Recently, two of Utah’s best-known art centers underwent major changes. One lost its home, the other changed its name. Through the turmoil, both pledged to continue supporting a particular brand of art, which they somewhat counter-intuitively label ‘Contemporary.’ Many in the audience may have missed the drama in that commitment; after all, what’s controversial or in need of defending about art made in the present day, rather than the past? Battleground States, an ambitious and commendable showcase for 31 working artists—some well known, others who are new or obscure—challenges viewers to distinguish this brand from the more familiar, cozy work being done all over Utah at the same time, which in spite of being ‘contemporary with’ the work displayed here, is apparently not the same animal as that deliberately called Contemporary.
One difference becomes clear at once. Contemporary art is thematically driven in a way that previous art wasn’t, and the theme is posted at the door, then restated in smaller signs beside each work. Traditional exhibits employ categorical themes: the landscape, portraits, artists with some quality in common. It’s not hard to imagine a single work appearing in quite a few such shows, because while a theme resonates with the art, it belongs to the exhibit. By contrast, Contemporary artists consciously imbue their works with thematic content—a message—which precedes making the work and displaces conventional aesthetics. A curator who has identified similar themes in disparate artists assembles them to show, instead of 31 subjective views of Mt. Olympus, 31 ways people today think about their lives. Hierarchies of technique and skill are dissolved in the democratic power of free speech. This goal was underscored for me by a curator who offered to explain any work I didn’t understand. When I replied that I could decide for myself what I liked, he insisted: “It’s not liking I’m concerned about; it’s understanding.” In other words, the sensual pleasure of seeing is no longer the point. Although it arrives via the eye, this work must be grasped by the mind alone. Simply to witness the varieties of gender identity proposed by these artists would be to miss the point, which advances the belief that understanding others will lead us to accept them.
Of course the content of art has always been part of the experience, and most of us are quite used to searching for meaning. Trevor Southey, perhaps the best-loved ‘Utah’ artist today, cannot be fully appreciated without regard to the piercing appeal his paintings make, that we feel the connection between beauty and the places he finds it. His popularity is due in no small part to his place in a tradition scarcely broken since the Renaissance, in which sensitive renderings of families, farmers, familiar animals, and human flesh are delicately balanced between confectionary-surfaced illusions and iron-cored, undeniable reality. But no Renaissance painter ever made sexuality the theme of a painting. In fact, none painted so autobiographically. But just as literature has embraced the first person voice, so much Contemporary art relies on the authority of memoir. Thus Trishelle Jeffery’s three auto-biographical comix hang confidently among Southey’s five Slavic, full-frontal male nude portraits. Despite their differences in size and medium, in them both artists reveal intimate interior qualities at odds with mainstream conventions. A young woman’s confusion and an old man’s self-acceptance assert themselves as equally valid responses to life.
A very different, no less valid response to life appears in Bas Jan Ader’s video, “I’m Too Sad to Tell You,” in which an unidentified man weeps inconsolably, without explanation.|1| Robert Hughes blamed the loss of modern art’s power on other media that subvert it, and indeed, the sight of unsustainable weeping is so common on television that the shock is lost. But Ader’s withholding his subject’s reason for crying makes it impossible to pigeonhole, to render remote or unthreatening to us, and so it penetrates our defenses. Fortunately, the words on the wall have nothing to add that might intercede and diminish this experience, though the nagging fear lingers that had Ader been less discreet, the alienating balm of a story would have eventually attached itself to, and essentially undermined, his video. This possibility gives a glimpse into what may well be Contemporary Art’s Achilles’ Heel.
Certainly there are other works that can be appreciated without yielding to the curators’ need to explain. Brooklyn-based Nicole Eisenman’s sailor casts a gimlet eye on the celebration of ‘Fleet Week,’ known in some ports-of-call as “when the Navy comes upstream to spawn.”|2| Matt Lipps’ re-photographed collages of women and men achieve a genuine sculptural quality, while reaching across time to distill purported feminine and masculine qualities.|3| Dean Sameshima’s giant dot-to-dot image may be lost on those too young to have practiced this graphic version of paint-by-numbers, but reinvigorates the old saw that the most powerful sex organ lies between the ears.|4| The most moving static image is David Wojnarowicz’s elegiac “When I Put My Hands On Your Body,” an eerie photo of excavated graves overlaid with text, the two media working together to recall how mortality underlies the urgency of sex.|5| All these works are juxtaposed against cards that either overdetermine their meanings or else add nothing. The objects speak clearly for themselves, in a language that cannot be translated into words.
Yet many works depend on the texts not just to make them accessible, but to spell out otherwise inchoate meanings. Pushing this envelope are such merely clever works as Bertrand Planes “Life Clock,” which we learn from the card makes one complete rotation in an 84-year lifetime,|6| and Guido van der Werve’s video, from what we are told is the North Pole, where he supposedly rotates precisely opposite the earth’s rotation, in sum (he thinks) remaining motionless.|7| This kind of thing must look good on a grant proposal, but the clock could as well be broken, ‘the Pole’ anywhere. For anyone whose intelligence is not sufficiently insulted, a short walk leads to two empty picture frames, the ‘artifact’ of David Levine’s ‘invisible performance.’ The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes has waited a long time for a new chapter, and here it is: dress the naked emperor so that only the cognoscenti can tell which one he is.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s neon cross wants to symbolize a future human state, so it evokes nothing in the naive viewer’s conscious or unconscious memory.|8| Similar wishful works include Jonathan Horowitz‘s white-on-white critique of the ubiquitous ribbon worn by activists of every stripe: add all the colors together and it fades into the background. Along with Terence Koh’s pink triangle and Felix Gonzalez Torres’s silver rings |9| symbolizing coupling, these symbols have the relation to their intended topics that book jackets have to what’s inside them.On the other hand, the works that fully explore those topics are the least accessible in a gallery setting. Carlos Motta’s “We Who Feel Differently” constitutes a portal to “an ongoing online archive of symposia and interviews.”|10| Takashi Murakami’s evocation of Japanese popular arts and Matthew Barney’s scrotum-centered mythologizing are equally impossible to fully appreciate on the basis of what are essentially trailers for larger projects.
And this may be the ultimate shortcoming of this message-based approach to art. Too many of the works here overflow their space on the wall, not in the imagination of the viewer but outside the gallery, in the life of the artist. The films of Jack Smith, represented here by stills,|11| and Tobias Bernstrup’s ‘practice,’ glimpsed in a sculpture of an ‘intersexual pop star,’|12| offer glimpses of a life’s work not present. It’s as if the exhibit has become just another marketing phenomenon in late-stage Capitalism. What we get for our money, time, or effort is just the first installment, offered at a bargain price in the hope that we will choose to purchase the entire set.
An artist I encountered in the gallery told me candidly what she thought of the works. She added that, if talking to her former art-school buddies, she would have spoken differently than she did to me. Specifically, she would have given them what she knows to be the ‘right answers.’ And I realized that, so far as that curator is concerned, the right answer may be the only answer. Failure to respond to the figurehead on the wall indicates inadequate preparation, a lack of familiarity with things not present, but to which it points.
Battleground States contributes to a richer understanding of the range of gender possibilities. That said, it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind. I returned to Trishelle Jeffery’s enchanting ‘I Just Want to Know What to Expect,’ and to Trevor Southey’s lovingly observed portraits. Working on very different aesthetic levels, each recalls a universal experience from life: the one of quotidian confusion, the other of how it feels to cherish another human being. I wonder if it’s too much to hope that art will free itself from trying to do something a Facebook post does better, and instead do the thing it does best: shiver us to the soles of our lonely feet, and reacquaint us, however briefly, with our deeper selves.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.