The Americans: new Art

Barbican Gallery, London, 25 October- 23 December 2001

What must it be like to be a young American artist? Maybe it’s like being a member of the cheerfully stupid boy-band in Amy Adler’s Record of the Year, 2001; fame, pop-culture acknowledgement, cool, success, a wilful disregard for the seriousness of your own work, a disposable contingency to stop things getting too heavy or important. Or maybe it’s more like being the panda in Rob Pruitt’s Winter, 2001; caught in a field of stardust, stuck halfway up a tree, gazing wistfully down at the sparkle and glitter around you, fascinated and helpless, forever cut off and doomed to extinction.

Maybe it’s a little too much of both. ‘The Americans’ summarises a generation of artist for whom art is a vehicle to cultural recognition and professional success, yet who seem incapable of more than an oddly cynical and nihilistic relationship to their own position, and the value of the work they make. This is partly due to the difficulty many of the artists have distinguishing their work from other forms of popular culture. Referring to popular culture has always been a way for art to keep itself feeling fresh, yet ‘The Americans’ betray a deep ambivalence to the value of popular forms and tastes. Theses artists want to root their work in a common cultural experience, but then find that that common culture is as dreadful as they always thought it was; but given that sneering at the popular is a sure-fire way of getting yourself branded an elitist, the work often exemplifies a schizophrenic combination of saccharine inanity and pathological disillusion. Like Pruitt’s obsolete panda, or Liz Craft’s polished and grotesquely comic dead Blackwidow, 2000, Tony Matelli’s Lost and Sick: Winter Version, 2000-01, exemplifies this dilemma: Three teenage figures, dressed in brand new winter-wear and woolly hats, are slumped around a tree-stump, vomiting into the surrounding snow. It’s a dismal vision of a mediocre and arrested culture so incompetent that it can no longer cope with even the simple rigours of the natural environment.

The problem for these artists is that ‘popular culture’ doesn’t simply mean the glamorous, corrupt or idiotic things that mass culture presents as such. Nor does it mean that things the positive pleasures mass culture comes up with are necessarily so bad or irretrievably compromised. Martin Kersels’ Pink Constellation 2001, is a good example of this trouble; his video of a teenage girl’s bedroom, uses the old-fashioned cinematic trick of the ‘tumble-room’, a revolving set with a fixed camera that allows actors to walk up walls. It’s a technique once used with huge success in Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ video. Here it’s employed in a sinister scenario evocative of the supernatural terror of Poltergeist or The Shining. Kersels’ video seems to want to reveal a claustrophobic anxiety in the consumer mediocrity of American adolescence; the trouble for me is that, in the end, ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ remains a more life-affirming experience.

This contradictory attitude towards popular culture continues in the paintings of Erik Parker, which systematically record vast genealogies of cultural history, in a style that screams ‘outsider art’. Tore up from the floor up’ 2000, and Move the Crowd, 2000, represent vast graffiti’d towers of the history of pop music and artworld celebrity, whilst I Wanna be Sedated/Texecuted 2001, records all those put to death by the state of Texas. Parker tries to ‘make paintings that look the way a hip-hop song sounds’, so it’s maybe appropriate that the subtlety of their content is drowned out by the undifferentiated noise of their form.

There is hope however, in T.J. Wilcox’s remarkable video Midnite Movie 2001, and assemblage of recordings of ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ late night-screenings, the ones where people dress up and ritually perform the cult film’s songs. Shot in a number of different cities, repeating the same lines from each song in quick succession across different locations, watching would-be Frankenfurters ham it up in suspenders and corset, Wilcox’s film manages to create a complex essay on how ordinary people appropriate mass-culture for their own ends. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is anyway a classic chunk of knowingly exuberant nonsense, which makes it the object of choice for these self-ridiculing acts of late-night cultural collectivity. There is however a hook to the piece; at the moment when the audience is chanting the line ‘Let’s do the timewarp again!’, one participant joyfully bellows ‘let’s do the same shit again!’. Of course pop culture is shit. Doesn’t mean you’re not having fun.

The question then is not whether the work in ‘The Americans’ is engaged with its cultural environment, but how it chooses to use the space it has for some other purpose than mere self-flattery or pandering anxiously to an anyway spectral ‘popular culture’. Unsurprisingly, the gently idiosyncratic formalism of works such as Sarah Sze’s Fractured Sculpture 2000 and Tom Friedman’s UFO 1998, reaffirm the strength of work untroubled by clumsy reference, even if this limits their range beyond the gallery. But popular culture can still yield up powerful articulations of political and social reality, though it’s the lightest touch that often prevails; Kara Walker’s bizarre illustrations and cut-outs of pre-Abolition racial servitude succeed through their unrepentant ‘black’ humour. Lighter still, but more ambitious, formally and politically, is Jonathan Horowitz’ The Soul of Tammi Terrel 2001, a two screen video piece that flicks from an archive pop-promo of Terrel’s duet with Marvin Gaye, against scenes from 1998’s Stepmom starring Susan Sarandon, in which the song reappears. It’s the soundtrack to the Hollywood recurrence that dictates the audibility of the original song, a relationship reinforced by the parallel between Terrel’s death from a brain tumour with that of Susan Sarandon’s character; subtle elements that combine to engagingly provoke questions of cultural history, the commercial recycling of black Motown for a white audience, and the obliteration of creative intent in the circulation of mass-cultural commodity.

Of course contemporary art can be bright, insightful, engaging and wholly immersed in the common culture. Doesn’t mean you’re not having fun.



First published Contemporary, February 2002 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated