Making Fun of Minimalism in Two Chelsea Galleries, Pt. 2

Earlier today, I reviewed Yuichi Higashionna’s Fluorescent at Marianne Boesky Gallery and explored the artist’s concept of Japanese fanshii style. Higashionna uses a sense of humor and sense of the absurd to turn a minimalist vocabulary into something a lot more sarcastic, not to mention more fun. Next up in part two, I’m taking a look at Haymaker, a group exhibition of young artists, including Tatiana Berg, Doug Fishbone, Damian Stamer, Kristen Schiele, and Eric White, at Freight and Volume.

Haymaker at Freight and Volume

Installation shot with Damian Stame, “Haymaker” (2010) (all photos by author)

From the frothing press release for Haymaker, expectations may be running a little high for these five young artists to mount a full scale assault on the Chelsea firmament. Set up as a reaction to the Pop-driven, ever-quickening pace of the art market and the commodifying of art and the artist, Haymaker‘s participants all take the market’s demand for fresh, bright, shiny objects head on, creating works that are eminently consumable. But running under the veneer of consumability is a cynicism and sarcasm that pokes fun at art market systems while still participating in them. This is no revolution, it’s a subversion, and a bow to the fact that pretty much everything has been subverted and appropriated and recycled and turn into nostalgia before. Here we go again.

In a small enclosure at the front of the gallery, Doug Fishbone’s “Towards A Common Understanding” (2010) video plays on a projector, three chairs set in front. Fishbone narrates over a series of slides that click by on the projection without even the now-outdated sound of a rotating carousel, a corporate nightmare of a PowerPoint presentation. Random images, like a Google image search let loose, pop up and disappear, only to be replaced by another picture. Free associating, Fishbone riffs on the images and speaks like a stoned college professor, asking vaguely metaphysical questions that trail off into nowhere just as the pictures do. The artist always yanked my attention back in after meaningless asides, though, in a kind of looping roller coaster of brain farts. At one juncture Fishbone asks us to pay attention to a series of pictures and discern a meaning. There is none, a random series of internet-club worthy graphs and weird baby pictures. Now pay attention again, he says. This time it’s pointedly political, Axis of Evil countries, government figures and bombs. Despite the avalanche of images and just when you’re at your most dazed, Fishbone pulls the rug out. It’s potent, not to mention funny.

Installation shot with Tatiana Berg, “Monarch Tent” (2009) at center, “Danny DeVito Tent” at front left

This morning, I wrote about how Yuichi Higashionna undermines the strictures of minimalism. Enter Tatiana Berg, a painter and sculptor who laughs down the austerity of painted-canvas-as-object and stomps on Frank Stella’s toes. The artist makes “tents,” apparatuses made of canvas stretched over pyramided wood beams whose surfaces are covered in painting that’s sometimes monochrome, sometimes Ab-Ex, sometimes minimal. These four- and five- and six-sided pieces sprout up from the floor, but they never stay in one place long: attached to the bottom of each sculpture are wheels with brakes. That the pieces can move freely (and they can, as I spied on the gallerist) makes the installation like someone’s garage scattered with leftover skateboards. Berg’s pieces are the opposite of self-serious, playing on the revolutionary object-hood of Anne Truitt’s also-freestanding oeuvre but without the angst of adhering to a doctrine. That doesn’t mean they’re self-effacing, though. Berg’s tents trip you up with their stage presence.

Installation shot with some of Kristen Schiele's mixed media collages.

Take “Danny Devito Tent” (2009). The roll-ey sculpture is as squat and wide as its namesake and daubed with light blue striated by Stella cross-hatching, then spraypainted with a crackling orange that’s kind of gestural but kind of just looks good. “Monarch Tent” (2009) is the tallest of the tents and it’s coated in a symmetrical black white and purple pattern that recalls the butterfly’s wings. The paint drips and slops but the sculpture stays poised even in its informality. It’s fun stuff. On the walls around Berg’s tents roost Kristen Schiele’s mixed media collages, panels that stray from female body clip-outs to geometric patterns to screenprinted images all collected in ghostly architectural spaces hinted at by flat paint surfaces. I like the gothy vibe, but Schiele’s work remains invested in the “aesthetic immediacy” of market-driven production without biting back too hard. The same goes for Damian Stamer in the main gallery (seen at top), eminently fashionable canvases mingling stray Ab-Ex brushstrokes with photorealistic landscapes and architectural cut-outs. Painters like Angelina Gualdoni and Enoc Perez have presented better critiques of modernist architectural spaces and the Ab-Ex influence is too clinical to be enjoyable.

Haymaker might be a mixed bag, but the exhibition isn’t lacking in go-for-the-throat vitality. These artists are creating images and making things with abandon, like restraint is going out of fashion, which it probably is. While these works don’t rebel, they also don’t fail to acknowledge that the system we live in a dirty, messy place and the ideals that held up teleological modernist movements are never going to work. When we’ve exhausted the possibilities of maintaining an ideology, all that’s left is making fun of the game.

Haymaker at Freight and Volume (530 West 24th Street) continues through February 12, 2011.

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