I spent some time with three artists (Carolee Schneemann, Cathy Wilkes, and Laura Owens) whom I have not taken the time to consider seriously before. Their recent exhibitions in New York at the PS1 and the Whitney gave me a good reason to think deeply about their practice. Here are some of my initial reactions.
Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting
Talking about someone like Schneemann is difficult. Her place and influence in performance art and second-wave feminist art is indisputable. Moreover, both our historical distance and intellectual familiarity to the issues that surround her 1970s practice may create complacency in our appreciation of her works. Perhaps that is why her works take on such a cerebral quality because all we have left is a lingering sentiment of the past. Also, maybe it is because I am a man.
With all that being said, my enjoyment of her works come from a place of conceptual contemplation. Her reframing of the modernist vocabularies of collage and abstract expressionism within the context of social emergency (such as that of the 1982 Lebanese War) forces these aesthetic languages into self-criticism. The blunt pictorial force of Ab-Ex and the fragmentation of paper in collage are semantically contorted to speak of actual physical violence. Schneemann probably knew of the ease in which this would happen— an ease that speaks volumes about the intrinsic qualities of these languages. She makes similar twists when it comes to the female body. In Vulva’s Morphia (1995), pictures of vulvas are juxtaposed beside icons, symbols, and other formally suggestive pictures. As a viewer, we are compelled by this format to engage in pictorial language games, as well as assess our psychological associations. We are then forced to reconsider the purpose of this engagement since we are essentially abstracting (with methods propagated by men) an intimate part of the female body. You cannot deny that it is smart.
But that is where my ultimate difficulty with Schneemann’s works lie. Her themes are loaded with emotion and trauma. From these themes, she takes the raw materials of the abject and coats a shiny intellectual veneer over them. As a result, the works become extremely cynical of themselves, and this cynicism envelops even the initial emotion and trauma. Schneemann’s works negotiate the tension between an intellectual approach and an affective reaction. It is just disappointing that affective almost always loses.
In this exhibition, bifurcated by the corridor of third floor MoMA PS1, Cathy Wilkes is all about creating an atmosphere through objects— imagine soft translucent grey haze. These works are very attractive. I could not help but be instantly drawn into them, and be compelled to look at them up close. But to be fair, it is hard not to be attractive when the artist exploits the comfort of domesticity in her works so thoroughly. Mainly expressed through her morbidly suggestive figurative sculptures, themes of parenthood, naivety, and familial ennui pervade throughout both sections, transforming the initial magnetism into something malevolent.
In the smaller section (comprising two rooms), the focus was on what seems to be modified, and carefully arranged found objects. The objects are placed in a way that is strongly evocative of a lived space, albeit one that has been abandoned recently— a contemporary Mary Celeste. The materials of individual objects encourage the attractive mystery, especially the bowls with glass fragments that appear and disappear according to the incident light. Even the two figurative sculptures in the second room are displayed like mannequins, with their faces and identity literally masked by a small painting and a motorcycle helmet.
The larger section (comprising a big open hall and a circular corridor space around it) featured more paintings, and sculptures than ‘found’ objects. It had the same cozy discomfort of the smaller section. I found her paintings enchanting, where simple planes of color and suggestive lines create and diffuse a soft but pervasive mood throughout the rest of the space. Considering the restraint Wilkes shows throughout the rest of her show, the sculptures (due to their thematic specificity) were aggressive. They depicted figures in obviously disturbing ways— either stitched up, distorted, or watchful. This aggressiveness helps in providing the viewer an easier reading of the show but eliminates some potential nuance in the works themselves.
Wilkes indubitably succeeds in creating a complex atmosphere, but I could not shake the feeling that everything felt contrived. Everything in the rooms was in themselves raw and unkempt, but the arrangement reminded me of a Pinterest flat lay. It was almost too designed and too specific in sensibility, like that of a Japanese design store. I am unsure if Wilkes is represented by any gallery in the United States right now, but, for better or for worse, I can see her practice easily accommodating a successful enterprise— I would be a customer.
Laura Owens’ exhibition at the Whitney is enormously frustrating. It is a show that poses a myriad of challenges for any critic. Owens, born in 1970, is a mid-career artist, yet she exhibits such a variety of paintings that it becomes difficult to construct a gauge in which to judge her works. Even beyond the general scope of her practice, her works themselves fundamentally deny the critical endeavor. The paintings have such a deeply ingrained self-awareness that it becomes difficult to ignore the tingling sensation that the artist is following behind waiting to scream “gotcha” if I even begin to dislike a work. And the works are quite dislikable.
Owen’s large canvases on the top floor of the Whitney, Untitled (2015), are ruthless in laying this trap. They are like ugly giants; they sit on metal frames printed and painted on both the back and the front. The back features cartoonish images in primary colors. Owens parodies the semiotic trope of painting by labeling the things depicted even though they were already easily recognizable. On the front, Owens transforms the canvases into lined paper, by printing the pattern of lined paper onto the canvases— immediately a dumb and obvious move. Thick slabs of paint are applied onto the surface, nominally ingratiating them into the pantheon of paintings. These mind-numbing decisions start to make sense when we find that these canvases were not meant to have any substantial significance of their own. Instead, they make up an elaborate public picture puzzle. Both the simplified cartoons of the back and the lined pattern of the front serve to guide the viewer in lining up the canvases in space to create long horizontal compositions. The puzzle itself is complex and engaging; expectations of time and space are challenged in unexpected ways while I was putting it together (not to mention the enigmatic painting tucked away into a corner, mostly ignored by casual viewers). Upon my experience of the puzzle, my dislike vanished quickly, and I felt a tinge of embarrassment over my initial judgement. Owens’ has constructed a work that referred to the often stupid spectacle of public art and significantly deepened the experience.
After the lessons learnt from this initial encounter, I trod carefully throughout the rest of the exhibition. Owens’ other paintings offer the same kind of reflexivity, almost goading you to dislike them before revealing that it was all part of the plan. No critical trope was left unassailed— I gasped at her subversion of the ‘looks good with furniture’ jab with the beehive paintings that literally hung above beds and drawers. How does one come to terms with works that are so comprehensive in their attempts to undermine criticism? With Owens, the critic is in a precarious position, their opinions and conventions merely host to her parasitic attacks. Like a well-constructed pseudo-science, the flaws of her paintings contribute to their legitimacy.