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Death to the Fascist Insect That Preys on the Life of the People
The larger issues percolating around the 2004 Whitney Biennial were (A) whether the "quest for the adolescent" theme identified by the curators was real (as opposed to a thesis in search of evidence), and (B) if real, the extent to which the retreat into infantilism was (i) a response to the current pervasive terror-talk and war, (ii) a reaction to 20 years of verbal theory and no fun in art, or (iii) widespread, simultaneous opting out of participation in an art historical lineage in favor of private (outsider-ish) worlds. The pervasiveness of what Roberta Smith calls "the bedroom shows" and the rise of collectives of 20-something artists documented by Holland Cotter suggests that the trend is real. Militating against that conclusion, however, is anecdotal evidence that the curators were scouting for "young artists" out in the field, and may have skewed the survey in favor of "stuff young artists do." But then previous generations of "young artists" made ultraserious, high-toned work in their 20s, as opposed to wacky, pop-culture-driven room-filling jamborees: think Frank Stella, Gordon Matta-Clark, Eva Hesse, even Cindy Sherman & Robert Longo.
So, if we accept that this is a legitimate sociocultural trend, why the regression into the visual equivalent of baby talk? Perhaps it depends on which preschool we're talking about. The Whitney curators may very well have skimmed the most non-threatening and apolitical work out of the youthpool, while contemporaneous shows in Brooklyn and elsewhere show a "worried generation" mingling concerns about military, labor, environment, and culture-war issues with a faux-unengaged, faux-juvenile stance. Not precisely Dadaists waiting out WWI in Zurich, because overt references to current events are mixed in. I'm intrigued by James Wagner's reporting and pictures from a show I missed in DUMBO (Brooklyn) called "Death to the Fascist Insect That Preys on the Life of the People." The title is from the Symbionese Liberation Army (last invoked in the artworld in the early 90s "nihilistic" scatter art of Cady Noland), but here the grimness of Cinque De Freeze's social indictment is completely belied by the artwork on view: toys, stuffed animals, stickers, buttons, and crude thumbtacked drawings resembling an end-of-the-semester children's art show.
Based on James' photos and descriptions and what I know about some of the artists, the show looked to be an entertaining but tough-minded mix of influences: the Kenny Scharf Jetsons East Village blacklight funhouse thing, Basquiat "drawerly" cartooning, graffiti, the late 80s/early 90s slacker style, and, through manipulation of Saturday Morning sugar cereal advertising tropes, even the hardnosed, political "pictures" art of Levine, Goldstein, Prince, etc. The use of websites to document shows and present stand-alone pieces (by TAG Projects, who did the "Insect" show, but also BEIGE, Paper Rad, etc.) makes this a new animal, though. These are just the beginnings of a theory (and sorry it's so ponderous--just trying to get the thoughts down), but suddenly there's a lot of good work out there, and I'm excited by the role websites and bloggers like James are playing in documenting it, before it reaches the cooled down, institutional phase of magazine coverage and curatorial co-opting.
Noah Lyon, from "Death to the Fascist Insect..." Photo by James Wagner.