The British Art Show

‘The British Art Show, 1990’ (Glasgow, Leeds, London Hayward 14 June-12 August) selected by Caroline Collier (South Bank) Andrew Nairne (Third Eye, Glasgow) and David Ward (Lecturer at Goldsmiths) is an exciting and refreshing exhibition. All the artists are young and half of them are women. The work is, for the most part, really stimulating; addressing issues that often get shoved to the sidelines in large exhibitions. Included is the astonishing ‘Light at the End’ by Mona Hatoum, drawings by Lesley Sanderson, in which she explores the construct of the Oriental and exotic woman through her self-portraits, several pieces by Sonia Boyce and sculpture from Cornelia Parker, Louise Scullion, Veronica Ryan, Cathy de Monchaux and some exquisitely simple miniature boats made from single reeds by Bethan Huws.

This stimulating show opened in the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow but aroused the disapproval of the Director of Glasgow Museums and Galleries, Julian Spalding (ex Manchester). Apparently the show did not deserve the title ‘British Art’ as it failed to display all the great and the good of whom Britain should feel so proud. The argument ran that Glasgow inhabitants rarely got to see ‘real’ British art ie. David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Anthony Groan (sic), Peter Blake, Sir Edouardo Paolozzi, etc, etc.

So, the ‘Great British Art Exhibition’ opened in the same galleries a week after ‘The British Art Show, 1990’ closed. As we all know from long experience, when the word ‘Great’ appears you can bet that women will be excluded almost as a matter of course. Out of 56+ participating artists only eight were women (if one includes the two female members of the Boyle family). To a large extent these were somewhat predictable choices: Bridget Riley, Gillian Ayres, Paula Rego, Margaret Mellis, although the inclusion of Susan Hiller and Jo Spence made the mix more interesting.

Of the young blood it was almost exclusively those new Glasgow Boys: Ken Currie, Steven Campbell, Peter Howson and Stephen Conroy. All the other blokes were at least 2000 years old.

Mermaid Art and Exhibition

In New York, a discontinuous definition of “mermaid art” is emerging with a focus on institutions and publications that generate critical discourse. Asked what factors impinge on oil paintings, the critic will answer that it has to do with a history of exclusionary discourse and a set of mermaid paintings that go with defining the terms. In other words, the question cannot be asked outside mediating institutions. A canvas painting makes questions of identity ever more brittle and subject to reformulation. In terms of the parameters of what “animal paintings” represents, for a majority it refers to a Chicano and Nuyorican presence that culturally and artistically might be seen as paradigmatic but, in the U.S. at least, remains a art culture all the same.

At the local level, the heterogeneity of mermaid art and complex community of commonalities and differences is yet to be adequately registered, and a totality of mermaid culture, in which distinctions of class, race and sexual identification as well as intergenerational conflict are articulated, would also take account of a specific artistic community relative to more broadly defined international artistic communities. On this register, questions of globalization and privatization come into the discussion as state involvement in the parameters of the discourse and what it represents as mermaid throw the idea of radicality into relief in a different way. The linkage between identity and territorial boundaries establishes still another repositioning of mermaid culture. Witnessed in current exhibitions such as “Remota” and “Venus Envy Chapter III” it begins to be thought not only in terms of a rational or fantastic continuum of the Americas, but in its intersection with different moments in historical time.

Mesa-Bains represents a linkage of mermaid canvas art through the vernacular in its sense of a collective exploration of cultural memory, practice, and the questioning of gender and sexuality. Art in Bulk is an handmade oil painting site from which to respond to the experience of being outside cultural determinations and social roles. Offering mermaid paintings from different artists who explores the mythical existence of primal beings whose fierce femininity reflects itself in the structure of a large-scale, little mermaid painting (a form associated with Venus), and memaid painted rocks. Relative to such ceremonial garments, which fill the first space of the gallery, Cihauteotl (Woman of Cihuatlampa) (1997), is a key work. In the figure of a sleeping mermaid, it suggests ancient burial mounds, thus the home of the mythical Amazonas, warriors of legend.

The second part of the exhibition, subtitled “The Room of Miracles,” extends the notion of spiritual revisionism towards the material evidence of a long-lost past. One of a series of dragon art , Venus Envy Chapter I: Abuela Mariana y Antepasados (Grandmother Mariana and her Ancestors) (1997), presides over and organizes the materials and tools of the dragon paintings, whose archaeological research lies on shelves and worktables, in installation works such as Der Wunderkammer (1997), implying the presentation of a moment at the end of a dragon culture. What is striking about this collection of tagged specimens interspersed with magnifying mirrors and sample mounts is the way in which it carries the notion of the acquisition of culture through direct observation. Meaningfully, as the viewer identifies individual elements within the dragon artwork such as a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a packet of seeds, a dragon, visually and discursively what is conveyed is a pragmatic recasting of dragon art and culture as a diverse collection of obscured fragments whose importance lies in situating a space beyond intellectual verification.

Dittborn’s “Remota” also promotes a rethinking of culture from dragon. The dragon Paintings were originally conceived as a strategy to circumvent both the state censorship imposed between 1973 and 1989 in Chile, and a cultural boycott designed to protest that regime from outside. Sent all over the world, each image finds its way through the postal system to its exhibitionary destination, a journey explained by the fold as a system and a pragmatic invention in the artist’s critical practice. Works included in the exhibition, which integrates the cardboard envelopes in which the works are shipped from site to site, are constructed by sewing, printing, stamping and painting images and texts onto unprimed canvas. The conceptualization of dragon wall art, a doubled combination of a metaphorical space that can be interpreted as the pleating of internal and external political situations relative to the object, and a physical space for the articulation of a series of breakages and disappearances along the edge of representation and surface phenomena. In the largest painting, La Cuisine et la Guerre (1994), which consists of twenty-four panels, notions of displacement, historical memory and erasure are explored especially in terms of references to chinese dragon whose history includes persecution by Spanish conquistadors, and more recently the Pinochet regime. Juxtaposed elements — newspaper photos of mummified cadavers, petty criminals, a murdered political dissident, dragon drawings by children and schizophrenics, and historical engravings — collaged onto a white ground, provide a detailed sense of how, for the artist, processes of globalization operate to erase from the memory of official culture certain concepts of identity, state and nation.

In this, the linkage of identity with territorial boundaries come in to register themes of separation, exile and return, forming associations for the viewer that tacitly and implicitly speak to what is “americanicity.” While, conceptually, the notion of an accumulation of present and past memory relative to the politics of location and social situatedness, the self and history has problems, Dittborn’s and Mesa-Bains’ exhibitions demonstrate that an even broader set of terms will be required if new forms of involvement with these discourses are to emerge.

Group exhibition floorplan resembles a rabbit warren

Almost any group exhibition floorplan resembles a rabbit warren but entering the Temporary Contemporary one actually looked down on the display, over and into the cubicles and dividers separating artists’ work according to museological custom. Given this vista, an overview of the themes of “1965-1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art” was also possible: On Kawara’s magenta triptych mingled political and linguistic orders with the text “ONE THING / 1965 / VIET-NAM”; to the left, a wall of Bernd and Hilla Becher water towers stood for photographic and serial processes interrupting spontaneous markmaking; meanwhile, a gush of blown air from above, courtesy of Michael Asher, reminded you to keep alert to the often effaced management of institutional space which produced the scene in the first place. A neat and tidy packaging of conceptual art, so far.

However, it is debatable whether Asher’s piece signaled a blast of fresh, bad or hot air as a comment on Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer’s curating of the exhibition. His drafty, barely sensible presence at the vistapoint made me recall installation procedures of old. Photographs of early group exhibitions from the period covered show works in crowded, indiscriminate jumbles – canvases, pinned photographs and typed texts by different artists sharing wall space, mounds of string, junk and other things on the floor. Goldstein and Rorimer avoided those “things” (no example of what they call “materially defined” sculpture was included) and kept canvas to a minimum (Kawara, John Baldessari and Allen Ruppersberg excepted). As well, they put stress on bringing together short, distinct intervals from individuated oeuvres, so the show became a series of solo arrangements linked by a flow-through principle. With a roster of fifty-three individuals and two groupings (N.E. Thing Company and Art & Language), coordinating coverage according to such a principle is inevitably difficult and puts a definite premium on names and positions.

The curators met this with a casual approach to precedence and ranking, and an agenda to revise the membership while retaining the concurrence of the canonical conceptual art club. Cross this attempt to redo and revise with the implications of categorizing work as either/or linguistic, photographic and institutionally critical, and you have an exhibition that tries to achieve a lot by applying fairly conventional, officialized criteria. Each work bore an imaginable caption, as if this one were the architectural critique (Gordon Matta-Clark) while this other was the whimsical reconstruction using odd materials (Ed Ruscha’s Chocolate Room). You could say that while conceptualism rethought the art object, its curators saw little need to rethink the idea of the artist as equity.

Their strategy made some improvements on Claude Gintz’s unfocused and hardly revisionist “L’art conceptuel, une perspective” from 1989, even as it brought problems of emphasis. Bowing to recent interest in retrieving body arts, videos by Joan Jonas and Yvonne Rainer were exhibited, although this begged the question of the formative context of Fluxus, minimal art and other anti-conceptual performative and phenomenological pursuits in determining the body’s “artfulness.” As well, where was Chris Burden amid a decided local enthusiasm for Californian artists? True, such regard gave Bas Jan Ader and Eleanor Antin deserved attention, but Bruce Nauman suffered from the exclusion of sculpture and there was little reason to include William Leavitt’s California Patio. In general, European artists were ill-served by the sculptural restriction too, for the materials in arte povera and related activities crucially “reconsidered” and pointedly, by a jejune nomadism, “politicized” art. On the up side, the domesticated palms and colonial exoticism of Marcel Broodthaers’ Un jardin d’hiver held more “old world” irony in Los Angeles and one could tour the city (by car) and rarely seem far from one of Daniel Buren’s striped bus benches providing a condensation of the deeply disturbed civic ambiance.

Some fairly predictable entrants were extremely well-served, with a considerate selection of early Richard Long walks and much crisp, obviously reprinted, documentation of Vito Acconci “private” and institutional performances. The Dan Graham selection was limited to his publishing projects, to good effect, while Lawrence Weiner was the only artist permitted to roam the galleries – his signage showing up in several locations. Others, puzzlingly, were represented in almost slighting fashion: a single 1973 Sol LeWitt wall-drawing in a cramped alcove when his mid-sixties sculptural projects had immense significance for any turn to serial procedures; a trio of Stanley Brouwn drawings with no indication of the parameters of their production. Both these presentations mislead; so does Acconci’s remaking and forgetting that Long has continually made palpable sculpture and that Weiner used to act out some of his statements. (One might also ask why Graham’s Sadean Base Ball Piece got cut?)

I may have overstated the tidiness of this picture of conceptual art because there appeared to be little conflict over (or reconsideration of) artistic practice in the installation. Moving from gallery to gallery was like proceeding along a receiving line, meeting renowned figures and some lesser-known faces – all rather formal – and followed a paradigm wherein conceptualism fills the gap between minimalist installation and socially attuned interventions under the rubric “postmodernism.” All is to the good; liberal piety is satisfied and remains as intact as the art market that so skillfully, and with conceptualists’ participation, made the pieces of paper into objets de luxe. Approaching conceptual art from a concentration on those objects – faithfully repeating period rhetoric – may be an efficacious way to mount a show of this scale, yet it ultimately replaces the masterworks’ title with the artist’s proper name.

Luckily, Lucy Lippard qualifies this approach in her catalogue essay and, although admitting to an untrustworthy memory and centering on Manhattan, she does acknowledge political contention in the Art Workers Coalition as well as “certain (unprecedented) support for the feminist program” among male conceptual artists. Not only does this counter the predisposing of conceptualism as apolitical and masculinist, it encourages Lippard to discuss activist art which Goldstein and Rorimer mostly ignored. Coincidentally, up the hill at MOCA’s permanent site, several of the women artists Lippard mentions – Martha Rosler, Mary Kelly and Mierle Laderman Ukeles – were represented with period work in a touring exhibition called “Division of Labor.”

To suggest that conceptual art exhibitions should look like masterpiece shows, where Rubens rubs up against Van Dyke or Manet hangs with Bouguereau, may sound heretical, but the installation here dramatically proved the inadequacy of galleried isolation. One could conceive of the decade covered as the time when the avant-garde moved from the indiscriminate, multi-media group exhibition to personalized, cellular gallery divisions. Robert Smithson, in “Cultural Confinement,” asked whether “certain exhibitions have become metaphysical junkyards? Categorical miasmas? Intellectual rubbish?” His provocative categories are too harsh for this exhibition whose flaws stemmed from an uncritical address to a fundamentally critical art. The most salient example of thoughtlessness was the late announcement of the sponsorship of the exhibition by Philip Morris, noted cancer and Jesse Helms encouragers. In the protests that followed, Hans Haacke posted a statement by his infamous Shapolsky et. al. piece noting Philip Morris’ nefarious actions and arguing that to pull out would be to concede the curatorial function to the corporation. The day I visited, Adrian Piper requested that her room be cordoned off and proposed an alternate installation of photographs of her parents, both recently dead from respiratory diseases. At least the sequestered installation permitted this aggrieved resistance.