Thursday, March 10, 2005

AU REVOIR, EAST VILLAGE USA. I saw some art this week: first, the new London and New York stuff at "Art Rock" in Rockefeller Center, and then the "East Village USA" show at the New Museum.

The Art Rock show I caught during the recent snowstorm. The installations were set up in doorless boxcars on the Plaza, except for Rob Fischer's Mirrored House (a, er, little house made of mirrored panels, one of which had been damaged, unintentionally for all I could tell). The Plaza and the boxcars were sparsely populated; the wooden ramps leading into the boxcars were dusted with snow and streaked with slush. Maybe crowding would have lent a festive air to the proceedings, as with The Gates. As it was, the art had to do all the uplifting, and failed dismally. Freezer cases housing concentric, colored neon tubing; an urban Yeti in a dark case with wreckage; a dumpster folded into a paper airplane shape, which, like the glass-plated dumpster I saw at the last Whitney Biennial, revealed nothing except how hard it is to make art out of a dumpster.

I left dispirited. But I looked forward to the New Museum show. I lived in that Village in that time, and, though I was not a painter or sculptor or graffitist, spent many Thursday nights living off the cheap wine and cheese freely available at their openings. I laughed to imagine people I knew staring out from the portraits, full of their lost, youthful glower.

I liked more of the individual artworks on display than I had expected. In the old days there was, Lord knows, a lot of crap, but this is a museum, so someone did some picking and choosing, and on the limited terms of the exhibition it paid off. The George Condo paintings had great flair; so did James Romberger's sketches -- I was sorry to see they used Wojnarowicz's feeble assemblages instead of the masterpieces James made of his writings, but those came a while after the period. I liked the Basquiats and Harings better than I did back in the day, and was grateful for the second look. The Jeserun and Nomi videos reminded me that even in the days when performance art was a terrible nuisance, sometimes a performer made you look up and smile. Even the Richard Kern film looked good to me.

But a lot of the work withered outside its original context. The graffitists' canvasses just sucked. A few small photos -- and a video of Wild Style -- gave some idea of how great their stuff looked in situ, boldy riding subway trains across the grey city skies. Screw conventional wisdom -- those things were beautiful and I miss them. But the paintings are self-conscious and emphasize the crudeness of the artists' ideas. You might as well invite your favorite loquacious bum to do a one-man show on Broadway, or hang your favorite sidewalk chalk artist's work at MOMA. Where they live they are powerful; in the gleam of gallery bulbs, their power crumbles.

Other works suffered a similar fate. The poesies by the outhouse are a piquant thing, a testament to the persistence of beauty. Pluck them and put them in a vase, and what have you got? Flowers that smell like shit. After a quick shock of recognition, the Kenny Scharf canvas was to me just a birth certificate for Drawn Together. The Tseng Kwong Chi photo said nothing except "I am Tseng Kwong Chi." The odd, aesthetically plausible pictures became mere worthies stuck among unworthies; after a while there was no show, to me, anymore -- just survivors and things that had not survived.

It was sad to be reminded that this time and this place were not so magical as the pixie-dust that accretes to my memory of them. Of course I had thought I knew this, but until someone turned on these spotlights the fact was escapable. Though, as I said, there was a better ratio of good to bad at the New Museum than I expected, if the work had been much worse and yet had delivered unto me the spirit of those times, when I ran those dangerous and garbage-strewn streets with a guitar case slung over my shoulder and a spray-painted leather jacket on my back, I would have laughed at the crap as heartily as I did then, spraying wine and cheese and flinching at the expected ejecting pinch of my shoulder, but I would have been happier. As it was I felt even worse about the Rockefeller Center show, and about every shitty show that now couples in my imagination like snowy boxcars from Back In The to the present Day.

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