Thursday, April 22, 2010

Art Review | G40: The Summit – Where Art and Politics Collide

by Kate Demong

I recently made the short trip from D.C. across the Potomac to Arlington to see works by more than 500 artists from around the world participating in the exhibition G40: The Summit – Where Art and Politics Collide. Considering the exhibition’s title, I anticipated finding art that engaged with politics and fostered dialogue. And with endless topics for critical conversation — the era of Obama, Tea Party rallies, health care reform, climate change, two wars, a recession — this large, international group exhibition of political art held near the Nation’s capital seemed to have great creative potential. I even wondered whether G40’s cultural relevance would rival that of the contemporaneous Whitney Biennial and Brucennial in New York.

Oh, the disappointment. And bewilderment. As I wandered through the four floors of vacant office space in a Crystal City high-rise taken over by G40, I struggled to associate any political issue with most of the works. A handful did buck the trend. Peter Gordon’s installation Consequence, a room with dozens of plant cups sprouting telephone wires, effectively evoked the tangled relationship of nature and technology. Another room was filled with art made by people recovering from drugs, works that aimed to “put a human face on addiction.” But I was mostly confronted by graffiti-inspired art and, although graffiti is often used to communicate political and social messages, graffiti-based aesthetics, not content, influenced these works.

The mix of a few political works, a lot of grafitti-esque works, and a number of works completely unrelated to either politics or graffiti was incoherent and agitating. My distress increased exponentially when I discovered inconsistencies in the works’ arrangement. G40 ostensibly divided the artwork up so that each floor housed artists from a specific region — New York, D.C., California, and Worldwide — in order to allow regional trends to emerge. But G40 did not follow through on this promise. How can regional distinctions become apparent when works from Japan and D.C. are mixed in with the New York floor? The vast, rambling exhibition space made things worse. Divided into many small areas, few works could directly dialogue with one another.

At 5:00 on a Wednesday I was one of only a handful of visitors at the exhibit. I sensed ghosts of recession victims in this vacant office space, its former use recorded in stains on the faded, blue carpet. The exhibit’s eerie atmosphere and confusion tempted me to flee. But I was worried that I would miss that something that would tie the exhibit together for me, so I grudgingly made my way through all 75,000 square feet of exhibition space.

I never made sense of the exhibit. So, on my way out, I asked a G40 volunteer about the curatorial decisions. According to her, the show was given its name only because of its proximity to D.C. G40, she said, is actually an exhibit of “New Brow” art. This was news to me. No statement to this effect or definition of New Brow art was included in G40’s exhibition flier or written anywhere on the exhibit’s walls.

According to exhibition organizer Art Whino’s website, G40 aimed “to bring the leaders of the New Brow genre together … creating, for the first time, a full cross examination of this genre.” But again, Art Whino offered little help: Its website does not go on to define New Brow. Through my own research I found that New Brow is an underground art movement with origins that include graffiti, street art, comics, anime, graphic design, and tattoo art. It started to evolve in California in the late 1970s and has since spread across the world.

Unfortunately, the error of misnaming the exhibit was not G40’s only curatorial failure. If the intention of Shane Pomajambo, owner of Art Whino and curator of G40, was to introduce New Brow art, then why not provide background on this genre? At minimum, I would expect handouts or wall text with an overview of the movement and its roots, which are undeniably rich. An accompanying photographic chronology would also be helpful as well as screenings of the 2009 film New Brow: The Rise of Underground Art. Some lectures and performances did accompany the exhibition, but the extent of the educational component is unclear since, perplexingly, neither material at the exhibit nor Art Whino’s website calendared these events.

But the most discouraging aspect of the show is that the “full cross examination of this genre” was anything but full. G40 would lead one to think that New Brow is all about spray-painted murals of subway trains and tagging that evoke nostalgia for the 70s and 80s, as well as slick, flat paintings of skulls, tattoos, flesh, sex, young girls with eyes wide apart, and animal- and alien-like creatures. Although I’m obviously no expert on New Brow, I do know that much greater diversity exists within the field.

Strangely, in this first large-scale overview of the New Brow genre, Pomajambo omitted the leading artists in the field. It’s like having a survey of cubism and not including Picasso or Braque. I was disappointed to not see examples of British artist Banksy’s work. As his paintings can sell for £100,000, Banksy may be too prominent to directly participate in a show like G40, but documentary photographs of his brilliant, humorous and satirical street art could be shown. After the impact on the 2008 presidential election of Shephard Fairey’s HOPE poster, which The New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl called “the most efficacious American political illustration since ‘Uncle Sam Wants You’”, not including Fairey’s work, or at least documentation of his street art, is inexcusable. And what about the inventive, highly-charged stencil art from Buenos Aires? I’m not aware of more vibrant post-graffiti than that found today on the streets of B.A., but this work was nowhere to be found at G40. Inclusion of lesser-known and emerging New Brow artists is also essential, and some of those in G40 clearly have talent. Standout work included a Giacometti-esque wall-size line drawing of an older man’s face, by New York artist Gaia. Also arresting were two side-by-side blue and pale-yellow wall murals of highway overpasses, one by Jessica van Brakle and one by Trevor Young, both D.C.-based artists. But more major artists working in the field should have been included as well.

The weekend after attending G40 I headed up to New York to see the 2010 Whitney Biennial and Brucennial 2010: Miseducation. These two large survey exhibitions offer many lessons to the curators of G40. Unlike at G40, the intent of both shows was clear and jibed with the work on exhibit. The Whitney effectively represents the broad range of contemporary art being produced in America today across all visual media: painting, sculpture, video, photography, performance, and installation. The Bruce High Quality Foundation claims that the Brucennial is “the most important survey of contemporary art in the world ever.” This is obviously tongue-in-cheek, but the Brucennial educates, challenges, and entertains more than any other survey or large group exhibition that I’ve attended in the last few years.

While the G40 is sprawling and incoherent, both New York exhibits are digestible. The Whitney scaled back this Biennial to include only 55 artists. And although the Brucennial contains works by over 250 artists, their salon-style presentation in one large room allows the viewer to take them all in at once. In radical contrast to G40, which was so dominated by mediocre works that it was hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, the New York exhibitions are full of one strong work after another, rewarding the viewer who takes time to contemplate each one. The work also fit the New York venues, with ambitious, polished works in the Whitney, and small-scale, humorous, and beauty-averse works in the gutted, vacant SOHO store-front housing the Brucennial. G40’s space, on the other hand, didn’t service the work; it detracted from the work. If G40 had been held in a space adjacent to exterior walls made available to the artists, which is where much of the work ached to be, then two of the participating artists may not have been charged for felony destruction of property for painting the pillars of the Crystal City building’s roof. Also, if a G40 artist had made a work that confronted the grungy carpet, then it may not have been such a distraction.

After being mislead about the content of G40, for me the highlight of the Whitney Biennial and Brucennial was that both answered the question asked but left largely unanswered by G40: The Summit – Where Art and Politics Collide: What political art is being made today? Many of the politically-charged works at the Whitney were too obvious, almost exploitative. Photographs by Nina Berman of a terribly disfigured Iraq-war veteran and by Stephanie Sinclair of Afghani women with severe burn wounds from setting themselves on fire due to spousal abuse and other suffering are so horrifying that they repel rather than invoke contemplation. But at the Brucennial I sat captivated by Max Snow’s I Went to See the Wizard, a 1960s video of an African tribe performing various rituals exotic to the Western eye with an appalling overdubbed play-by-play commentary by a KKK member saying statements like, “Someone needs to send this to Obama with a note, ‘Here’s your roots.’” Another highlight was Adam McEwen’s silkscreen of nine empty boxes by the word yes and nine checked boxes by the word no. How prescient as we watch the Republican Party devolve into the “Party of No.” Works also ventured into the realm of art politics. As I’m currently an MFA student, I was particularly amused by Maya Kishi-Anderson's bound compendium of art magazines titled, “All I Have to Unlearn About Art.”

When I attend large exhibitions, I expect to encounter works that are visually interesting and exciting, challenge my perception or understanding of various cultural and political issues, provide a pulse of what is on the minds of working artists, and build either a coherent (or intentionally disjointed) dialogue. I also hope for the rare experience of seeing something completely fresh; a process, format or interpretation that I have not come across before. Within today’s crowded art field, populated by an abundance of art fairs, annuals, biennials, triennials, and large group shows all vying for attention and relevance, I was curious to see which of these three exhibitions — G40, the Whitney Biennial, and the Brucennial — best succeeded in fulfilling these expectations. As the curatorial approach for each show differed, I wondered whether the successes and weaknesses of each show would build an argument for the efficacy of one approach over another.

The owner of a small, commercial art gallery (Shane Pomajambo of DC-based Art Whino which represents over 1,200 “New Brow” artists from around the world) curated G40 with a very specific intent: To showcase New Brow art. Unfortunately, G40 did not meet any of my expectations; its problems numbered too high to allow for a fair evaluation of its curatorial method relative to other methods.

Two men curated the 2010 Whitney Biennial (Francesco Bonami, a seasoned curator and non-exhibiting painter, and Gary Carrion-Murayari, a young curator known as a cross-generational thinker). They worked for a year meeting artists in order to select, without preconceived notions, the most compelling work. As would be expected, this carefully executed process led to a beautifully displayed, sophisticated exhibition with many strong works. However, although many works were thought provoking and visually compelling, no works struck me as revelatory. More importantly, the atmosphere of the show as a whole was sedate.

The Brucennial took a very different approach. Consistent with the organizing collective’s aim to put more curatorial power into artists’ hands, the collective started with an invite list including artists they like and then let word of mouth lead other artists to bring works to the storefront that housed the exhibition. As works arrived, others got shuffled around to make room so that everything could be included. This democratic method was risky, but it worked. Paradoxically, few of the works would have stood out if hung alone. In fact, when looked at individually, most of the works at the Whitney were stronger than those at the Brucennial. But collectively, the works in the Brucennial struck a pitch-perfect chord. The dense, haphazard, salon-style arrangement created an environment with unusually palpable creative energy. In the context of these exhibitions, the Brucennial’s approach won hands down.

The success of the Brucennial may in part be luck; sometimes things just work. Anyone can participate in DC’s Artomatic, but this annual month-long arts festival never has the vibrancy or cutting-edge atmosphere of this year’s Brucennial. The Brucennial proves, however, that a cooperative, egalitarian curatorial approach can lead to an outstanding exhibition with unique energy. I wonder what G40 would have been like had it been organized by New Brow artists themselves, not a dealer. I think I can safely wager that the result would have been much more compelling.

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