What Was Art of the 1990s All About?

Prema Murthy, "Bindi Girl," 1999. Courtesy of the artist and the Montclair Art Museum.
Prema Murthy, “Bindi Girl” (1999) (courtesy of the artist and the Montclair Art Museum)

MONTCLAIR, NJ — To devote a show to an era is to delimit the era in question, carving it off from surrounding epochs and ascribing some measure of thematic or aesthetic continuity to it. Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey is one of the first exhibitions to treat the ’90s as an object of historical inquiry. Described on its website as “the first major American museum survey to examine the art of this pivotal decade in its historical context,” the show marks our own radical break with a decade at once familiar and unfamiliar. It is an especially laden enterprise in that it presumes to historicize something so close to us — a period that we might otherwise mistake for the very era we occupy.

But Come As You Are is deeply and convincingly historical, and its catalogue succeeds in situating the artworks on display within a context that is only barely recognizable to us, its heirs. The ’90s were marked by various points of turbulence that have now evolved into unremarkable if not unproblematic features of our daily lives: a changing geopolitical order, precipitated by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union; the “digital revolution,” which linked spatially disparate societies for the first time; the emergence of a global art scene and the series of international festivals and events it spawned; and the advent of so-called “identity politics,” a newfound sensitivity to the questions of race, class, and sexuality so long neglected by artists and humanists.

By now, we’re thoroughly defamiliarized to the issues that the innovations of the ’90s first raised — to the ways in which female bodies or bodies of color are exposed to certain prejudices on the one hand and the ways in which digitalization renders traditional notions of place and physicality obsolete on the other. But when the central contradictions of contemporary life first emerged, artists grappled powerfully with these tensions. How is it that, in an era enabling such radical incorporeality, oppression founded on such explicitly physical traits as skin color and genitalia persisted? The works in Come As You Are strive to account for this paradox and the challenge it continues to pose.

Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cutcher, "Man with a Computer," 1992. Courtesy of the artists and the Montclair Art Museum.
Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cutcher, “Man with a Computer” (1992) (courtesy of the artists and the Montclair Art Museum) (click to enlarge)

One of the most striking of these strivings is Gary Simmons’s Erasure Series. “Black Chalkboards (Two Grinning Faces with Cookie Bag),” a chalkboard adorned with eerily skeletal sketches of the iconic “watermelon grin” once used to caricature African American visages, invokes and distorts a symbol of racial prejudice. The piece strips the cartoonish image of its anatomical origins, decontextualizing it and leaving it to float ethereally against a dark, disorienting backdrop. The resulting forms are pale and grotesque, more ghostly than human: the faces of a lingering racism which haunts us even when it’s detached from the bodies with which it was originally linked. In Simmons’s work, signs have outstripped their referents. There is no longer anything concrete to which they correspond.

Like so many other ’90s images, Simmons’s spectral “watermelon grins” are no longer constrained by the physical world they were once called upon to represent. Accordingly, their valence within the aesthetic order of the decade was more than ever a function of the roles their audience assigned them: their meaning derived not from their resemblance to any real-world object but rather from their appeal to — and repudiation of — a racial construct. Fittingly, many of the works in Come As You Are are sites of explicit exchange between artist, viewer, and broader social structures — works with participatory components.

Alex Bag, "Untitled Fall '95," 1995. Courtesy of the Montclair Art Museum, Team Gallery and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.
Alex Bag, “Untitled Fall ’95” (1995) (courtesy of the Montclair Art Museum, Team Gallery and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York)

Prema Murthy’s “Bindi Girl,” one of the prime examples of internet art on display in the exhibition, presents viewers with an interactive avatar, the eponymous Bindi Girl. When “Bindi Girl” was first created, users could go to the project’s website and manipulate the figure, prompting her to assume a series of erotic poses while traditional South Asian music played in the background. “Bindi Girl” attempts to account for the puzzling fact of our simultaneous power and impotence vis-à-vis the images that come to characterize us to foreign audiences: although we wield more control over the meaning and interpretation of images now that we have repudiated strict isomorphism, marginalized communities continue to find themselves at the whims of the dominant cultural and aesthetic imagination. In an information-based society, signs come to supplant the lived realities of the people they purport to depict. More often than not, globalization amounted to — and continues to amount to — the imposition of Western images onto non-Western locales.

With “Bindi Girl,” Murthy calls the portraits painted for Western fetishization into question, thereby reclaiming some measure of agency over the proliferation of orientalist portrayals of Indian women. As life moved online, sexuality became increasingly pornographic, a matter of pictures more than bodies. Eroticism followed suit, placing more stock in the vague stuff of cultural inflection than in any tangible physical experiences. For this reason, Murthy’s intervention, conducted at the level of the image, has undeniable force.

Another notable example of internet art on display in Come As You Are is “Blackness,” Mendi and Keith Obadike’s effort to expose the absurdities of an art market that trades in experience — and that often attempts to appropriate the “exoticism” associated with foreign or marginalized cultures in an act of untenable racial tourism. The Obadikes facetiously auctioned their “blackness” off on the then-new website eBay, wryly remarking in the product description that they don’t recommend using their blackness “while seeking employment” or “voting in the United States.” Attempts to transform a lived experience of oppression into an art object, “Blackness” demonstrates, are patently absurd and insulting (though that didn’t stop oblivious white bidders from vying for the “piece”).

Sharon Lockhart, "Untitled," 1996.  Copy Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sharon Lockhart, “Untitled” (1996) (Copy Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The work of painter Julie Mehretu takes up a similar project. Her paintings depict unraveling cityscapes that appear to float in space, unmoored to any particular landscape. Murthy and the Obadikes’s provocative internet art suggests that race and sex are no longer bound to the anatomies that once defined them but have resolved instead into images, chains of associations. Mehretu’s works point to a parallel spatial development: globalization, her paintings intimate, has done away with national boundaries, and the specificities of particular built environments have given way to the ubiquitous figure of the anonymous metropolis, as familiar as it is unidentifiable.

These works and many of the others in Come As You Are serve as powerful reminders that our shift away from a more embodied existence has not yet eliminated the harmful consequences of racism and sexism that originally discriminated on the basis of bodies: “performance is never entirely free; not all performing subjects have the capacity to perform equally,” writes Jennifer A. González in her excellent essay on performance art in the exhibition catalogue. Though aesthetically compelling, the real merits of Come As You Are are conceptual. The thorough and thoughtful scholarship in the catalogue and throughout the show contextualizes the art of the ’90s without distancing us too much from the set of problems and challenges that originated then but continue on into our own age. Ultimately, the pieces that comprise Alexandra Schwartz’s beautifully curated and important exhibition also craft their own avenues of resistance. If images often serve to reinforce the existing order, the disruptive images on display in Come as You Are also served to uproot it. The new versatility of images cuts both ways.

Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s continues at the Montclair Art Museum (3 South Mountain Avenue, Montclair, New Jersey) through May 17. 

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