Magazine article Art Monthly

Uncertain States of America

Magazine article Art Monthly

Uncertain States of America

Article excerpt

Uncertain States of America Serpentine Gallery London September 9 to October 15

A foreign country is 'crisscrossed' over many months, hundreds of visits made, 'dossiers' gathered (2000 files) and 'brought back to Europe for closer scrutiny'--a 'new generation' is identified. Most of 30 or so artists whose works are crammed into the Serpentine Gallery, and a dozen others whose videos are displayed on monitors inside the adjacent pavilion (a structure which makes a departure lounge seem cosy) are not well known over here. But there is a feeling of familiarity about 'American art in the 3rd Millennium' (as the exhibition's subtitle has it) and a nagging sense that a more undercover expedition and risky selection by the curators, bypassing the usual gallery networks, would have resulted in a more vital compass of our times.

The wider context for the show is a political culture crystalised in the phrase 'war on terror', a climate where the idea of America is as likely as not to be seen in the pornographic images of torture which came out of Abu Ghraib, a brutal merger of power and aesthetics, images which were quickly appropriated to be re-presented in the form of large murals on the streets of Tehran. The 'Uncertain' of the title is worked hard: utilising the sense of political insecurity and paranoia it suggests, as well as the sense that a stand has been taken against the stupidity of 'good v evil'. It also adds significance to the fact that young American artists do not adopt any particular style, or adhere to anything approaching a school or movement, thereby turning this heterogeneity into a kind of conscious movement in itself. In addition, and more dubiously, it could be seen as shoring up work which otherwise seems confused: random accumulations and juxtapositions of form, language, and art historical references.

The exhibition is installed nicely, each room has a unique feel, mostly filled with works of the same medium. There is nothing worse than the kind of curating that apportions art spaces according to a rational distribution of various media, smuggling in aesthetic balance through the back door, so to speak.

The north wing of the gallery, which might then be called The Domed Chamber of Laboured Vacuousness, is dominated by an installation by Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker consisting of large screenprints of vodka adverts, knives, and images of Fischli & Weiss sculptures, as well as innumerable shiny paint pots piled on the floor or stacked on a towering shelving unit and printed with images of sliced fruit and Constructivist paintings. In the otherwise excellent Reader (a collation of recent American writing published to complement the show) theorist Johanna Burton revolves in ever-decreasing circles of discourse hell defending these artists in terms of a questioning of 80s Appropriation Art. Equally dull are the scribbles and geometrical shapes on the photocopies littering the floor and the bookspines of Josh Smith's Encyclopedia. Nate Lowman and Aaron Young have pasted to the domed ceiling the bullying soundbite, 'A firm belief in paradise is clearly an asset for anyone strapping on a bomb.' In these pieces 'uncertainty' about what to do seems to be adopted rather confidently as content. This is a bad room, and a shocking advertisement for collaboration.

The 'sculpture room' left me cold, and there are some pretentious takes on conceptualism in the lobby and plenty of half-arsed video in the pavilion, but there's enough engaging work to make this a worthwhile exhibition: Karl Haendel's meditation on love, war and capitalism, A Special Valentine's Day Spiel, 2003, Daria Martin's Loneliness of the Modern Pentathlon, 2005, and Paul Chan's 1st Light, 2005, at turns seductive and startling. …

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