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ART REVIEWS : The Pathetic Aesthetic: Making Do With What Is

August 14, 1990|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a world obsessed with aggrandized images of resounding success, "Just Pathetic" turns a rather different face forward. A blunt aesthetic of failure, embarrassment and thumping degradation is refreshingly proposed for consideration.

Decidedly ambitious, "Just Pathetic" looks askance at the very idea of ambition. An admittedly fashionable undertaking, it dismisses the utility of trends in artistic fashion. Pointedly commercial, it regards with considerable skepticism the recent escalation of high-flying commerce in art.

The show is, in other words, conflicted and often frankly confused about precisely where its sympathies lie. (I don't know about you, but I can certainly recognize the feeling.) Although one could wish for a presentation slightly less tentative and rambling, and a bit sharper in certain selections, "Just Pathetic" is a low-key gem.

The show means to grapple with a tendency that has turned up in disparate shows during the past several seasons, a polemical sifting that few commercial galleries bother to undertake. Among the 11 artists are some of the most provocative of the moment, including Georg Herold, Mike Kelley and Cady Noland. The show even manages to suggest some historical antecedents--specifically, by including the very different work of William Wegman and Chris Burden from the late 1970s.

"Just Pathetic" also shines inadvertent, retroactive light on two recent artistic events. First, it brings to mind "Thrift Store Paintings," the wild exhibition at the Brand Art Library in March featuring amateurs' paintings that valiantly strove for, and everywhere failed to attain, even minimal standards of mainstream artistic acceptability. Second, it could claim the presence of a great monument--namely, Jonathan Borofsky's extraordinary "Ballerina Clown," unveiled in Venice eight months ago. That startlingly successful sculpture willingly accepts the socially necessary role of playing the fool in public.

All this may sound rather grand for a show whose most affecting pieces include a small bin filled with crumpled beer cans and a rubber chicken, queerly suggesting the morning-after clean-up following a particularly unspeakable party (Noland); \o7 mementos mori\f7 for both dead pets and murdered childhood innocence (Kelley); fanatical ink drawings (Raymond Pettibon); scatological knickknacks (John Miller); and a dirty pair of underwear stretched over a wire armature in imitation of a mountain range, but looking like the Mr. Hyde version of a Dr. Jekyllesque Noguchi lantern (Herold).

Some individual works recall \o7 arte povera\f7 (so-called "poor art") of the 1970s, but none offers the romantically poetic preciosity of that Italian precedent. Most of the chosen artists employ cast-off flotsam, such as David Hammons' punctured inner tube, fetishistically decorated with bottle caps folded to look like African cowrie shells, or Erwin Wurm's tin cans topped by a dime-store figurine. In contrast, Jeffrey Vallance's "The Temptation," a religious painting he unsuccessfully tried to donate to the Vatican, is a hapless aesthetic cast-off; it hangs its shamed face to the wall, like a misbehaved schoolboy.

Likewise, the show's installation lends an overall air of ineptitude. It tends toward the margins of the room, with pieces scattered on the floor, clustered in the corners, hung on the door jamb and laid out behind a pedestal.

Organized by writer Ralph Rugoff as a send-off for the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, which will close at the end of the month and relocate to greatly expanded quarters in early October, the show comes with a handsome catalogue whose cover is bizarrely eloquent--an oozing, putrid green "stain" completely obscures the title. Rugoff doesn't say so, but the aesthetic he means to champion seems to expand on the 1980s strategy of appropriation art. It doesn't appropriate the imagery channeled through modern mediums of mass culture, as has been the conventional approach for the past decade. Instead, it appropriates the effects those mediums have--the relentless degradation and humiliation, which are, paradoxically, essential to the socially and economically successful functioning of modern popular culture.

Because of this decisive difference, this new aesthetic needs a different name. Patheticism, we'll call it. Emphatically populist, Patheticism chronicles the mundane, seemingly trivial events of ordinary lives, but it refuses to champion a populist ideal. In fact, Pathetic art is adamantly anti-idealistic, because mass culture feeds on the propagation of idealized images. Rather than envisioning utopias--yours, mine or theirs--Patheticism simply makes do with what is. And "what is" is frequently a mess. It embraces all those quietly horrific feelings one has gone to great if unwitting lengths to repress from memory.

Patheticism's virtue is in transforming grinding aggravations into small pleasures, and small pleasures into big ones. Finally, a worthwhile movement to get behind for the 1990s.

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