A Bread-Crumb Trail to the Spirit of the Times
By ROBERTA SMITH
Connecting the dots formed by New York gallery exhibitions is a perpetual art world pastime. The process involves matching little details or broad stylistic trends, recognizing recurring themes and common materials, or sometimes just finding the shared thread in one's own seemingly unrelated reactions. And everybody comes up with a different diagram.
Right now there are interesting connections to be drawn from a handful of exhibitions spread around Manhattan, including some impressive solo debuts and a remarkable group show. Visiting them takes one through a progression of neighborhoods, architectural settings and ways of making and presenting art - to arrive, at least by my lights, at the suspicion that there is something new and exciting percolating beneath the surface of the art world of New York.
For one thing, there's something of a youthquake going on, with a rash of young artists interested, as most young people are, in the thrills and dilemmas of being young. For another, New York art is having a hands-on moment. While artists have always worked with their hands, right now those hands seem to be especially busy. Knitting, sewing and quilting have a raised profile; so do quirky, even craftlike ways of drawing and painting, and approaches to video that make the medium feel thoroughly worked over - touched, so to speak.
And the underground is everywhere. It is no longer the pride or bane of a few gentrification-ready neighborhoods. You can find new art on the Upper as well as the Lower East Side; in Chelsea, which is much less the homogenized blue-chip zone it is often thought to be, as well as in Harlem.
Of course, these developments are not entirely unrelated. They are, to stretch observation into metaphor, all signs of people taking things into their own hands, of a healthy autonomy. They have, for me, the atmosphere of 1970's pluralism and laissez-faire, but this time more fleshed out and purposeful. It is less a pervasive condition than a question of personal style, if not a philosophy. It may be perpetuated by artists' collectives or by individuals working in so many mediums that each artist could appear to be a one-person collective.
These artists are confidant, free of ideology and, despite being camera savvy and computer adept, transfixed by the physical possibilities of art-making. Using Photoshop doesn't mean you can't also knit. Taking up a video camera doesn't mean you can't wield it like a paintbrush, or edit with the precision of a jeweler. Several of these shows may remind you that the children of the original flower children are becoming artists.
After all, boiled down to its essence, craft is simply concentration and care made manifest. It is materialized love, which partly explains the sincerity found in much of the new art that's around today.
Craft is also an effective way for young artists to reclaim pop culture: a direct grass-roots effort to subvert and reshape the stuff they have been force-fed from an early age.
Kenny Schachter Contemporary
The place to begin this tour, because it provides the most undiluted glimpse of youth-crazed craft and love, is "Air Show," the tour-de-force debut of Misaki Kawai at Kenny Schachter Contemporary, a gallery on an old alley in the West Village that is straight out of "Gangs of New York."
Ms. Kawai, who is 24 and lives in Tokyo, gives new meaning to the word aircraft with a fleet of elaborately handmade airplanes, accompanied by puffy cotton jet trails and blue felt clouds. The latter are sewn to the angled steel-mesh walls of the gallery, whose intimist (read: tiny) industrial interior was designed by the Acconci Studio.
Suspended in midair, Ms. Kawai's fleet ranges from a large airliner to fighter jets and biplanes, all stitched together from assorted fabrics - underwear, baby blankets, flannel pajamas - that remind you that patchwork is among the oldest forms of appropriation. Ms. Kawai has the funky exquisiteness of the classic dollhouse vernacular down cold, from tiny pillows and emergency instructions to busy flight attendants and imaginatively attired, werewolf-wigged passengers (their faces are all photographs of Beatles) who are reading, tending computers and, in one case, drawing.
She may be indebted to that master of miniaturization Charles LeDray, but she could also be the 21st century's version of Ettie Stettheimer, the dollhouse-building sister of the self-taught painter Florine Stettheimer, who was also one of the great art salonistes of 1920's New York.
While in the vicinity, some side excursions can provide further evidence of craft's current prominence and recent history in art: "Cheap," a group show at White Columns; Tom Sachs's miniature city at the Bohen Foundation; and, at Elizabeth Dee in lower Chelsea, Kevin Landers's latest excursion into handmade social commentary, which includes a plastic-putty-and-fabric re-creation of the wall of Nike sneakers made famous by Andreas Gursky's panoramic photograph.
John Connelly Presents
An equally significant stop is "K48: Teenage Rebel: The Bedroom Show," Scott Hug's ode to the chief laboratory of adolescent fantasy and subversiveness. John Connelly Presents, a young Chelsea gallery, occupies a small perch in a huge building that is an art-world microcosm. Tenants include galleries at all levels of economic viability, dozens of artist studios, the odd hip magazine (Index) and now a health club. A glance at the extensive lobby directory can induce social fatigue.
Mr. Hug's show is a delight. Packed into one room is a collage of works by a total of 70 artists, designers and collectives that is at once a finger-on-the-pulse survey and a personal manifesto, almost a solo show. A live-in environment where visitors can watch videos, listen to music and sift through bureau drawers, the show is, additionally, the walk-in equivalent of K48, the sharp-looking yet oddly homey magazine of art, fashion, music, design (and sex), now in its third issue, that Mr. Hug publishes.
The mix is beyond ecumenical. The displays include, for example, Claire Corey's Richter-esque digital abstraction as well as distinctive patchwork T-shirts by the collective Dearraindrop, whose members also contribute similarly bristling collage paintings, and the antic drawing-photocopy-cartoon collages of Billy Grant.
The feverish interaction of art, popular culture, craft, graphic design, film and music is everywhere apparent, and richly informative, both artistically and sociologically. But what makes it pop visually is Eli Sudbrack's wallpaper, mostly red, with its sweet, savvy fusion of psychedelic poster, Kate Greenaway and Renaissance tapestry.
And that Mr. Hug is living in the middle of all this makes his show the latest addition to the tradition of the fully furnished, mostly functional installations by Lucas Samaras, Ben, Chris Burden, Andrea Zittel, RirkritTiravanija and, most recently, Marina Abramovic.
While in the building, you can see more craft consciousness at Greene Naftali, in the abstract paintings of Sergej Jensen, a 29-year-old Danish artist living in Germany, who prefers glued-on pieces of denim and leather and occasional daubs of bleach to paint; and at Rush Arts, which is showing pieced-together garments by Gerald Jackson.
Another excellent visual adventure is "Life Is a Gift," Christian Holstad's first gallery show. The work centers on a plastic-enclosed bedroom that is a tribute to outsiderness in the form of a homage to David Vetter, the "bubble boy" whose defective immune system sentenced him to a brief, 12-year life of physical isolation in a germ-free plastic bubble. The show fills the small studio-apartment gallery of Daniel Reich, who sleeps in the piece each night (and is in the unusual position of not having to roll up his mattress each morning before he starts work).
Mr. Holstad is a one-artist collective, equally at ease with knitting, quilting, collage, drawing and sculpture; his work has a multimedia mix that mirrors Mr. Hug's effort at Connelly. But it also clarifies much that is merely glimpsed in the rich loam that Mr. Hug has brought together, especially the penchant for obsessive, half-invented techniques that often yield small-scale but concentrated results shot through with a fervent mysticism.
Everything in this show refers to the bubble boy, more or less directly. An exquisite color-pencil rendering of a garden includes a pair of big rubber gloves like the ones built into the bubble's interior to enable David's parents to hug him. Graphite-toned drawings made from newspaper photographs, which are erased and configured into little Symbolist dramas, touch repeatedly on the theme of freakishness and difference.
Perhaps the most characteristic of Mr. Holstad's odd fusions of innocence and subversiveness are pornographic collages whose coupled figures - "bubble boys" who have found each other - are layered with photographic patterns that turn out to be bits of hand-knit afghans cut from the pages of magazines.
Other signs of Mr. Holstad's ecumenism include a quilt, a strange wool-knit tree branch that culminates in a skull made of rubber foam and a removable quilted deer's head, and a trompe l'oeil rag rug carefully pieced together from faux-carpet linoleum.
A sign of the Chelsea underground is the gallery that Oliver Kamm, who formerly worked at Marianne Boesky and Paul Morris, has opened in his one-bedroom apartment on West 23rd Street. For his second show, he is presenting the New York debut of Colin McClain, a young artist from Tennessee who derives his motifs from Gray's Anatomy.
Mr. McClain's oil paintings of figures and torsos are the work of a developing artist. But his slightly skitterish drip technique, and his brash palette of pinks, greens and yellows, supposedly inspired by skateboard graphics, give the human form a neon vibrancy.
In many ways the blunt force and homogeneity of this show, and its images of totally exposed bodies, may be the perfect chaser to the air of haunted fragility and its wild range of emotions and materials that dominate Mr. Holstad's show.
"Sugar & Cream," a modestly ravishing excursion into the recent history of quilts, banners, flags and embroideries, looks great in the big white space of Triple Candie, a scrappy Harlem alternative space. The show underscores that such techniques have been around for a while, even if exhibitions like "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" at the Whitney Museum of American Art have given them a new visibility. Nearly everything here points up the flexibility of so-called craft mediums.
The outer limits are defined by David Hammons's "African-American Flag," Dinh Q. Le's black-on-black embroidery, James Hyde's formalist webbing-paintings and Oliver Herring's 1993-94 "Curtain," an immense swath of knit transparent tape that is aging beautifully.
Honing closer to traditional craft are the the quilts and quasi-quilts of Tracey Emins, Rosie Lee Tompkins and Trenton Doyle Hancock, whose paint and felt "Torpedo Boy's Chest Mess" is especially good. Caught in the crossfire between these works is a kind of quilt ghost: Jim Hodges's big, fluttery "Here's Where We Shall Stay," a semi-transparent expanse of sewn-together chiffon head scarves.
This show should inspire a larger, more inclusive effort, which might also encompass Faith Ringgold, who has three new painting-quilts at the ACA Gallery in Chelsea; Mike Kelley, whose "All the Love Hours" at the Whitney is looking more and more like a generational touchstone; Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt with his cellophane-embellished altarpieces; and maybe even Lari Pittman, whose paintings bring suggestions of graphic design, illustration, embroidery and textile design into a fruitful alignment.
Down the street from Triple Candie, the Project is showing "Pink Slips and Golden Parachutes," a lively show of work by past and present employees of the gallery. It includes "We Are Left," a large mural-size expanse of embroidered organdy, by Jessica Rankin. While indebted to artists like Julie Mehretu and Matthew Ritchie, this work has a casual finesse and compositional intelligence all its own.
If anyone needed confirmation that the underground can bubble up anywhere, look no further than East 94th Street and Salon 94, perhaps the poshest project space ever to sashay into any art scene. Established by Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, a partner in the Artemis Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, on Fifth Avenue just off 57th Street, Salon 94 is a semiprivate showcase for young artists.
Its setting is the ground floor of a former orphanage between Madison and Fifth Avenues that has been extensively redesigned by Rafael Viñoly with a curving glass wall and burl staircase, and stylishly decorated by his wife, Diana Viñoly. It could position Ms. Greenberg Rohatyn, who lives on the building's upper floors with her family, as a contemporary Peggy Guggenheim, a collector and dealer of means with an eagle eye for the latest thing.
The gallery's outstanding inaugural show manages to withstand all the built-in glamour. It introduces the percussive, narratively complex videos of Aida Ruilova, which are fraught with an air of slightly muffled domestic hysteria. As it happens, Ms. Ruilova also has an ultrarefined drawing of wolf-eyed figures in Mr. Hug's show at Connelly, and that rendering is consistent with the needle-sharp precision she brings to video editing.
Working with tapes of friends as they creep about decaying houses, peer through windows, hang from rafters and dart up staircases, Ms. Ruilova slices and dices their gestures and sounds with a D.J.'s sense of economy and rhythm, creating a cast of young shut-ins, stuttering eccentrics and assorted sociopaths. Shown at intervals on small screens or monitors, the videos' sounds play off one another to eerie effect.
In "Come Here," the title is repeatedly hissed by a young man in the shade of a large potted plant who seems to be summoning a zombie version of himself. "Almost" is the strangled message from a disheveled girl who crawls up (or down?) a rickety staircase and picks at a crumbling plaster wall. A sense of gothic foreboding and obsession that doesn't preclude comedy infuses the images, which recall some of Anna Gaskell's photographs. Their haunting snippets of sound and image force an extraordinary concentration; they remain mysterious even while they are drummed into the mind.
If Ms. Ruilova patches together videotape with a jeweler's sensitivity to nuance and facets, the young California artist Anthony Burdin, who is making his debut at Maccarone on the Lower East Side, begins by wielding the camera like a trowel. And while Ms. Ruilova's single drawing at Connelly has a silverpoint fineness, Mr. Burdin's works on paper, with titles like "Witchy Forecast" and "Legendary Ghost Scrawl," vibrate with a jittery paranoia to the verge of disintegration. Their out-of-focus, speaking-in-tongues wildness brings to mind H. C. Westermann, or the lettering on a goth teenager's notebook. They would be even more at home in Mr. Hug's installation.
Mr. Burdin's extraordinary show liberates youthful reverie from the bedroom and takes it on the road. With the camera and a boombox as his constant companions, he seems to spend a great deal of time creating raw material. This means playing rock on the boombox (for the videos in this show, it was all Blue Oyster Cult all the time) while waving the camera all over the place, sometimes singing along with the music as he goes.
He assumes two personas. As Voodoo Vocal, he views Los Angeles from behind the wheel of his ancient funky car, which functions as both a sound studio on wheels and a private performance stage. As Desert Mix, he beomes a kind of rogue D.J., dragging the boombox through fields of brush and wildflowers, muttering, growling and drooling from behind the camera.
Once these tapes are made, Mr. Burdin assiduously reworks them in the computer. Unlike Ms. Ruilova's work, his involves no cutting, just distortions and manipulations of sound and image until he achieves a satisfactory degree of hallucinatory spookiness or semiabstractness. The country videos, with their off-camera portrait of the artist as shaman or Abominable Snowman, are less effective: they have the feeling of a "Saturday Night Live" skit with no punch line.
But in the Voodoo Vocal tapes, magic happens. The street lamps and traffic lights are transformed into swarms of hovering diamond-shaped spaceships, rain on the windshield can resemble fields of diamonds, and the sound pulses around us. Melding imagination, lived experience and video into a fresh combination, Mr. Burdin leaves no doubt about his hands-on involvement with his medium. He is in tune with his time.