Arts, May 1983

1984 Preview

At least Ronald Feldman and Carrie Rickey made an effort to stimulate the creation and discussion of politically engaged art. Their invitational exhibition entitled “1984 Preview” (also known as “Apocalypse or Utopia”) at Feldman’s Mercer Street gallery, should be excused its naiveté (too often an epithet hurled at anyone whose concerns transcend the immediately given), its stylistic eclecticism (a term which need not designate a cowering in art historical shelters; Manet too was eclectic), and its chaos (probably inevitable given an exhibition checklist which runs eleven pages). What is less forgivable (pardon me as I offer first the bad news and then the good news) is the inclusion of works by several artists who play fast and loose with violence and history.

There is little irony but considerable cruelty in Joe Lewis’ assemblage entitled The Christian Dilemma (1981), composed of a bathtub filled with blood-stained slivers of glass, a bath mat of nails, and a shower head which functions as a blowtorch. (This last mentioned bit of hardware inevitably recalls the “showers” at Auschwitz.) Installed amid a carnival setting of brightly colored paintings by Roger Brown, Auste, Roger Welch, and Komar and Melamid, Lewis’ work manages to trivialize a violence which defies representation to begin with.

There is little historical intelligence but considerable mythologizing behind Komar and Melamid’s Yalta Conference: From a History Textbook, 1984 (1983), depicting Franklin D. Roosevelt in the guise of E.T., seated beside a steely-eyed Stalin at Yalta; Hitler stands behind both, holding a finger to his pursed lips as if to signal his consent to America’s “sellout” to the forces of totalitarianism (never mind that it was the post-war United States that instigated fascist seizures of power in Greece, Turkey, Iran, half of South-East Asia, and large chunk of Latin America). In the end, however, Komar and Melamid’s work lacks all conviction; their mock academic canvas is bathed in varnish as if to obscure the equivocating politics they ostensibly pursue.

Managing to safely navigate the glass, spikes, razor wire, electrical gear, confessional (Richard Artschwager’s Tower III), and grave (Robert Morris’ Preludes: A Tomb – Garden Outside the City), I did see several excellent artworks at “1984 Preview.” Since allegory seems destined to remain a preoccupation of many contemporary artists, George Tooker (born 1920) merits a reevaluation. His red and violet painting entitled Landscape with Figures (1965), depicting a matrix of boxes occupied by hypnotized, anonymous men and women, hauntingly evokes the ongoing transformation of America’s industrial working class into a clerical or bureaucratic working class. The smooth countenances and glass eyes of these figures most nearly approximate George Orwell’s vision of labor in 1984.

Also partaking of the allegorical is Rem Koolhaas and Madelon Vriesendrop’s New Jersey (1975), a very skillful gouache rendering of a morose, half-clothed Lady Liberty, seated on a bed (which resembles a map of Manhattan), beside a toppled Chrysler Building, holding a flaccid torch between her legs. The surrounding light and landscape are clearly tropical, but without the aid of a latter-day Ripa. I must confess to being baffled by this symbolic image.

Thomas Shannon’s World City (1982-83), primarily composed of montaged photographs of Earth from space, is concerned with a dream of world unity. Yet an examination of his superimposed maps and texts reveals that his World City is no utopia; consisting of “a tropical resort in space,” it merely reproduces on a global scale the present conditions of alienation between work and leisure. (Besides, how will he control the nausea induced by the high-speed elevators intended to whisk us up to this celestial paradise?)

Perhaps the most effective works in the exhibition were Victor Burgin’s St. Laurent Demands a Whole New Lifestyle (1976) and Hans Haacke’s The Right to Life (1979). Burgin’s poster-sized black and white photograph of a Third World woman standing at a loom exposes the cruel reality behind fashion while recalling the photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Haacke also engages art historical tradition while indicting the cupidity of an American corporation; his Breck girl ironically recalls the featureless faces of Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nudes and the vacant glamour of Warhol’s celebrity portraits. Burgin and Haacke affect no detachment from history and make no extravagant claims about their vision of the future. Rooted in the present, they are neither apocalyptic nor utopian, offering us the sobering insight that 1984 shall likely be little different from 1983

STEPHEN F. EISENMAN

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