or “the projects” in the US), where crime, drug abuse, and poverty can be systemic. Coventry’s series is devastating in its specificity, critiquing the failures of modernist architecture whilst simultaneously mocking its inspiration from the avant-garde. Musson shares Coventry’s cynicism, but his latest work feels far more resigned and pessimistic. Exhibit of Abstract Art asserts that the art industry can subsume parody and market it back to collectors, which is not much of a revelation.
Musson is at his best when his critiques are on point, his anger augmented with humor. Exhibit of Abstract Art works very well as a general parody of the art world, but it fails to delve deeper into its prejudices and contradictions. The artist’s Art Thoughtz videos were successful, not just because they were extremely funny, but because they exposed deep rooted hypocrisies and contradictions within the art world. That the show’s territory is familiar isn’t the problem; the message is just a little too light. Musson narrowly pulls off the application of Bushmiller’s visual language, but in doing so he raises an interesting question about the appropriation of caricature. When a caricature, by definition, is a highly distilled observation, how much more can there be for another artist to deconstruct?
Jayson Musson’s Exhibit of Abstract Art continues at Salon 94 (243 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 21.