Is There a Patch Test for Art Intolerance?
The Gallery Gang at Caren Golden Fine Art

The problem with so-called contemporary art—to be distinguished from the art of our contemporaries—lies in the fact that so much of it is premised on cultural assumptions that undermine individual talent.

By the time I had worked my way around this group show, I felt like the narrator in Ali Smith’s The Shortlist Season. Outwardly subdued and respectful, the Smith character cannot navigate a contemporary art exhibition without breaking into a sweat. Is it the art that gets her glands going? Could it be that, contrary to popular piety, pictures are intrinsically bad for her? Sweat running down her spine, she wonders if there is a patch test for art intolerance.

We have the results, the doctor would say. You are sensitive to dust mites, the hairs of cats and horses, shellfish, metals related to nickel and several forms of cultural expression.

Which forms? The ones produced by talents addled by vacant quests for novelty or corrupted by the sham profundity of Joseph Beuys. It is all there in the press release: "The Gallery Gang" explores the variety and ingenuity of ways to approach the making of works on paper." Not a word about what might be worth putting on paper. Nothing at all about aspirations to visual inherence, that charged relationship between form and content. The work exists only to illustrate how late the artists stay up devising ways to inch farther along the exhausted trajectory of cutting-edge practice.

Virtually every piece in this exhibition is labeled Untitled. Such is the polite tag for work that is all about moi. My ingenuity, my penmanship, my fey doodling, my digestion, the marvel of my own creative juices. Indeed, my place—however random—in the communion of Fluxus saints.

So Amy Morken’s scratchy, incoherent drawings of female forms with lost heads and missing or multiple limbs are presented as "a visual record of both Morken’s train of thought and of the spontaneous impulse of the creative process." Inquiry into the quality of Amy’s thinking or the nature and purpose of these impulses is off-limits. Amy is an artist. Anything an artist produces is efficacious. Rome speaks, causa finita.

Paul Henry Ramirez is blessed with a sure hand and a nimble calligraphic line that roller-coasts across the page in elegant sweeps. Drips of thinned acrylic paint are reinforced at strategic points by precise bands of opaque color, indicating close attention to texture and chromatic nuances. It is a shame to see it all add up to bubble-gum on a men’s room wall. What the press release euphemizes as "suggestions of internal and external body part, fine hairy elements and oozing forms," is the usual adolescent fixation on genitalia—hairy scrotums, ejaculations, penises. Paul Henry’s controlling sensibility is frozen at a level that diddles itself with the thought that there’s always room for one more custard pie.

More juvenilia follows in Martha Benzing’s "Eye Candy" series. Her personal vision proceeds from food coloring. Kool-Aid and the melted colorant of M & M candies pinch hit for paint and brush in this look-ma-no-hands evocation of grade school art class. She has a bent toward subtlety and delicacy that could, imaginably, arise to something for grownups to look at. If she would just stop playing Martha Stewart’s Little Helper long enough to decide what in this wide world might be worth depicting.

One has to be far-gone in an antihistamine haze or on soma-holiday not to feel a little tarnished, shop worn, in front of Gerhard Mayer’s recycled tourist postcards. Remember what you did with picture postcards when you were a kid? You took a pencil and scratched into the photographic coating. If you are young enough that your mother has not thrown them out yet, go get them from the attic. You can call them your "Inlays" series and, chutzpah knowing no bounds, you can ask $300 for each of them.

Under magnets on refrigerator doors across America are blobs of paint on paper that sensitive observers are careful not to interpret. The preferred mode is inquisitive. One asks the artist—generally ranging in age from nursery to middle school—what she was thinking when she made these. Maia Namtvedt was thinking about rocks. Four pieces of paper, each with a few daubs of black paint, are casually tacked to the gallery wall with black binder clips on nails. They are portraits of rocks. The press release says so.

Elizabeth Olpert knows how to draw. The strength of her own gift, however, is drained off into tacky cutouts and the gimcrackery of layered images that are just so much California-dreamin' folk art.

Seon Chun’s "intimate drawing" is as tedious to look at as it must have been to make. What resembles the outline of a piece of broken glass, is arrived at by the persistent accumulation of tiny marks in a kind of miniature crazy quilt, a collapsed graph. The success of this kind of drawing rests exclusively in the merit of the artist’s touch, refining the obsession. What is on view here is little more than doggedness.

I have omitted mention of John Power’s drawings for no better reason than I cannot, for the life of me, remember them. The p.r. states that they are "accumulations of multiple layers of white on white paper." Mind you, that’s against a white wall. Maybe there was just too much white. Or maybe by the time I got round to them, I was too disheartened by the overall immaturity of ambition on display to see them properly. My apologies.

John Carhart Ebeling is nicely represented with a veiled abstraction built of oil paint washed over and around a digital image—a kind of color bar—printed on vellum. However contemporary his technique, the finished piece distinguishes itself according to traditional bases for judgment: color interaction, the compositional balance of positives and voids, the physicality of media, tension between accident and design. It is work I would love to see more of.

Ditto John Kalymnios’ stainless steel, motorized version of the old spirograph. Another glance over our shoulder to the culture of childhood, this particular one respects the difference between the spirit of play and mere childishness. The sleek drawing arm of the machine is equipped with a colored pencil that makes perfect spirals in endless succession. Change the pencil to vary the color, width and texture of the mechanical line. Control the breadth of the arc by adjusting the motor. It is not so much a work of art as a gizmo, a wonderful, witty gizmo that was our first tangible hint of infinity. It is as much fun now as it was when we were ten. And as potent.

"Everyone is an artist," Joseph Beuys proclaimed, famously. Everyone his own savant, amour propre becoming a cultural imperative to fatten art departments while it starves the arts. Beuys’ self-serving stance is the philosophical equivalent to the principle on view in this exhibition: all marks are meaningful, all doodles are drawings. It is a road for nihilists.


November 1999

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