The erroneous belief that gallery art has a higher, more profound purpose often gets in the way of properly assessing it. So too does the authority of the exhibition space, which can intimidate even the most seasoned viewer. Gallerygoers tend to excuse bad art, especially if it’s controversial. Maybe the work has greater rationality behind it than is immediately apparent; maybe the art isn’t challenged by the liberal politics of the artist; or perhaps the art is even transcendental!
This came to mind recently when viewing Dirk Skreber’s exhibition at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in Chelsea. Featuring two vagina-shaped crashed cars impaled on penile poles and bare-breasted paintings of super heroes, the show is the closest thing I’ve seen to pornography lately. I hoped there was more to it than appeared, until I read the press release, which described Skreber’s sculptures as “begging ambivalence.” In other words, they are to be read at face value. One might conclude the vehicle’s fastidiously clean surfaces mean to sanitize the sexual references, which might have some merit were it not such an obvious appeal to a notoriously conservative collectors’ market.
Though accomplished, Skreber’s paintings are similarly empty. Resembling a TV with poor signal, the artist uses foam and tape to create horizontal lines running through the work. In theory, this slows the immediate recognition of the comic book character identities, but so what? The mere act of appropriation neither erases the original misogynistic content, nor distances the artist from its original interpretation. In sum, we’re left with a sanitized vagina car-wrap and a bunch of topless, semi-nameless women. Add to this the voyeuristic mirrors covering the gallery pillars and it’s simply impossible to ignore Skreber’s implied violence and objectification of the female body.
Meanwhile, over at Pace Wildenstein, painter Alex Katz presents Fifteen Minutes, an assembly-line show composed of twelve sunset and twilight landscape paintings drawn from life. The canvases are huge, painted quickly, and demonstrate virtually none of the artist’s virtuosity with light. But Katz is a recognized name, and exemplifies how gallery space can lend works of art a false aura of authority. Viewers struggling to properly assess this work however won’t do so for long. They can’t mistake sloppy brushwork for fluid black paint application. Nor can they miss that the silhouetted trees and yellow-orange sunset are less a challenging aesthetic choice than a garish Halloween palette.
It’s difficult to imagine a less satisfying show, which brings us back to Dirk Skreber at Friedrich Petzel, who, in this arena, gives Katz a run for his money. Ultimately however, I’ll take Katz’ third rate landscape exhibition over crashed cars and boob paintings. It’s far less pernicious than being misled into considering blatant misogyny as an acceptable art making practice.