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ART : REVIEW : Look for the American Label : Global pluralism may be the theme of Documenta 9, the latest extravaganza at Kassel, Germany, but the show gets its bite from American artists

July 12, 1992|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic. and

Another difficulty is inherent in carnivalesque extravaganzas like this. Although nearly half the artists are traditional painters and sculptors, the show's theatricality inevitably favors artists who work in installation, video or Conceptual forms. Video, specifically projected video, is quite strong, especially Bruce Nauman's room filled with four spinning, chanting heads (a variation on a work shown last year at the Museum of Modern Art) and Bill Viola's scroll-like, slow-motion image of a diver hitting water, whose sudden passage from one realm to another seems shocking, and finally liberating.

And, Gary Hill's "Tall Ships" is extraordinary. In a darkened, dead-end corridor, 16 silent, ghostly figures are projected on the walls. In random patterns they walk slowly toward you, beckon with their eyes, turn and begin to leave--then turn again and come back, as if puzzled by your inability to join them. You scrutinize remote images, which also scrutinize you.

Painting suffers most at Documenta, given the impossibility of solitary contemplation. (Sculpture at least occupies the same physical space as the viewer, so you're obliged to pay attention, lest you stumble.) Lovely paintings by Susan Rothenberg and Denmark's Per Kirkeby could scarcely be looked at for all the whirring and whizzing of nearby installations.

In fact, little sense of curatorial affinity for the medium is evident--a situation plainest in the pairing of major paintings by Brice Marden and minor ones by Jonathan Lasker, which have absolutely nothing in common in style, sensibility or concept, except that both feature squiggly lines. Faring slightly better are Ellsworth Kelly's three, single color, shaped canvases, chiefly because they have their own small room. They're also the only clear successes among what is an inexplicable abundance of bland, monochrome canvases, which apparently is meant to pass for a painting "trend."

The cleverest solution to the carnival dilemma is achieved by Christopher Wool and Robert Gober. Wool's stenciled, black-and-white floral paintings are given much-needed contextual resonance by Gober's vibrantly colored scenic-wallpaper, on which they hang. Made from narrow, vertical strips depicting an autumn wood, the wallpaper is installed in a soaring, oddly shaped room in kaleidoscopic patterns that create a kind of environmental Rorschach blot. You can't see the phony forest for the surreal trees. Wisely, and wittily, they transformed their work into a theatrical installation that says much about the contrived "nature" of the exhibition.

Painter Manuel Ocampo is also featured in an installation--although its circumstance is frankly disturbing. Accounts vary, but it appears local politicians applied pressure to have the young, Los Angeles-based artist's swastika-studded paintings barred from the show; the curators obliged, offering him the option of displaying in a roped-off basement storeroom of the Documenta-Halle the single work that has no offending signs. Dominated, ironically, by the Spanish phrase, "La Mala Vida" ("The Bad Life"), the painting hangs in spotlit isolation on a far wall behind table saws and between storage racks.

Ocampo's paintings conflate signs of colonialism and brutal repression, and German nervousness over a youthful emergence of neo-Nazism is very real. Still, what kind of curators are these who, in response to complaints, first feign ignorance of Ocampo's subject matter--they chose him for the show!--and then brush the paintings aside as insignificant?

Also roped off is Charles Ray's hysterical (in both senses of the word), crowd-pleasing sculpture of a sex orgy, in which all the writhing, life-size nudes are self-portraits of the artist. A wildly literal, visual transcription of a vulgar epithet, in which one is urged to go have intercourse with oneself, Ray's sculpture is also a dark meditation on the circularity of desire and satisfaction.

Several installations that probe the deadening of art by institutions--Topic A of the post-1960s era--are in the Neue Galerie, one of Kassel's two general art museums, providing the only thematic group in Documenta. The most dramatic is Joseph Kosuth's shrouded paintings, sculptures and display cases in two long corridors, one in white and the other in black, where art is replaced with snippets of text about aesthetics by assorted writers and thinkers, living and dead (e.g., "It's our noticing them that puts things in a room, our growing used to them that takes them away again and clears a space for us"--Marcel Proust). It's provocative but ponderous--especially after you see the not unrelated work of the young New York-based artist Zoe Leonard, which explodes in adjacent galleries.

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