The Economy is Down, so Sex and Death Must Be Back

by |
10/16/2008 3:17 PM |

Yes darling but is it art? Oh, yes, it is. The L’s Benjamin Sutton reviews two new shows.

As our depression-destined city seems poised to regain some of its former seediness after fifteen years of corporate white-washing, how fitting that pockets of grime should already be growing in two of the city’s most clean-cut museums. Fans of dark doodles and macabre minutiae will be captivated by the somber dens of MoMA’s Wunderkammer: A Century of Curiosities group show (through November 10) and the Neue Galerie’s survey Alfred Kubin: Drawings, 1897-1909 (through January 26).

The former’s title, Wunderkammer, means "cabinet of curiosities" and refers to a household staple that was to 17th century European bourgeois homes as the mini-bar was to 1950s America’s suburban middle-class. The best families in the fiefdom were stocked with strange fetuses in formaldehyde and, accordingly, MoMA has amassed jars, cabinets, drawings and photographs by art superstars and unknowns from the 1860s to today. Damien Hirst’s dead animals and Louise Bourgeois’s deformed figures are obvious picks, as are the distortions of Dadaists like Hans Bellmer and Max Ernst and their precursors in the deathly visions of James Ensor and black absurdism of Odile Redon (“The Egg,” pictured).

In fact, it’s between these last two that Alfred Kubin’s (1877-1959) absence from the MoMA show is most striking. Fusing Ensor’s bleak view of humanity with Redon’s whimsy, Kubin’s work has been unjustly overlooked (this is the first major exhibition of his work in the U.S., and only covers his early illustrations). The Austrian informed his Art Nouveau attention to ornament with a taste for the liminal and otherworldly, the lot fueled by life-long encounters with death and the kind of Oedipal issues that could sustain several New York City shrinks for decades (shortly after watching his mother pass on her deathbed, the child Kubin had a sexual encounter with a pregnant woman).

Taken together, these exhibitions prove the longevity of disturbing subjects for whom the works of David Lynch and Marilyn Manson are only the latest in a lineage of artful horrors. Expertly laid-out according to their respective thematic and chronological subjects, both the Wunderkammer and Kubin shows achieve a kind of immersive, transporting effect. Walking through their sparsely illuminated rooms with dark-painted walls, viewers move among the sordid imaginations of artists and the darkest desires of art audiences past and present.