I liked Steve McQueen's first New York show, and then I found that he has an exhibition history rather fatter than either the thin number of years he has been working or the slender body of art he has made. Since graduating from Goldsmiths' College, London, in 1993, McQueen has exhibited in public institutions in his hometown (twice), Amsterdam, Chicago, Eindhoven, Frankfurt, Johannesburg (the city's biennial), Paris (also twice), and - last but not least - Kassel (Documenta). On the 28th of this month his work goes on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art (where, truth in advertising, this writer works in a noncuratorial position). There is a reaction in such cases of wanting to prove the young emperor's clotheslessness, but this is as unfair as, arguably, is the pressure of being taken extremely seriously on the basis of a small oeuvre. Similarly, while one wonders what in the market, the media, and the public exhibition system would explain which straight-out-of-art-school types will get to take shortcuts to international visibility, the topic here is the artist's work.
In this respect McQueen stands somewhat apart from his London context, at least as it appears from New York. The English art world is famously glamorous of late, and the present generation is distinct enough to have won an argot nickname: the initials YBA, for "Young British Artist." "Very YBA," say my London friends, meaning partly a style and milieu of social life but also an ethos of work, which, speaking generally, might have a splashy, in-your-face visual presence; or might so embrace popular culture as to be virtually another form of it; or might assert the autobiographical details of its own making. McQueen's films are austere by contrast. Silent and black and white, they describe no clear story or life situation, as Georgina Starr's works may; their erotic politics are usually more insinuating than confrontational, unlike those of Sarah Lucas; although McQueen may appear in his films, they are not obviously "about" him, as Starr and Tracey Emin produce art apparently "about" themselves; nor does he rephrase or parody such media as advertising, in the manner, at times, of Damien Hirst. McQueen does, I think, care about popular culture, in the form of movies, but he processes that interest so that its traces become difficult to detect.
According to critic Jon Thompson, for example, Bear, 1993, addresses a "bald cinematic cliche," the "well-worn fight sequence of the popular cinema." Narrative and visual contexts, however, are absent: this nude wrestling match has neither origin nor outcome, and happens in seeming darkness. What remains is the play of the men's feelings - there is smiling and laughter, but also challenge, caution, tension, alarm, and a certain erotic buzz as the sparring goes through its phases. Equally important is the camera's tight dance with the men's bodies, so that we see light on sweat and the texture of skin observed at such proximity that it looks like the surface of the moon. …