As of this writing, there is no functioning government of the United States, and the legitimacy of the election that brought Trump to power has become an open question. If 2017 had been, as I wrote in last year’s roundup, “an absolutely horrendous year for equality, tolerance and morality,” what could be said of 2018?
The relentless abominations of the Trump tragicomedy have burrowed into our skulls like brain-eating amoebae. Democratic subpoena power looms while the president lashes out like a blind hyena, and the world spins out of control with a ferocity unseen since 1968.
And yet the creation and interpretation of art continues to remain an anchor and a refuge, a sanctuary for vanishing ideals and a reminder that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” — to cite the much-quoted line from William Faulkner’s novel, Requiem for a Nun (1951).
I referenced Faulkner’s lines in last week’s review of Kara Walker: Virginia’s Lynch Mob and Other Works at the Montclair Art Museum, which created a bookend of sorts with my first post of the year, on Leon Golub: Raw Nerve at the Met Breuer.
Walker’s merciless flights of fantasy, taken together with Golub’s acid-washed realism, form a compelling diagnosis of the sickness we call Trumpism: the original sin of slavery compounded with the wages of imperialism, from the crucible of Vietnam to the Reagan/Bush proxy wars of the 1980s, to the endless debacle of the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq.
Rooted in time-tested American racism, the demagogic apparatus Trump wielded against the “caravan” during the midterms was designed to set one exploited population, the white working class, against another, the refugees escaping a history of violence and oppression stemming from decades of US support for Latin American dictatorships.
The ruthlessness of those regimes, notably in Guatemala and El Salvador, are documented in Golub’s White Squad paintings, which stand as a testimony to a Cold War strategy that tolerated torture, murder, and repression as long as they were used against the spread of Communism — an irony lost on the lemmings of the Republican Congressional Caucus as they disappear into Trump’s lurid embrace of Putin’s Greater Russia.
Kara Walker’s “Virginia’s Lynch Mob” (1998) seems to present a Saturnalian procession of oppressors and the oppressed as they take turns murdering each other and themselves, though nothing can be certain in this enigmatic work. The sensation it imparts of a world turned upside-down feels more attuned to our moment than it does to its own, when Bill Clinton was facing impeachment for lying about his sordid sex life.
As absurdity outpaces reality, metaphor and hyperbole become the coin of the realm. When the year opened, Judith Bernstein’s Cabinet of Horrors was still running at the Drawing Center (for which I wrote a catalogue essay rather than a review), its monsters and freaks heralding a creeping authoritarianism that would drop more of its mask as the year wore on.
The group exhibition, Oh, What a World! What a World!, curated by Mary Birmingham at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, took a quieter approach, delivering its punches through sly indirection, as did Catherine Sullivan’s dreamlike film, The Startled Faction at Metro Pictures, which offered a mix of social satire, utopian feminism, and anarchist agitprop in between dance numbers scored to “The Nitty Gritty,” Shirley Ellis’s infectious 1963 Motown hit.
The Austrian artist Bruno Gironcoli (1936–2010), whose sculptures and drawings were the subject of Shy at Work, a retrospective at Vienna’s Mumok (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien), didn’t live to see Trump’s rise to power, but he did experience the Nazi apocalypse and its aftermath, spending his creative life wandering a mindscape of guilt, atonement, and existential dread.
Omens of menacing times could also be gleaned from Metaphysical Masterpieces 1916–1920: Morandi, Sironi, and Carrà at the Center for Italian Modern Art, an exhibition of paintings completed just before the Fascist takeover of the Italian government in 1922. Ironically, the works of Mario Sironi, who was the most committed Fascist of the three, were the darkest and most troubling, rendered in Klieg-light chiaroscuros of chalky whites and sooty blacks.
Still, foreboding wasn’t everywhere, with sensuality and flair also in abundance. Two exhibitions marked the 100th anniversary of Egon Schiele’s death, one at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, and the other at the Met Breuer, which also celebrated the other Viennese who died a century ago, Gustav Klimt, with Pablo Picasso along for the ride.
Ebullient abstractions filled The Gate, a solo show by Jason Stopa at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, as well as Radiant Energy, another group exhibition at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, curated by Birmingham, which brought together for the first time the paintings of Gabriele Evertz, Robert Swain, and Sanford Wurmfeld, key members of the Hunter Color School.
The timeless strength of painting was felt in A New Spirit Then, A New Spirit Now, 1981–2018 at Almine Rech Gallery, a group exhibition featuring Maria Lassnig, A.R. Penck, Rainer Fetting, and Susan Rothenberg, among others, that curator Norman Rosenthal described as a “faint, beautiful memory” of his seminal 1981 survey, A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The same spirit also infused the exhibition ALLAN KAPROW. PAINTINGS NEW YORK at Hauser & Wirth, an excavation of the figurative and abstract works executed by the pioneering performance artist before he turned to Happenings.
The necessary pleasures offered by these exhibitions seem to exist on a separate track from those that engage directly or indirectly with power and its abuse. But pleasure and menace can converge, irresistibly, in the work of artists such as the British sculptor Phyllida Barlow, who was born in 1944 and seems to carry the deprivations of postwar England in her muscle memory. Repurposing the shopworn and discarded, her sprawling exhibition, tilt, at Hauser & Wirth, was filled with forms that were ugly, crude, and savage, but executed with such a wealth of wisdom and experience that their raw grandeur left us with something to cling to.
Editor’s note: A very special thank you to the artists of Drawing in a Time of Fear & Lies, which began publication on the weekend before Trump’s inauguration and appeared in every issue of Hyperallergic Weekend until the midterm elections, when it changed from a weekly to an occasional series. We look forward to their continuing vision and insight in the tumultuous months ahead.