I like the art world and the art world likes me—at the EFA Project Space through 5 March suffers from a slight identity crisis. By turns engaging and muddled, the questions it raises, not all of them rewarding, are more about the show as a whole rather than individual pieces. What, for instance, is a “ ‘bootleg’ artist” (as organizer Eric Doeringer has styled himself)? Can’t everything be “read as either sincere or sarcastic” (as the press release instructs us to read the title)? Perhaps most pressing is the first question the title suggests—which art world? We’re meant, of course, to immediately understand the “New York art-world-as-hegemon” construction, though its solidity is anything but universally established. The conception and tenor of the show are shifty. In true children-of-the-nineties style it refuses to be really serious, while being really serious, preemptively shielding itself from attack by calling your attention to its inevitable shortcomings, and to its own painful awareness of those shortcomings. Suffice to say it was the first time in years I had thought of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
The wide range of depth and quality is interesting for the prevalence of two kinds of fin-de-siècle themes: one, an obsessive kind of cataloging reminiscent of the 19th century Decadents (cf. Huysmans’ exhaustive descriptions of Des Esseintes’ home décor, library and art collection in À rebours, or Zola’s minute recreations of laundries, bars and apartment buildings in the Rougon-Macquart); the other a knowing, overly personal, faux-folksy, quasi-naïf intimacy that recalls the end of the more recent century.
Jennifer Dalton’s Every Descriptive Word used to Describe Artists and their Work in Artforum’s ‘Best of 2007’ displays some of the former’s palpable monomania. It’s exactly what the title promises—a long white sheet of paper, thousands of words written in a minute, careful hand coursing down the page, which extends beyond the vertical wall space and continues across the floor. Copying them, in pencil, feels like an appropriation: an artist’s ephemeral, physically personal re-interpreting of the self-ascribed permanence of the printed page. It’s a simple, strong idea executed successfully and with intelligence. Dalton chooses to divide the modifiers into two columns, one for men and one for women.“Modest” stands out in the latter.
Artforum makes other appearances in the show—perhaps it’s assumed to be synonymous with the art world of the title. Conrad Bakker’s Untitled Project: SUBSCRIPTION [ArtForum International September 1969-June 1970] (Artist’s Proof Edition) are carved and painted covers of the magazine that, like Dalton’s re-framing of the words, re-appropriate the perceived visage of power. They demonstrate, again, the preoccupation with cataloging, reproducing and collecting objects deemed aesthetically important—and, in this case, commercially powerful. Pieces like Bakker’s and Dalton’s are the strengths of the show: direct, coherent and effective engagements with each artist’s specific interpretation of what “the art world” means. Through words and representation, Bakker and Dalton engage with a significant textual arbiter of the image.
The overly familiar register of the most recent fin-de-siècle, its Brooklyn-cutesy trend towards an earnest voice that somehow manages to never sound sincere, is exemplified elsewhere by a series of letters by Filip Noterdaeme, founder of the Homeless Museum of Art. Addressees such as “Dear Stranger,” “Dear Art Museum,” “Dear Artist,” the Director of the New Museum, Jesus and so forth receive messages imploring them to “Please stop going to art museums”, or “Please stop attracting the masses”. The missives then go on to inform the recipients of their particular shortcomings, of the evils they are supporting (“rehashing the same ideas forever, etc.”) and of the threats they pose to “the passionate and carefree world of the amateur.” The letter-as-medium is not an uninteresting concept, the problem is in the homogeneous, self-conscious precocity of the writing. The “Dear…” salutation, the casually friendly, pseudo-arch tone, the surfeit of exclamation points all characterize an overwhelmingly twee aesthetic that belies the “Sincerely” with which each letter concludes. The letters might be read as a kind of fragmented manifesto, but it’s a manifesto that tries to be too many things without fully grasping any of them. In spite of themselves, they come across as museum pieces, the archives of a particular aesthetic.
Doeringer didn’t set himself an easy task, nor an uncontroversial one. I like the art world… engages with a series of massive questions and tries to define several sprawling concepts. It will inevitably elicit criticism and court conflict. Its ambition is admirable even when some of the individual works fall short. Even these, though, when taken as part of the whole, reveal tendencies and preferences in contemporary art — whatever world that may be.