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Elizabeth Murray's "Do The Dance" at MoMA.
Critical i

Glad it's over ...
Artmageddon 2005
by Jeff Jahn

t was a funny year.

In 2005, the art market climbed ever higher in a way that made everyone anxious, which lead to a sense of imminent doom that lead to better parties and somewhat stupider art. The prevailing thought is that the art world has become too popular and successful for its own good – a thought confirmed by the fact that MoMA is so crowded it's a bit like shopping in a mall the day after Christmas.

Another reason the art market looked really out of touch was that art prices and gas prices skyrocketed just as tensions over troubles in Iraq went ballistic. This begs the question: Is the art-market boom just some liberal guilt pressure valve?

Well, yes and no. Part of the problem of answering that question is there are many art markets.

One art market is the investment market that likes blue-chip artists like Elizabeth Murray because she has a long track record ... regardless that nobody gets all that passionate about her work. She is always out there, always weirdly OK. She is the reliable second-tier blue-chip artist you'd trade in a heartbeat for anything decent by Louise Bourgeois or Ellsworth Kelly. Those are two artists that do elicit a major passionate response, both positive and negative.

Karen Kilimnik was painting this back in 2002 when it was fresh.

Another art market involves artists and galleries that primarily sell cheap to produce art made of string, glitter, glue, lint, etc., as cutesy jokes.

Yes, this is a liberal guilt pressure valve and it's been going on since at least 1998 – but, back then with artists like Karen Kilimnik, it was a reaction to overly academic and pretentious art.

Now it's just the echoes of an old trend.

Much of the lower end in this market stuff is being produced by the privileged children of upper-middle- to upper-class families who have no idea what to do with their anxious selves. But since they have all been taught they are "above average," they feel the need to express their "above average" yet self-conscious-to-a-fault views. It's a bubble of frantic mediocre activities that hasn't presented any new ideas or content since 2002.

Being privileged isn't a crime (I write from experience) but one should do something with that opportunity. Of course, there are always standouts and I'm discussing the hoard they leave behind. But increasingly, even the standouts are standing out less and less. Remember the Greater New York show in 2005?

A list of 2005 attitudes that must die:

1) Glitter is good because it is cheap, easy to add to anything and a surrogate for fool's gold, which is a good analogy for the current moment where most things disappoint. If one settles for and celebrates disappointment, it is a victory over having to do anything of consequence.

From NADA art fair 2005 ... we get it already.

2) Try not to make art that looks too solid, exquisite or well made because that implies value and indicates a wish to survive into the future, which is scary and to be avoided at all costs. Instead, tell amusing jokes about the present as a way to avoid the current lack of intellectual foment.

3) Self-consciousness as a replacement for intellectual facility. Drawings in pencil or pastel colors are preferred because they seem less defined. Sure, some people do this well. But it's a style that has been so widely adopted that it's already horribly played out.

This younger group of self-conscious artists looked funny because the art world on many levels seems preoccupied with fanciful charm rather than effect or striking a nerve. Clearly there are two Americas: one where people join the National Guard and another where people go to art school.

Worst professional installation of 2005: Canada Gallery at the NADA art fair, too messy or not messy enough? (At least it was purposely indecisive.)

One trend that has been in effect since the 2002 Whitney Biennial has been "the big mess" and Jerry Saltz discusses it in his "Clusterfuck Esthetics" article.

Saltz rightly describes it as a frantic, unresolved state that refers to the current anxious moment and the free-for-all atmospheres you can find at art fairs.

I'd also like to add that it evokes the detritus of disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes. Yep, more misplaced guilt.

It's interesting that some artists organize detritus, whereas dealers often try to create cacophony by showing lots of artists in a haphazard kind of way that mimics flea-market aesthetics.

By confounding interpretation, dealers are possibly covering the fact that the emperor has no clothes – a smart move but impossible to maintain.

Nothing epitomizes this mess more than the NADA art fair. In 2004 it was all the rage but in 2005 it seemed to already become a parody of itself. Still, it wasn't all bad. There were some good things that created a monstrous order from chaos (which one could see in Takashi Murata's video at Ratio 3 Gallery at the NADA art fair, but which I saw months earlier at the Affair at the Jupiter Hotel art fair in Portland).

Murata's "Monster Movie" video at NADA.

Overrated in 2005: Ryan McGinness. He is our lame American answer to Takashi Murakami for graphic design as contemporary art. He makes poppish heraldic crests, but those arrows and patterns were already easily adapted to window displays in Diesel and Urban Outfitter stores.

This mock heraldry is mostly just an embellishment whose legs are already worn out. Besides, Diesel and Urban Outfitters have already moved on. Barry McGee is much better but needs to stop tipping over vans, etc.

The revised World Trade Center: A taller version of the Empire State Building ... how original!

Also overrated for 2005 is Elizabeth Murray. Her retrospective was the talk of the town, but the show doesn't seem to stick with anyone like the Lee Bontecou show did. Bontecou set a precedent for unearthing good female artists who haven't been looked at hard enough.

Problem is, Murray isn't all that memorable. She looks OK to good when you see her best works, but they just don't haunt you (and I generally prefer shaped, sometimes campy, abstract paintings).

Most underrated show of 2005: Robert Smithson at the Whitney. I guess it was mostly underrated because it had already been shown in L.A., where it was my Best Show of 2004.

Biggest disappointment: the WTC tower and site design. Yes, the art world seems annoyed with itself while it is thankful for the art market activity. But nothing says "failure of imagination in New York" like this debacle.

If the world is lucky it won't get built and something better can happen in the future.

Is it the end of the world? No, but we can only put off the inevitable for so long. Then again, Americans are utterly amazing when it comes to postponing the inevitable.

E-mail Jeff at pivotofjade@hotmail.com, don't miss his recent columns, be sure to see his April 2002 essay, Art and Threat: Untaming Humanism., and don't miss the art-blog, PORT.

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