reviews of a slew of current exhibitions of a political nature, via Artforum online:
—Emily Hall [link]
320 West 13th Street (entrance on Horatio St.)
May 05–June 10
It's difficult to recommend this exhibition, which documents with painful specificity the horrors of the Vietnam War. Nearly one whole wall is taken up demonstrating the effects of Agent Orange; in one horrifying image, a soldier nonchalantly dangles part of a body blown apart by shells. Nonetheless, the show has a gripping quality quite apart from the spell of violence it weaves.
Fletcher, on a visit to Vietnam last year, found himself at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and was so affected by it that he photographed the entire museum—each image and each caption—with his digital camera. The bootlegged museum has been partly reassembled here, and the irony of the layers of distance (a museum halfway around the world collects mass-media images that are then rephotographed by an American artist and imported back) is immediately evident. The gallery becomes an echo chamber for the tiny voice of the country that took the beating of America's war.
Still, this exhibition has more to recommend it than irony; more, even, than impeccable politics (at earlier venues, Fletcher organized community events around veterans and Vietnamese living in America who want to tell their stories). The sense that one knows precisely what the artist is up to—a neat reversal of the official narrative—dissipates; the images are terribly hard to walk away from. Something of the artist's fascination with them has been communicated through his stealthy photographic act; the distance from the original is collapsed by the subjective way the images were shot (taken slightly aslant, flash flares often visible). Fletcher's project, both repellent and endearing, poses questions similar to those asked by Alfredo Jaar's art, but here the artist brings you along with him as he ponders the answers.
"Artists Against the State: Perestroika Revisited"
—Nick Stillman [link]
RONALD FELDMAN FINE ARTS
31 Mercer Street
May 06–June 24
Is the use of irony in the service of "political art" a weapon or a trap? This is a central question for many of today's young American artists, but it also pertained to a generation of Russian artists making work under far more fraught conditions. The so-called nonconformists of the '70s and '80s in Russia protested, both publicly and privately, the state-sanctioned vision of art, always risking persecution for subversive artmaking activities. This show continues the gallery's tradition of showing the work of this underexhibited scene (Feldman first exhibited Komar & Melamid in 1976) with a packed show of exceptionally engaging work by more than fifty artists, some familiar (the aforementioned duo, Ilya Kabakov, Sergei Bugaev), most not.
"Artists Against the State" opens with a smart juxtaposition: an anonymous socialist realist painting imaging a fictive Russia of happy, healthy law-abiders and Vagrich Bakhchanyan's abject, nasty Americans As Seen by Russians, 1983. Bakhchanyan's eighteen-panel piece enlarges hilarious caricatures of Americans—sarges, cowboys, soldiers—cribbed from Moscow newspapers, and its juxtaposition with the undated, conservative painting underlines the public-image war Russians lived daily. Maria Konstantinova's terrific sculpture Rest in Peace, 1989, a drooping, Oldenbergian soft red star set within a frame of stretcher bars and surrounded by bricks, allegorizes the exposure of the soft red underbelly of a political system whose infrastructure and ideological dominance were on the brink of collapse. Unsurprisingly, Komar & Melamid's several pieces are smart, funny, and scathing, but the painting Quotation, 1972, is memorable for its terrible physical condition, an unintentional metaphor for a generation of artists for whom stability—even just tolerable working conditions—was as fantastical as any socialist realist canvas.
—Christopher Bedford [link]
10899 Wilshire Boulevard
April 20–July 23
The variously addressed subject of Walead Beshty's strikingly cohesive multimedia show at the Hammer is the derelict Iraqi Diplomatic Mission in the former East Berlin—abandoned sometime between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the start of the Gulf War. Though neither the GDR nor the Republic of Iraq exist today, because the ground was given in perpetuity, this marooned modern ruin remains protected by statutes of national sovereignty and is thus beyond the purview of the German authorities. In the center of the gallery, installed atop a slowly rotating platform lined with mirror tiles reminiscent of a disco ball, is a bag of documents from the Iraqi mission wrapped hurriedly in US Department of Homeland Security tape. Replete with a baggage claim tag bearing the airport code LAX, this tongue-in-cheek installation effectively reclaims the found object as a multivalent political site.
Six large-scale, pixelated photographs occupy much of the gallery's wall space. One is a rose-colored detail of papers, books, and other detritus scattered violently across the floor. Far from diluting or aestheticizing the documentary substance of the photograph, the sheer sumptuousness of Beshty's sweeping, almost abstract image demands—and rewards—extended scrutiny. In one corner the facsimile of a formal waiting room, comprised of a table strewn with photocopies of newspapers, political tracts, art books, and architectural manifestos, as well as two lustrous Le Corbusier–designed armchairs, completes the installation. Beshty's evident commitment to art production as a form of social engagement is here presented as a subtly posed but effective argument—art and politics can and should occupy the same plane.
—David Velasco [link]
CHEIM & READ
547 West 25th Street
May 12–June 17
One canvas reproduces an Iraqi civilian's handwritten plea for the release of his father and brother; another presents an epistolary petition from a father requesting his son's honorable discharge. There's the FBI's infamous "Phoenix memo" and, elsewhere, a series of internal military correspondences regarding a "Wish List" of "Alternative Interrogation Techniques." Jenny Holzer's latest show, a survey of sensitive US government documents silk-screened onto linen canvases, offers a wrenching snapshot of the discursive girders and casualties (both textual and corporeal) of state violence. With rare exception, these texts have been rendered anonymous through bureaucratic redactions: An entire 1990 "Memo for the Secretary of Defense" by Colin Powell has been scribbled out, save the signature, while a series of fingerprints have been blotted into a sort of abstract graffiti art. The show tends to circumvent cynicism even as it sanctions an ironic position—perhaps an effect of the frequently shocking content. "I personally have killed a child," reads a line in the middle of a 2004 statement from a US soldier in Iraq. Contrasted with the rhetorical labyrinths assembled by administrators in other pieces, the blunt simplicity of this declaration heightens its dramatic effect, offering an illustration of Holzer's curatorial talent. However necessary, the field of citation is dangerous political ground, and despite Robert Storr's intelligent attempts to obviate criticism in an accompanying essay, it's worth examining the ethics of turning declassified public documents into unique aesthetic objects. One might question the value, or at least the efficacy, of "political art" once it's been funneled away into private collections. In conjunction with this exhibition, a series of photographs across the street at Yvon Lambert document the artist's textual light projections, presenting a different—more public, more fleeting—register of the circulation of information.