“Color is in.” “Installation art is back.” “Video-art heavy.” These are just a few observations you’re likely to read or make yourself at PS1’s Greater New York show, a survey of art made in the New York area over the past five years filling four floors of the converted school in Long Island City. I’ve been grouchy lately, so I’m already tired of hearing the trends. I’m also tired of giant unfocused group shows. You can guess what this is.
Of course, unfocused is what you get when the only selection criteria for an exhibition is the geographic location of the artist and the individual taste of curators Connie Butler, Klaus Biesenbach and Neville Wakefield. As a viewer you just have to accept this as a characteristic of any show of this nature, though there are ways to lay out a show so it’s not bewildering for the viewer. Greater New York found none of them.
Like the Whitney Biennial, the exhibition showcases fewer artists than its previous incarnation due to budget restraints. This year, 68 participating artists, not including the more than 15 in the cinema program curated by Light Industry, fill four gigantic floors. Overall, there’s more good work than bad, though not by much. Frankly, that’s still an achievement for a giant survey, but add to this the remarkably poor exhibition design and sound problems with many of the videos, and I suspect many viewers will leave disappointed.
That’s too bad, because ultimately the show is better than it looks. David Benjamin Sherry’s full room hanging of his garishly colored photoshop experiments in landscape, still life and portraiture could have been edited down to the four or five effective pieces. While the upside-down photograph capturing the work’s title Semen and Grapes held a certain mystery to it, Sherry’s art fair-inspired self portrait of his head dosed in dripping red paint does not.
In that same room, Amy Yao’s arrows made of painted sticks stuck to torn newspaper and colored doors simply look like color experiments next to Sherry. “Fight Looms Over End” reads one small scrap of a headline, followed by “Fake Pleads.” Both shards of paper make up the feathers on these makeshift arrows, which shape not only the reading of the piece, but also the weapon’s flight path. Little of this comes though, as her colored doors and arrows looks as though they’re part of Sherry’s photo installation.
Sadly, this displacement of Yao’s work is a much less serious issue than one of the 2nd floor galleries, which groups the majority of participating black artists in one space as though they needed to be quarantined. That’s a problem. The curator’s missteps are not a result of latent racism, but simply a lack of thought, as also indicated by the layout problems in the Five Year Review room. Here, African-American artist Rashaad Newsome’s performance Shade Compositions and Ei Arakawa and Amy Sillman’s Bring Your Own Flowers are projected so grandly you’d think everything else in the room was of marginal importance.
You name the problem and this room’s got it. There’s no apparent chronology to the works and print outs displayed, the labeling is often incomplete, and the headphones to more than 20 TVs showcasing events and performances fail to reach the room-sized bed for visitors to sit on while viewing the work. Good luck drawing any meaning from this room even if it’s just for a syllabus.
But beyond these poor decisions, this year’s GNY exhibition also has its share of bad work: Pinar Yolacan’s empty goddess photographs, Deana Lawson’s hamfisted documentary photographs, and Bruce High Quality’s oft-repeated educational pedestal project.
But so what? A lot of the better work is by under-known artists, which offers at least a whiff of fresh air. Deville Cohen—the highlight of the show for me—treats virtually every object as though it were office materials. The artist’s centerpiece, Grayscale (a video in three acts), screens behind a curtain made of black strips of construction paper and binder clips. Inside, a rug ornamented with these same clips acts as a centerpiece for a film featuring an array of actors wearing cut-out prints of trucks, crushing googly eyes in a cave with taped on pumps, and plucking yellow highlighters from trees. Even without a linear thread, the video’s bizarreness is worth the full 18 minutes of viewing time.
Speaking of strange, Leigh Ledare’s photographs of his naked mother having sex are straight-up disturbing. I’m not at all a fan of the creepy incest aspect to the work, but some of the pictures, like one where she’s wearing a tiara in her crotch, are undeniably strong. I mean, naturally, that’s what you’d do with a crown, right?
Leidy Churchman’s suite of weird double-headed figures and pizza picnics includes a trilogy of cocks entering a man’s ass, which is worthy of note, as are Alisha Kerlin’s sentimental cookie-shadow projection photographs. Erin Sherriff doesn’t have enough of her angular sculptures built from ash included in the exhibition—they are really beautiful—but the one paired with her black-and-white photographs of artifact-like clay objects looks good regardless.
Proving no survey show is complete without the ever-popular institutional critique school of art making, curator Olivia Shao puts together an exhibit for the Rotating Gallery, (a project in which PS1 gives emerging curators a room to curate). I’m not sure what the curator’s statement is all about—the wall text runs with the title MoMA/PS1 Outsourced Wall Text and Bibliography, references Carl Andre’s sculptures and includes a lot of art jargon that makes even less sense now that it’s been outsourced.
Making something out of something else seems to the predominant theme of the show. Jack Goldstein’s totem writings (text that resembles faces), Josef Strau’s Sykophant Spring Stravinsky, an anthropomorphized lamp with painting, and a hilarious Bruno Jacob suite of empty canvases described as invisible, along with a picture of a man holding up said painting for a horse. And of course, you can draw connections between all the works because Shao thought about their relationship with one another.
Work like this is worth the trip alone, assuming you find it. It’s on the first floor and not that hard to miss of course, but it’s right next door to the disastrous 5 Year Review. Choose the wrong room first, and frustration could very well keep a viewer from spending any time with the rest of the show.