“But the American art world, despite its recent fixations on the idea of irony, does not have much sense of humour: too much is at stake to entertain the thought that the hero might be a buffoon.” (Robert Hughes, writing on Julian Schabel, 1987)
I’m writing this as 2019 comes to a close, sitting in Welland (perhaps with a hangover, ahem) and considering what exactly to offer regarding notable events of the past year, in the morass that is visual arts. There are several things on a national or international scale that are worth noting, or that I could offer some (either enlightening, or acerbic) commentary upon. Niagara itself has had a number of exhibitions in 2019 that offered responses and furthered dialogue about specific and wider issues (Jon Shaw at NAC, Carolyn Wren at RHAC, Charmaine Lurch at Riverbrink, to name just a few).
But to be honest, I know I’m not the only person who disdains those ‘top ten _______ of the year’, and I say this having written a few too many of them. It’s even worse in the Canadian art world, where in the past five years you saw ‘publications’ let people list what their boyfriends / girlfriends / sexy love things have done as ‘the most important event’ and then wonder why people replace their skepticism with disgust (no danger of that kind of nepotism here. #artcriticfromhell is channelling Liz Phair and feels in his bones he’ll be spending another year alone, ahem).
But a bit of reflection is worthwhile. In conversation with a few artists, the controversy – contrived or collaborative – of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s piece Comedian arose, which I’m sure you’ve all heard about by now. The infamous banana duct taped to a wall, then eaten later and which was ‘made when it sold’, to paraphrase the gallerist, has enraged and amused many. Having recently written a long piece on Joseph Beuys for NAE in London, my sense of the absurd is high right now: but I look at this piece and I see the growing – ever growing, in that infinite expansion that capitalists claim is what markets ‘do’, despite evidence to the contrary – gap between rich and poor, and how many go hungry. Let them eat bananas, I suppose, can be the mantra of the 2020s…..
As I was thinking about what to say about 2019 I was also reminded of Velvet Buzzsaw. If you haven’t seen this film (which came out on Netflix this past year), it’s a horror story that centres upon, or is based within, the discreet madness of the international and very moneyed art world. Although perhaps art ‘market’ is a better term. Any fan of the horror genre will recognize the framework, where poor choices and ‘sinful’ actions result in gruesome – but, ahem, ‘expected’ – rewards. The blurb is as follows: ‘A feared critic, an icy gallery owner and an ambitious assistant snap up a recently deceased artist’s stash of paintings — with dire consequences.’ To flesh – hah, talking about a horror movie, see what I did there? – the plot out a bit more, the ‘assistant’, who is treated like a serf by the gallery owner and feels, truly, that her career is about to be snuffed, finds these paintings which are raw and evocative, sometimes literally suggesting a darkness and trepidation, sometimes only alluding to them. Ignoring the wishes of the artist – who wanted these things destroyed – they become commodities, enticing others into the dark circle of their power. But – as this is a horror film – people start dying (a personal favourite scene is at the gas station, with the monkeys – which, in art history, have often been employed as symbols of greed, or sin).
Now, I recently watched Friday the 13th at the Film House, and I hadn’t seen it for decades: the trope of the camp ‘counsellors’ who are being ‘sinful’ and ‘must be sacrificed’ is an idea that Cabin In The Woods explores very well: and the characters all listed in Velvet‘s synopsis are just a slice of the ones who come to often very ‘creative’ bad ends, for their greed and misdeeds.
But I’m sure you’re wondering ‘I thought this was supposed to be some kind of summation of 2019? This tangent makes even less sense than his usual digressions!’
When I think of the artist’s work in Velvet Buzzsaw, I’m reminded of the aforementioned Beuy’s exhibition I saw at the AGO in 2019, where the remnants of his practice were meaningless but have become ‘priceless’. This debate around Comedian is like that: an echo chamber of irrelevance and entitlement. This is frustrating as the only real story to talk about for 2019 in Niagara, from a visual arts aspect, is the inevitable closure of Rodman Hall Art Centre. Rodman Hall is not a priority has been re iterated by several of the Brock Administrative Cabal, and their actions – the ongoing ‘demolition through neglect’ – match this ignorance and incompetence. But don’t worry, there will be bananas on the wall. You just might not be able to afford them.
Now, that’s not entirely fair to Cattelan, who has made some interesting works: but I’ve often observed that an era, an age, gets the art it deserves. For example, Duchamp gave us his urinal nearly a century ago, and anyone who dismisses it is historically ignorant, as it is a perfect commentary, or response, to the carnage of WWI, the rise of Fascism in Europe, the Russian Civil War and other blood letting that seemed to begin in 1914 and would go on, in various forms and with various faces, until now. After all, we all ‘know’ that story of soldiers on differing sides singing hymns between gassing each other, but a urinal makes more sense – if anything does – than a ‘god’ both sides ‘pray to’, before slaughtering or being slaughtered……
The divide between rich and poor is extreme, and will only widen: tenuous employment is the norm, and in reading about labour movements in Niagara of the past fifty years, it is clear to me what we have lost, and may never regain.
In this respect, to quote a meme I’ve been seeing on social media: ‘we’re almost in the ’20s and dadaism is thriving, Europe is in a shambles, everyone is broke and the right wing is on the rise so I guess we really don’t learn a goddamn thing.’
A banana duct taped to a wall is the perfect symbol of this era, to me: something banal that is construed to be out of the reach of those who might use it for what it was truly intended. Scurvy might be inevitable.
That’s your missive from Welland as 2019 draws to a close, and you read this in soon to be tainted days of a new decade (while the dumpster is just smoking, not yet burning), from your hopeful if hungover #artcriticfromhell. My next letter to y’all will be either upon an engaging exhibition upcoming at 13th Street Winery, titled Modern Masters, where we can talk about the failure of the Modernist dream (though it will be a lovely, and perhaps inspiring, exhibition), or more light than heat at Rodman Hall. The latter, for the most part, lacks even the ability to inspire outrage that Comedian does, as it’s so self referential and derivative as to be irrelevant to any but the artists or guest curator.
Happy New Year.