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Not Pretty, But Beautiful – NYC Arts

Greater New York 2010 is the latest show on at MoMA PS1. Devon Dikeou explores its treasures.

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The problem with survey shows is that, well, they are survey shows. Whatever the theme, it rarely resonates. That’s certainly the case as you enter this massively anticipated exhibition at the PS1. Curators Klaus Beisenbach, Connie Butler, and Neville Wakefield insisted that they were motivated by, “What PS1 has an abundance of, ‘space’; rather than what it lacks, ‘money.’” They say the artists selected were given free range to take over their spaces within the PS1. Sadly the stated curatorial ambition is unfulfilled. Very few of the artists addressed PS1 as a space and that much of the work is wrongfully scaled for the size of the exhibition venue. It just doesn’t jive to project videos the size of a billboards in almost a quarter of the spaces. That said, some gems do stand out.

David Brooks’s installation Preserved Forest took some heavy lifting. It involved securing rainforest trees and plants from a Florida nursery, and reinstalling them in the double-story stairwell near the entrance of the museum. The artist then coated his replanted forest in cement. A commentary on Brazilian de-forestation, global warming, even the BP oil spill, or a segue to earth works of Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, even Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape – an ‘institution’ of public art at the corner of Houston and West Broadway for the last 30 years. Whatever. The piece is a contrast between nature and our peopled environment and is pretty engulfing, if not entirely inspiring. It seems to make a grand statement for the whole exhibition.

William Cordova’s Laterintos (after Octavio Paz) is a maze of analog record covers arranged house-of-cards style, each holding the other up as delicately as early Richard Serra Cor-Ten steel configurations. Upon closer inspection, the wall label reveals that the records were “appropriated” from an “Undisclosed Ivy League Institution.” The motive for this ‘appropriation’ is that the very same Ivy League School “refused to return 200 Inca artifacts from Peru after originally borrowing them in 1914.” The piece is dated 2003-2009. Clearly it took a long time for the artist to appropriate these albums. What does this tell us? That music, one of the most appropriated mediums ever, is the only recourse for original artifact? That over time, are all things eventually get lost or stolen?

In the same room, and interacting quite well with Cordova’s record maze is the work of Hank Willis Thomas. On the wall are a double band of found images – African-American featured ads from the last thirty years. These 82 images are titled Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America 1968-2008, 2005-2208. And the images range from super banal to hilariously dated, a Dennis Rodman milk ad for example. They are playful, sociological, anthropological, encyclopedic.

It’s easy to be suspicious of groups, artistic or otherwise, that have fictitious names and pose behind manifestos, and Bruce High Quality Foundation is both of those things. But their installation Perpetual Monument to Students of Art is genius. It’s the Greater New York’s show stopper. The piece doesn’t look like nor act like anything else in this exhibition. And that’s a good thing. What you see is a room full of plinths, all the stuff usually stashed in the closets of still life drawing classes. There are dozens of them, all medium sized, but varied in dimensions. These pedestals are arranged in a room totally devoid of anything but other plinths. They look like a modernist graveyard. OK. But this is where it gets really interesting: this is a ‘Pedestal Exchange Program.’ Art schools in the NY area are encouraged to exchange their dirty plinths for the newly refurbished Bruce High Quality replacements. The completely pristine white cemetery will slowly be replaced by somewhat less pretty tombstones over the course of the show. It rocks. Conceptually and visually. It is Rauschenberg erasing de Kooning, but in reverse.

Further along, David Adamo’s Untitled (Rite of Spring) creates a flooring entirely out of real wooden baseball bats. These Louisville Sluggers are installed head to toe and there is very little space between them (so beware taking any Sex in the City dates – it’s unfriendly to their Louboutin’s). The materials feel right to anyone with baseball in their blood. It’s also a plus that Adamo deals with ideas of installation, minimalism, and earthwork, specifically, floors à la Carl Andre and Walter de Maria.

Not pretty, but certainly beautiful are the pieces by LaToya Ruby Frazier. This young artist’s work documents the place she grew up (somewhere unspecified in the Northeast Industrial Belt. The photographs succeed particularly well because of the room in which they are installed. A long and by PS 1 standards narrow hallway gives a human element to viewing the work. It doesn’t overwhelm, as is often the case with other photography in this exhibition. It helps too that the artist is working with film – these are gelatin prints – and the close viewing proximity allows for the closer inspection these prints deserve. The subject matter is strictly inner city but poignantly big picture.
Surprisingly one of the best uses of space in the exhibition is in a closet in the basement of this former school. Here we find three simultaneous video projections by Conrad Ventur, which take Shirley Bassey as their subject. Each video creates an mélange of images of the famous croaker with an oddly hologram-like look. Upon closer inspection, the technology employed are crystals hung in front of each video projector lens, so that instead of a single image, we get a kaleidoscope of Shirley Bassey signing This Is My Life. The crystals are kinetic, responsive to heat, gravity and even drafts: the multiple Shirleys move accordingly. It is an inspiring moment. Breathtakingly sweet.

The chords and chorus belting from Rashaad Newsome’s looped videos the conductor (fortuna imperatix mundi) & the conductor (primo vere, omnia sol tempereat) beckon viewers into the room.  Projected onto the huge wall is a montage of old MTV rap videos re-cut to fit the classical music mashup of emphatic and funerial beats.  The now-familiar faces – Tupac here, Ice Cube there, Dr. Dre too – mix between the gyrations of dancers and bouncing hydraulic-equipped cars. Oddly Old Skool but effective and mesmerizing, Newsome mixes old with new, sheet music with YouTube. The problem with both Newsome and Ventur is that they’re appropriating really good stuff, so the could hardly have gone wrong. But are they appropriating like Martin Creed – Everything Is Going Be Alright – or will their future efforts prove to be less? We’ll have to wait and see.

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