Awkward Installation at Younger Than Jesus

04/29/2009 4:00 AM |

“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.

3 Comment

  • While I was sitting in one of Ryan Trecartin’s installations two weeks ago someone stepped into and smashed one of Kitty Kraus’s mirror and light boxes.

  • As a responsible commenter, I suppose I should consult the reviews written by those who find fault with the show’s title before discussing the absurdity of such disapproval, but since I hadn’t really planned to comment responsibly, I won’t bother.

    [Before going on, however, I should say that Paddy’s review is great and full of useful points, whereas this comment will very likely be the opposite of both of those descriptives.]

    Anyway, the only potentially striking problem I find in the show’s title is that as a categorical separation, Younger Than Jesus would necessarily comprise a great number of possible artists, since everyone born after Jesus is technically (correct me if I’m wrong) younger than Jesus. So the show might’ve included 30-year-olds alongside 90-year-olds, and they would’ve all been younger than Jesus. Or it might have featured the works of many other artists who have come into and out of existence over the past couple millennia (spatial concerns aside), and they too would’ve all been younger than Jesus. Of course, one could go on for quite a while about how cool/unsettling/outrageous it might be to see some of the above-mentioned artists’ work alongside Bosch, Nordic jewel boxes, Basquiat, vellum manuscripts, Li Ch’eng, Pollock, some crafts picked up at a flea market, Beckmann, Leonardo’s early video work (surely there are traces) and so on ad infinitum (where infinitum = nauseum). But such conjecture would not only imply that the proper title would’ve been the too-chewy Younger Than Jesus Was When He Died (and that there were no other criteria involved in choosing artists), but also that an exhibit’s title should be taken so literally.

    And it’s here, actually — in the taking-too-literally of the title — where a more important problem lingers: Paddy points out that “the absence of religion in the show is confusing to some.” Were some visitors expecting to see contemporary takes on Madonna and Child themes or spray-painted saints on found-object triptychs? Or maybe an installation involving votive candles and prayer books? A performance of the deposition? (For the latter, see Pasolini’s short film La ricotta. It’s a film about the making of a filmed version of Jacopo da Pontormo’s Deposizione. Yeah, cool. Especially the soundtrack. And Orson Welles’ awkward Italian delivery. And other things. I should be getting around to shutting up.)

    In short:

    – Taking issue with the show’s title seems silly.

    – Expecting a show titled as such to feature religious artwork is sillier.

    – And the superlative of silly would probably be to sit around typing about it.

    – Tappety tap.

  • Despite the copious notes I took to leave an additional, and perhaps additionally futile, comment here, I wound up tabling, on my desk, said notes, then chancing across them only today.

    At any rate, given that the alleged ‘absence’ of religious references in Younger Than Jesus has apparently been confounding for some visitors, I would like to offer such confused parties a possible source of solace. Namely, I’d like to suggest that they reread Paddy’s review, for though it addresses a show considered lacking in religious content, the review itself does in fact contain a fair amount of indirectly religious language and word sequences.

    Well, religiously relevant, at any rate. In my mind. For some reason. That day when I took these notes.

    Without further ado, the above review’s indirectly religious content:*

    “everyone else”
    “an opening”
    “many writers”
    “universal disapproval”
    “find fault in the tongue-in-cheek”
    “impossible task”
    “show is confusing”
    “enough to thwart”
    “drawing new audiences”
    “rather than trying”
    “influences critical response”
    “how to hang”
    “work that literally sticks out”
    “the obvious”
    “serious problem”
    “exhibition design”
    “a real shame”
    “parts of the show disappear”
    “place all the blame”
    “lower quality work fails”
    “lasting impression”
    “prominent placement”
    “purposely appear impoverished”
    “empty investigations”
    “expository nod”
    “blood stains”
    “careful construction of the accidental”
    “hangs in the dimly lit”
    “emanating blue and gold”
    “layered history of documentation, reproduction and manipulation”
    “overly familiar or contrived”
    “catchy soundtrack”
    “engages game players and audiences alike”
    “a sleeping woman”
    “unfortunate decision”
    “good fortune of doing without”
    “urban housing, demolition projects and acts of violence”
    “particularly emotive”
    “movement of the fighting crowd”
    “overshadowing any of the nearby”
    “a fan of her”
    “extremely entertaining”
    “installation problems”
    “exhibitions this size”
    “feels the more acutely”
    “the same optimism”
    “energy that emerges”
    “future permutations”
    “Jesus (Part Two)”

    * Much of the above-cited content is not meant to be construed as relevant only to the Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact, many references might be considered relevant — especially when forced — across some sort of theoretical faith-based board. Others, well, sure, not so broadly applicable.**
    ** Oh yeah, this was also meant to be kinda funny. And footnoted footnotes are fun.***
    *** One more thing: typing out all that ‘religious content’ above made the words feel intimate, abusive, nicely abstract, destructive. I’ll use them elsewhere. In a different format. In another comment, why not? It’ll be another of Paddy’s reviews. Promise. And I’ll do it now to prevent procrastinatory tabling on desks.