So, I have to be honest, I don’t know if I am totally sold on the whole group show thing. It makes sense within the scope of the art center, alternative space or museum, but I sometimes question its benefits in the commercial art world.
I think the point of the theoretical, thematic or art historical exhibition, should ideally, be just that, an end into itself. What I am suspicious of are the sorts of “group show” exhibitions that serve as a thinly veiled gathering of gallery stable artists. Don’t get me wrong, there have been a number of seminal contemporary and historical gallery shows that have in fact given voice to a generation. Too, there have been some pretty amazing recent museum-esque shows put on by mega galleries like Gagosian. I think the key though, is that these types of exhibition work the best when the interest of the gallery don’t get in the way of the curator. I think too, this is an area in which smaller, less well known (and probably less profitable) galleries can shine the most.
Heads With Tails at Harris Lieberman Gallery is a perfect example of how a commercial gallery setting can lend itself to a solid thematic exhibition.
The show was organized by West Street Gallery, a New York based project space that was founded in 2010. The exhibition, as suggested by the humorously enigmatic title, is centered on the relationship between figuration and the absurd in contemporary art practice. From the gallery’s press release:
When every artwork is a conceptual artwork — or is assumed to critique and exceed the strategies of representation and the desire mechanisms of the image — what is the appeal of the figure?
Though this exhibition might seem a bit redundant, issues of authenticity, irony and representation are hardly new, I think this particular treatment is important. In the face of an irony rich, appropriation heavy art world, the question of sincerity is, I think, particularly tricky for many artists.
What is impressive about this collection of artwork is the relationship between notions of the heartfelt and the oh so safe impulse towards sarcasm, irony and the insidery art commentary. What we get by and large is a grouping of works that are both tongue and cheek and by and large, real. The work of Ian Hokin was one of several artists that stood out for its visceral immediacy. His painting “The Phenomenon of Craving (needle in arm)” (2011) seems like a good example of work that is both powerful and reminiscent of art school. Francis Upritchard’s “The Horse’ was an especialy poignant example of a sculpture that is equal parts beautifully made sculpture and self-aware surrealism. It is the artists ability to humorously engage with the history of art making and museums while staying firmly grounded in the present that makes her interesting. I think the message of this show might read, “Its ok to be absurd and sarcastic, as long as you mean it.”
Perhaps it’s telling that the exhibition takes its start and its title from an early work by William Wegman. Two pieces from his early transition from conceptualism to … whatever he does now … serve as the playful, and relatively absurd conceptual starting point for the exhibition. What excites me is the middle ground between the self-aware and the painterly. This exhibition is both a welcome introduction to new artists and a reflection on the direction of contemporary practice. The result is a good example of how theory and commerce can make a happy couple.
Heads With Tails at West Street Gallery (395 West Street #2, West Village, Manhattan).