July 11-18, 2002; Issue No. 354



Building the future

The New Museum tackles
architecture's big impact on art

By Howard Halle

Nina Bovasso, Untitled, 2000.

In its 30-odd-year history, the New Museum of Contemporary Art has never succumbed to the temptation of mounting regularly scheduled biennials as a way of "authoritatively" taking the pulse of current art, and that stand has been to its credit. However, considering the redundancy built into its name (new... contemporary), one would hardly expect the museum to slack off on defining the cutting edge. Indeed, it has simply taken a scattershot approach to doing just that, mounting group exhibitions that zero in on particular trends. The basement bookstore is littered with catalogs from such theme-of-the-moment shows: commodity fetishism in art, chaos theory in art, not to mention myriad takes on victim politics in art. Enter "Out of Site," the New Museum's current exhibit, which recapitulates a recent wave of artists who've embraced the vocabulary of architecture. Like those earlier exhibitions, "Out of Site," organized by Anne Ellegood, is behind the curve on its chosen topic. But guess what? The show ain't half-bad. In fact, it's positively elegant by NewMu standards, managing to make the most of the building's famously tortured space, while giving reason to hope that maybe the 21st century won't be so screwed up after all.

Subtitled "A Group Show of Fictional Architectural Space," this survey of 15 artists—who range in medium from the latest in computer animation to simple works on paper—sets out to "reflect how digital technology, virtual reality, urban and suburban growth, and global expansion have impacted contemporary culture." That most of the artists don't fill a fraction of that tall order shouldn't be held against them. In many respects, they are pop artists riffing on the latest twist in popular culture: the introduction of "big D" design by "big A" architects into everyday things for everyday living, from Phillipe Starck potties at Target to Rem Koolhaas superstores for Prada. And in fact, global capitalism—amplified by the Internet—has been instrumental in developing this vogue, which one could call a baroque corruption of the Bauhaus's "form equals function" ethic. After all, when the marketplace operates 24/7 in every corner of the planet, your product must look good to cut through the clutter.

Still, the idea of self-consciously overlapping the fields of art and architecture is nothing new. One need only recall the work of Richard Serra and Donald Judd, early Soviet avant-gardists like El Lissitzky and Tallin, or James Whistler's Peacock Room. However felicitous such overlaps can be, art is still about drawing viewers into the world of the artist. Architecture, though it certainly can do the same, is also concerned with the mundane task of circulating people through the concrete world. Bridging this gap is really more of an issue for architects than it is for artists, and if this show has a weakness overall, it's that too many of the participants swing for the fences on the bigger, conceptual picture while forgetting the smaller issue of connecting us to some intangible quality of feeling.

One artist who doesn't have that problem is Craig Kalpakjian. With a career dating to the early '90s, he is the eminence grise of "Out of Site," and his experience shows. Like Andreas Gursky, Kalpakjian has been limning the counter-reformation that is global capitalism, describing its effects upon our sense of place. But if Gursky's work possesses the epic sweep of 17th-century Spanish painting, Kalpakjian exhibits more of the intimacy of Dutch genre scenes from the same period, albeit with a generous dollop of Kafkaesque claustrophobia.

His two photos and video here picture empty, nondescript corporate spaces as airless voids, bell jars in which even the mildly insurrectionary spirit of a Dilbert would be utterly suffocated. Stair (2001), with its concave security mirror reflecting a vacated staircase, is particularly unsettling, suggesting nothing so much as the looking-glass from Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage in white-collar hell. Kalpakjian's computer-animation video Corridor, which endlessly tracks down a curving, glassed-in passageway, was made in 1995. While technically crude by today's standards, it packs a far greater emotional wallop than any of the more recent and sophisticated offerings here by Haluk Akakce, Patrick Meagher or Sven Pahls-son, whose Sprawlville—a compendium of European cliches about the sterility of suburban American life—has the misfortune of hanging right next to Kalpakjian's work.

On the painting tip, the show serves up Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation (2001), byJulieMehretu, an artist who has generated plenty of art-world buzz, and it's easy to see why. Retopistics is certainly ambitious, an abstractly apocalyptic maelstrom of layered airport-runway schematics and comic-book explosions that put one in mind of the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta channeling Mohammed Atta. Even so, Mehretu's use of renegade in her title is self-congratulatory. Her work, like Sue Williams's and Cicely Brown's, is a sort of fashiony, faux expressionism that collectors, leery of the genuine article, often find comforting. I preferred the go-with-the-flow paintings of Cannon Hudson, Nina Bovasso and Danielle Tegeder—all of whom articulate truly idiosyncratic visions.

Ricci Albenda and Stephen Hendee, two usually dependable artists, turn in somewhat disappointing efforts here, constrained perhaps by space and budget. Al-benda's graphic wallpapering of the gallery with the workpeople in various point sizes—a paean, perhaps, to global masses on the move—doesn't quite work in the narrow confines of the New Museum. Similarly, Hendee's colored-light-and-translucent-board construction looks uncomfortably squashed in the stairwell. On the other hand, Californian Shirley Tse's seemingly digitized city-scapes carved out of cool, blue polystyrene blocks fit their allotted area well, and are all the more impressive for having been made by hand with a router.

Hard to see, the future is— that's certainly true of these artists' careers and of the moment they supposedly reflect. That moment—our moment— may yet be undone by the greed of capitalists or the ire of Islamists, but it scarcely matters. The art here may be outta sight, but the best of it will last as long as it's lodged firmly in the mind.

"Out of Site" is on view at the New Museum of Contemporary Art through October 13 (see Museums).