“Please don’t review the same five artists everyone else wrote about,” a friend recently asked me at an opening. He was referring to the New Museum’s triennial Younger Than Jesus, which many writers reviewed by its second week. Despite nearly universal disapproval of the exhibition’s title, at least four major critics in New York give artists Chu Yun, Cory Arcangel, Ryan Trecartin, Cyprien Gaillard and Liz Glynn mention in their commentary.
I’m probably the only professional in the city who doesn’t find fault in the tongue-in-cheek name. Sure — it identifies an impossible task of finding “God-like talent” under age 33, but its irreverence matches the youth culture it represents (even if the absence of religion in the show is confusing to some). Certainly, that ambiguity hasn’t been enough to thwart visitors; the title and show’s concept have been remarkably effective in drawing new audiences to the museum. What’s more, curating generationally makes a lot more sense to museumgoers, rather than trying to draw themes among artists working so diversely that any emerging thread is easily stitched.
While an artist’s profile predictably influences critical response, until the museum’s staff figures out how to hang a show in their new SANAA-designed galleries, only the work that literally sticks out will be reviewed. Not to state the obvious, but that’s a very serious problem. Poor exhibition design inevitably results in the spatial privileging of certain artists and creates the necessity for repeated viewer visits. Considering the strong grouping of work that curators Lauren Cornell, Massimiliano Gioni and Laura Hoptman put together, it’s a real shame. Not only do parts of the show disappear, but people consistently respond to the same work.
This is not, however, to place all the blame on the exhibition layout — some of the lower quality work fails to make any lasting impression. Josh Smith received only a descriptive mention for his work in the show this year in the Times, despite the prominent placement of his large messy painting on panel grids (pictured at right). Supposedly, his ugly mass-produced originals act like prints and purposely appear impoverished, but that’s just another uninteresting discussion in support of empty investigations. Similarly, The Times gave Ryan Gander,an expository nod for his performance of a gallery attendant wearing a track suit with embroidered blood stains. Careful construction of the accidental isn’t funny or poignant, though; it’s just dumb.
Some of the more easily missed art in the show hangs in the dimly lit video hall in the second floor gallery. Haris Epaminonda’s wry collages (pictured at right) stand out, emanating blue and gold paper rays around cut magazine images of Egyptian sculptures. Epaminonda elegantly presents a layered history of documentation, reproduction and manipulation without feeling overly familiar or contrived. At the other end of the gallery, Mark Essen’s Flywrench, a videogame subject to a lot of early press, fell off the radar once in the museum. Pumping its catchy soundtrack through speakers would, I imagine, avoid this oversight. The frenetic energy produced by the videogame and overhead soundtrack engages game players and audiences alike. However, Chu Yun’s neighboring performance of a sleeping woman likely influenced the museum’s unfortunate decision to slap a set of headphones on Flywrench.
One floor above, curators grant press magnet Cyprien Gaillard the good fortune of doing without earplugs. The moving three-part video Desniasky Raion (pictured at right) shows footage of urban housing, demolition projects and acts of violence. In a particularly emotive scene, Koudlan’s accompanying soundtrack reflects the movement of the fighting crowd. Those five minutes of Raion are also among the loudest, overshadowing any of the nearby art, most specifically Mariechen Danz’s. I can’t say I’m a fan of her Fossilizing the Body Border Disorder — a haphazardly arranged mess of mannequins and plexiglass — but it houses Complain the Explanation, an extremely entertaining video featuring a singer in a fat costume.
Not surprisingly, art installation problems such as this create challenges for all exhibitions this size — the New Museum just feels them more acutely due to their newness and shape. But the same optimism and energy that emerges in the triennial should also apply to its future permutations. Critics might then agree on the following point as well; that in three years, Younger Than Jesus (Part Two) will have left its inexperience at home, opting for a mature and visually resolved install.