Sue Scott Gallery

No Man's Land: Art at theThreshold of a Millennium

Lisa Phillips
Whitney Museum of American Art (1993), January 1993
Biennial Exhibition Catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art (1993)

The eighties are over and its is startling to see how some would sweep the decade under the rug, to excise it from history altogether, and along with it, most of the art of the time. Although the period was fertile and produced much good, significant, and enduring art, eighties bashing has been a fashionable critical sport. Yet when certain reactionary critics talk about the greed, excess, celebrity-mongering, and strategy plotting of the decade, of its superficial style and trendiness, they never examine their own relationships to power or their role in creating and perpetuating this particular stereotype. With all the bally-hooing, tirades, moral crusading, and silly potshots, the amount of ink spilled on such supposed banality was enormous. All of this amounted to BIG PUBLICITY; it simply fed the furor, made advocated more vocal and the public extremely curious. Contemporary art thrives on controversy. Might such critics not have allotted more space to artists they felt had “higher pursuits or intellectual standards” so as to suggest a credible alternative? Very light chance. In the end, not enough serious attention was paid to the art, as the sociology of the art world became an obsession and dominated the discourse.

Now a new cry has arisen: the dictates of the market are said to have been replaced by those of the political arena. PC art is said to be today’s fashion. Trends do not always amount to fashion, but there is a propensity in America, once a trend is spotted, to run with it like mad, to package the Zeitgeist, excluding a lot of other valid endeavors. This runaway train is set loose by the combined forces of capital, critical and curatorial investment, and public response. It is extremely difficult at times to discern art that issues from a genuine impulse when it has already been capitalized into a TREND. But it is also too easy to dismiss it all without careful consideration. The challenge – the necessary challenge – is to ferret out the genuine and significant.

At any one moment, there are certain concerns that artists hare, and the Biennial has traditionally sought to identify them. Today everybody’s talking about gender, identity, and power the way they talked about the grid in the late sixties and early seventies. The issues of context and presentation are paramount and formal invention has taken a backseat to the interpretive function of art and the priorities of content.

One of the most powerful developments amount artists in this emerging generation is a deliberate rejection of both an authorial voice and form – oaf all the emblems of successful art: originality, integrity of materials, coherence of form. Much of the work is handmade, deliberately crude, tawdry, casual, and lacks finish. It is often presented provisionally, as words pinned directly to the wall, or in seemingly noncomposed or nonchalant accumulations of matter, in the tradition of late sixties and early seventies scatter and installation art. Drawing has come to play a central role and is the primary activity for many of the artists here. Appropriation, much of it from the lowliest of sources, continues to inform much of this art, as does a heavy presence of words, printed or handwritten or scavenged.

To the high-minded this art might seem defeatist and inept or at best plaintive and posturing. But that is the point. It deliberately renounces success and power in favor of the degraded and dysfunctional, transforming deficiencies into something positive in true Warholian fashion. This new sensibility, which has been the subject of much recent writing, has been variously described as “the aesthetics of failure,” “the loser thing.” “pathetic aesthetic,” and “slacker art.” This art’s love of the discredited and demeaned, its embrace of failure, displacement, and powerlessness, is in part a reaction to the feeling of inadequacy engendered by repressive social structures mirrored in the media.

From Mike Kelley (a progenitor of this non-movement) to Cady Noland, Karen Kilimnik, Jack Pierson, Raymond Pettibon, and Sue Willliams, we encounter a waste-land America, a bleak, chaotic, non-side of enervation, anomie, anger, confusion, poverty, frustration, and abjection: a dead zone, a no-man’s-land. The art is infused with meaning that reflects the disaffection of the socially marginalized, subcultural groups within a predominantly white, male, heterosexual society.

Sue Williams wrenches painting away from its white male domain to comment of that society – its dogma and its exclusion of women. “The art world can suck my proverbial dick,” screams one piece. William’s work, which varies from drawing to painting to wall installations that combine the two, is raunchy, gritty, rude, and raw, exposing the humiliation, cruelty, and indifference many women suffer daily. One seamy underside of American life is her subject: the heinous abuse, misogyny, neglect, rape, incest, and violence that permeate many sexual relations and social encounters. Uncle Bud: fantasies of young girls as directed by some middle aged slob is an incendiary chronicle, told through image and text, of incest and bulimia. It is also darkly, sarcastically funny. William’s visual puns do nothing to diminish the horror of her subjects; on the contrary, like gallows humor, they represent a fierce determination to survive.

William’s work proceeds from personal experience and has a strong autobiographical quality, which her stream-of-consciousness drawing style serves to reinforce. The caricatured pornographic images – of the zap comic variety – are all the more unsettling because they are done by a woman with a probing, scathing wit. In Are You Pro Porn or Anti Porn, she also uses kitsch sources like ads, illustrations, cartoons, and consumer packaging in order to expose the mutual linkage of victim and victimizer.

Raymond Pettibon incorporates fragments of literature into his drawings, together with pulp fiction, comic book imagery, commonplace expressions, high art, and religious references – all to form his own personal cosmogony. An obsessive reader and draftsman, Pettibon’s crisp, mostly black-and-white drawings present a raw vision of adolescent suffering and desire quite at odds with the supposedly sunny vision of his Southern California home. He often depicts cataclysmic events in nature and culture – mushroom clouds, thunderbolts, big bangs, explosions – or traumatic psychic events, such as the trials of teenage love or the suffering of the artist or political disillusionment. A strong metaphysical strain infuses these works, and though Gumby may be the resident philosopher, Pettibon meditates in a free-floating, free-wheeling manner on spirituality and redemption, the final resting place, and a return to Eden.

Jack Pierson likewise works in a stream-of-consciousness mode, and his art is also diaristic and confessional. Emanating from the (marginalized) perspective of a gay man, it is suffused with emotion; not with anger but with sorrow, dejection, and romantic lament. Pierson uses a variety of materials: artless drawings of awkward, scrawled texts that recall William Wegman’s works on paper; mismatched signs that are scavenged from old restaurants and movie marquees; and over-exposed photographs tacked directly to the wall, most often exhibited together in offhand arrangements. Pierson’s hapless world is embodied in signs reading “Someday” or “Nothing,” blurry, askew snapshots of stray dogs and back alleys or cheap motel poolsides. They speak of the rootlessness and vagabond nature of a latter-day “beat” existence. The existential longing and loneliness of Pierson’s non-place precincts have a lyrical film noir quality that closely parallels the recent films of Gus Van Zant.

Like Pierson, Suzanne McClelland too has used the word “someday” as the basis for several works. In the context of other phrases – “no,” “don’t worry,” “nothing,” and “alright” – “someday” suggests an authoritative voice, a promise held out, a means to placate both fears and desires. The configurations of letters and the way they are painted evoke a different emotional registers: the ambiguous state between fear and desire, the dreamy reverie of future possibility, the panic of being retrained, the longing of promise, the anger of refusal and denial. McClelland combines abstract painting with words and writing to fuse the listening experience with seeing. Her gestural painting seems to issue from the scriptural process, the graphic impulse. It is concrete poetry that incorporates different stages of language and utterance. Individual letters of varying sizes stand as discrete forms and emblems; clustered together they create sounds; and, finally, as the eye roams the space of the paintings, word begin to appear. One drifts through the spaces of McClelland’s paintings in a state of emotional contingency and flux.

We are again at sea, drifting, in Simon Leung’s installation Marine Lovers, where nothingness takes on a poignant physical form. Dozens of sheets of paper have been tattooed – imprinted with texts and images created by repeated pinpricks – and placed on clear Plexiglas shelves cantilevered from the wall. One can only perceive the words and forms as light filters through the tiny holes or illuminates a slightly raised surface. Leung’s obsessive and time-consuming method of representation yields bare perceptibility, emphasizing the border between being and nothingness, form and formlessness, visibility and invisibility.

“In my work,” Leung has remarked, “I have tried to prick my way to the limits of inherited ideas of sexuality. What I found was that it led me to the glory hole.”
There is a metaphorical interplay between the pinprick and the glory hold, where a sexual transaction occurs that is totally anonymous and disembodied, a site of division and exchange between self and other. The pinprick is the phallus that creates the orifice which defines the prick in its void. Self and other can likewise be seen to have a similar relationship: one is already indebted to the “other” in the constitution of the self….cont’