SANTA BARBARA — A few weeks ago this column bumbled into a neologism describing the current cultural climate as "Revtrad," a revival of traditional forms and attitudes that characterizes everything from White House politics to yuppie one-upmanship, punk sartorial fashions and, of course, art.
Now, Revtrad is not a particularly euphonious word, but it does have the virtue of sounding both a bit like "retread" and like Newspeak, that Orwellian double-tracking language where everything is the opposite of the way it is described. "War is Peace" and all that.
In a climate where there is evidence that we have both resurrected the opulence of the American Renaissance and crumbled into the purgatory of "Blade Runner," Revtrad may have its modest place.
Take the current exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Organized as a road show by Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum, it includes painting, sculpture and photography by 13 New York-type artists represented by two or three works each. It remains on view to June 9 and is unfurled under a banner emblazoned, "The Heroic Figure."
Now there is a nice Revtrad idea. "Heroic" resonates with recidivism and, as a matter of fact, a detail of Michelangelo's "David" is reproduced on the catalogue cover, although it is not included among the entries (a fact for which the artists should offer up fervent thanks.)
Once we have ingested the idea that the matter at hand harks back to Heroism--a traditional concept--we have to ask ourselves first if the show fulfills its stated theme and then if it contradicts itself in good Newspeak fashion.
Well, just as sure as Nicaraguan guerrillas are like unto America's Founding Fathers, "The Heroic Figure" doublethinks its way into a truly Post Modern posture.
Are the figures heroic ? Well, some of them are big , but if Jedd Garet's oversized Gumby character is a hero, Richard Lugar is Captain America.
What about Robert Longo? That cropped figure in his painting "Culture Culture" looks a lot like Augustus St. Gaudens' famous equestrian statue of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman at the entrance to Central Park. Isn't that heroic?
Longo provides the answer himself by juxtaposing an image of an old Establishment guy on the phone. The artist seems to be saying, "If Gen. Sherman was heroic, now AT&T is heroic."
That's crazy. Artists don't stick up for big corporations. Longo must imply social criticism, thus himself being heroic.
Would that it were so. Give that painting a wall in a scruffy alternate space and it would say, "Boo Establishment." Find it a nice spot in a sumptuous sepulcher of a corporate headquarters and it would start to say "American Business is the Champion of the Western World."
There is a significant amount of equivocation going on in the the art of "The Heroic Figure." Most of it is jumpy as hell, trying to do four things at once without doing any so forcefully as to be stuck with it. This may be the most uneasy art made in our lifetime. It has even lost track of what side it's on. As long as anybody can remember, art carried the banner of countercultures. Now there is such a strong suspicion that artists are on the brink of being recycled to an old role as Defenders of the Faith, everybody is maneuvering to avoid being caught in the middle. That may be prudent, but it's not heroic.
Virtually everybody on view is doing more than one thing at a time. Longo's "V" shows a nude back with the monumental proportions of the Mexican muralists. A jagged abstract sculpture bursts from its lumbar vertebrae. It looks like a museum art version of a patent medicine ad for a backache.
Molarcaine stops gallery pain, FAST.
Sculptor William Crozier works in a manner we haven't seen since the demise of the Academic Salon. His vigorous style is strictly from Napoleon III, but his subject matter--as in "Bob and Brenda"--looks like an outtake from a porn flick. It's impossible to say what this art is up to other than attempting--in good Revtrad style--to be radical-yuppie by being more revisionist than thou.
Art star Julian Schnabel looks absolutely schizo in this exhibition. "Portrait of My Daughter" is in his trademark broken-crockery style. A nearby "Maria Callas" in Abstract Expressionist manner proves the guy cannot paint gesturally and fuels a suspicion that the crockery-shtick was a device to build up a surface that would otherwise be absent. Actually, the smooth Neo-Matisse "Procession (For Jean Vigo)" nearby is a quite good painting but probably lacks the heavy-handed panache required by today's market.
Then there are the instant masterpieces of David Salle. Either he has never shown a first-rate work in California or he's never painted one. Here, examples like "Zeitgeist Painting" pursue his usual devices of juxtaposing two solid-color rectangles covered with overlapping drawings outlined in paint.