Magazine article Artforum International

Social Problem

Magazine article Artforum International

Social Problem

Article excerpt

MUSEUMS ARE MACHINES of amelioration. A Frank Stella on one wall, a Morris Louis on the other; it's all good. Even though the scholarship of the past thirty years has argued that aesthetic choices are not mere evidence of the progression of style but have ethical implications--whether you pool paint on canvas or paint stripes the width of a store-bought brush means something--museums still prefer to disregard the philosophical discomfort of such tensions. The exhibition "The Desire of the Museum," mounted in New York in 1989 by the Whitney Independent Study Program, suggested that it was not individual curators, directors, or trustees who intentionally perpetrated this leveling of difference, but an institutional unconscious that silently engendered such placating gestures under the aegis of ideological constructions such as Art, and that old sawhorse Genius.

Recently, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York presented two concurrent exhibitions--"Catherine Opie: American Photographer" and "theanyspacewhatever" (curated by Jennifer Blessing and Nancy Spector, respectively)--and unwittingly staged a crucial aesthetic and ethical debate, which, put succinctly, pits "identity politics" against "relational aesthetics." Opie was in the tower galleries, which meant that her work of the past fifteen years was displayed on several floors: traditional space for traditional art. "Theanyspacewhatever" featured ten renowned artists--Angela Bulloch, Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Holler, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno, and Rirkrit Tiravanija--all of whom made work specifically for the exhibition and occupied the ramp, the ceiling (Bulloch's Firmamental Night Sky: Oculus.12,2008), the entry foyer (Cattelan's Daddy Daddy, 2008), the building's exterior (Parreno's Marquee, Guggenheim, NY, 2008), and even the air itself (Gonzalez-Foerster's sound piece Promenade, 2007). It appeared the comparison was all contrast: midcareer survey versus group show; American versus global; "straight" photography versus poststudio activity; talk of identity and community versus talk of micro-utopias and the social. It is hard to imagine that anyone would have consciously set out to spatialize this contemporary schism about what art is, what it can do, and what its aims might be. Indeed, I'm not certain I could have even characterized the debate as such before this mash-up--but there it was, the dual trajectory of 1990s art come to full maturation.

Opie's career rode the slipstream of a post-ACT up wave of queer liberation and visibility. Her portraits emerged out of the framework of documentary photography and elicit a frisson of truth because Opie was a self-described member of the "leather dyke" community she was imaging. And community lay at the heart of the matter. Rejecting any putative universal subject, art of the '90s insisted that the identities of maker and viewer were crucial to art's meaning. Foregrounding subjectivity meant a renewed commitment to figuration, and Opie's work was exemplary of this trend. The emphatic frontality of her subjects and the baroque lushness of her backgrounds gave her portraits a bracing sense of immediate address. The portraits, particularly her self-portraits, insisted on the visceral nature of identity--dyke tattooed on the back of a freckled neck; pervert cut into Opie's chest in florid script; a crude drawing of two girlish stick figures holding hands etched into Opie's back, fresh with blood. Each picture made identity linguistic and embodied and, more important, argued that it was inescapable and permanent. Photographs of friends in her s/m dyke scene in San Francisco intimated that not only was identity indelibly marked on the body, it was also what garnered community.

Despite the formal beauty of Opie's pictures, their identity-equals-community logic always made me nervous. Community, far from being a model of inclusion, is a very precise exercise in exclusion; a device to monitor the borders, to keep people out rather than let them in, a mode of privileging sameness even when summoned in the name of difference. …

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