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Postmodern Pitfalls

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Concerning Truth

at TBA Exhibition Space, through January 30; University of Illinois at Chicago Gallery 400, through January 23; School of the Art Institute of Chicago Exhibitions Studies Center, through January 31

By Fred Camper

One of the finest exhibits I saw last year--at our nation's oldest art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut--consisted of 38 paintings by the 17th-century Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch. The greatest of these are modest domestic scenes with one or two figures; not as sensual or ethereal as Vermeer, these works have a silence that's equally profound. De Hooch places people in characteristic poses alongside everyday objects, clothing on a chair or a broom on paving stones. But their positions are more than compositionally perfect--these objects seem permeated by a mysterious intentionality, as if their "offhand" placement were the only proper way to arrange them. It's as if these mundane objects were the signs of a predetermined order that gives life and purpose to every corner of the world.

It's become a cliche to argue that such a unified vision is no longer possible in our doubting, secular, image-saturated age, and it's true that we cannot return to a past based on a faith that few now share. But as I viewed the three-part "Concerning Truth" exhibition--curated by Pablo Helguera, a former Chicagoan who recently moved to New York--I found myself wondering if fragmentation, doubt, and the denial of originality and authenticity were not themselves becoming cliches. Not that the art on view is substandard; in fact, the exhibit's eclectic mix of European, U.S., and Asian artists often provided thought-provoking, if sometimes irritating, examples of postmodernism. What I missed was a vision of the show's theme--the denial of absolutes--that was as convincing as de Hooch's unified vision, evident in his vividly still compositions.

In six humorous photographs titled "Exposition" at TBA, Mart Viljus places mass-manufactured objects in carefully arranged scenes, some resembling museum displays. A Snickers bar and a brightly colored "Blend a Med" box sit on shelves that also display older, far more elegantly designed boxes and packages of consumer products, perhaps tobacco tins or cigar boxes. In another photo a cute blue mouse and a more realistic raccoon and badger share a mostly brownish forest diorama. In a third, a small jar with a bright label sits on a table by a sofa, just in front of a grandfather clock in a well-ordered Victorian room. These disparities remind us of how kitschy modern mass-marketing is--except we already knew that, didn't we? In his statement Viljus wonders "which of today's artefacts will end up in display cases a few hundred years down the road"; he also suggests, in familiar pomo fashion, that history is merely a "distillation" of received opinions.

But his photos simply offer another received opinion, common in postmodern circles, that pop culture is as legitimate as other, more revered cultures of the past. This may be a valid point--Viljus just doesn't make a very good case for it, as his composition and lighting lack any distinction or expression. In the end Viljus barely musters one-tenth the artistry that de Hooch does making his case for the broom.

The heart of the show is at Gallery 400, which offers work by ten artists. Some of John Arndt's pieces--such as Moth, which appears to be a moth perched high on the gallery wall--reminded me of Viljus's photos: once again we're given objects that don't belong in their surroundings. Arndt's Loaf is a synthetic loaf of white bread nicely sliced and sitting on a table next to a chair as if ready to be eaten--what's out of place here is less the bread itself than the fact that it's synthetic, like the moth. It seems the slight shock of pleasure one feels upon discovering that these objects are "fake" is important to Arndt.

Similarly, Michael Ray Charles in (Liberty Brothers Permanent Daily Circus Presents) Handini's Great Escape makes no attempt to create a convincing illusion but instead offers values and even a judgment. His mock circus poster shows a nude African-American whose head is wrapped in chains secured by a padlock labeled "Masta Lock." Making an obvious reference to slavery and to the exoticism of "the other" exploited in 19th-century circuses, Charles's circus poster also suggests a more general critique of the way advertising objectifies people.

Charles's work stands out because most pieces in the show not only make no such judgment but instead equate the fake and the real, the representation of a thing and the thing itself, the useful and the useless. Ho Siu-kee's delightfully perverse machines serve the dumbest of functions or accomplish the opposite of what's intended: if two people were to use the gas masks connected to each other in Closed System, they'd breathe each other's carbon dioxide. His To Melt a Frozen Lake has two metal arms heated by a small fuel tank; the video documenting the object's "use," displayed alongside it, shows the device melting holes in icy lakes--but to what end? Ho seems to be parodying technology, which made me wonder what he would think of the fact that the panels in the photo documentation for Walking Machine are peeling off the backing; it seems that the world of technology is exacting revenge on Walking Machine--which appears to make walking harder rather than easier.

Among the most engaging pieces is J.S.G. Boggs's Transaction, a documentation of one way he's gotten his fake currency accepted. We see a $100 bill Boggs drew, the two football tickets he "bought" with it, a souvenir football, a receipt from the person who sold Boggs the tickets, and the real $50 bill Boggs received as change, since the tickets were $25 each. Presumably Boggs is among the artists Helguera alludes to in the newspaperlike catalog, who "in recent years have explored realms where it was generally assumed that truth could not be questioned." Indeed, paintings of money from the 19th century were generally worshipful or at least respectful; they never tried to pass themselves off as the real thing. Boggs appears to be challenging the whole money basis of the economy, creating an alternative form of exchange--a kind of artist's barter.

But Boggs reveals himself to be not much of a draftsman; his $100 bill doesn't even attempt to duplicate the details of the Federal Reserve seal, the multiple lines on the borders are an indistinct blur, and the portrait of Franklin is an amateurish, lifeless cartoon. One can argue that this is conceptual art, of course, but is it part of the concept that artists today can't draw? Boggs's attempt to make his bills rival the government's may succeed in practice--collectors do accept his money--but visually the project fails to convince.

At least Boggs's work is intellectually engaging; by contrast Xu Bing's New English Calligraphy is appallingly corrupt. Two large sheets of what looks like Chinese calligraphy are hung near a poor-quality fax of an early poem by William Butler Yeats, "The Song of Wandering Aengus." The point is that Xu has invented, in the words of Elaine Ng's catalog essay, a "new language ...able to address the unlearned class." Each "ideograph" on the two sheets is actually his creation: he took the Roman letters of a word in the poem and arranged and painted them to mimic a classical Chinese character. "The," for instance, is written HTE with the top of the T covering the other letters. Apparently Xu is equating the millennia-old tradition of picture writing, generally said to be at the root of Chinese visual art, with his own inventions. This offers, Ng writes, "a truly enlightening experience....Xu shares the foreignness of Chinese culture with the West, while simultaneously keeping his culture alive."

Ancient Chinese paintings and drawings often juxtapose calligraphy--typically a poem--with images of figures, nature, or both. And even without knowing how to read the characters, the viewer can make connections between the calligraphic strokes and the brushwork: Chinese characters suggest human figures, buildings, and natural forms. They link representation and abstraction, language and image, in a way Western writing does not. But where great calligraphy is both rhythmically expressive and suggests real-world forms, Xu's is utterly mannered and inexpressive, conveying no more than the hokey Chinese-style Roman letters used to advertise Chinese restaurants. Xu's New English Calligraphy exemplifies the way "multicultural" art often places the most superficial aspects of non-Western forms in a Western context, stripping them of their original meaning and reducing them to Western terms. Xu's "trick" writing is actually destructive of Chinese culture--he borrows the look of calligraphy and ignores its substance--while giving nothing new to Western culture.

Pomo art at its worst is as flat and affectless as a sitcom. And it can be as ignorant and illiterate too. Yeats, for example, is a curious choice of poet for Xu; I wondered if the artist knew that Yeats was an arch-defender of European culture who argued that Greek art "put down / All Asiatic vague immensities," to the West's permanent benefit. Other works in the show are similarly sloppy in their use of language. Boggs, for example, writes next to his tickets of seeing "a Bear's win." Steven Juras makes the title of his faked correspondence with Wallace Stevens Steven's and Back--which might be OK if he's referring only to his own first name. Some of the howlers in Juras's "letter" to Stevens must be intentional--"adeas" for "ideas"--but his use of "personnal" for "personal" seems a genuine mistake. The point is, one can't tell. Pomo artists' kin in the world of language are the most extreme descriptive linguists, who argue that a native speaker can never make a mistake--whatever native speakers say is by definition the language. Were this principle accepted, no one would have any reason to take care with language--or anything else for that matter. In this direction lies the corruption of all values, the denigration of all real thought.

The most interesting--and irritating--work in the show is Joan Fontcuberta's installation at the Exhibition Studies Center. Constellations is composed of 12 large color photos, apparently of the night sky; several old prints on astronomical themes; a telescope; and a tableful of astronomy books and magazines next to a couch. Star charts for Chicago are also displayed for each day the exhibit is up. The photos show bright dots, mostly white, against darkness; there are also vague streaks resembling nebulae or parts of the Milky Way. But something is wrong: the stars are often more like lines than points, and the Milky Way's faint bands are too straight.

A photo in the gallery's back room, which visitors might easily miss, explains the oddness of the large color photos: it shows a car windshield in sunlight, smeared with the bright dots made by squashed bugs. Fontcuberta has apparently photographed that windshield illuminated against a black background. A wall text also explains the source of Fontcuberta's pictures: part of his point seems to be to fool some but not all viewers. Those who figure out the images will experience a slight shock, perhaps a frisson of pleasure; Helguera writes, not implausibly, of a "sense of wonder." Part of Fontcuberta's point is consistent with the rest of the show: that we shouldn't trust what we see. "Seeing often entails distortion, and in art, things are often not what they seem," Alexander Lynn and Mary Anne Redding write in the catalog. Redding writes in another essay about Fontcuberta's belief "that Art and Science are no more than two forms of knowing that accomplish the same mission: to invent the notion of that which is real."

This by now familiar postmodern view of science has been much critiqued, and I think it utterly fraudulent. Why didn't Fontcuberta have artists, not scientists and engineers and mechanics, build his automobile? Were he to do so, I guarantee that a lot fewer bugs would get killed. And there's an unacknowledged, deeply disturbing machismo to his equation of the vast universe with this bug-splattered windshield.

One of the books stacked on the table in Constellations is Patrick Moore's history of early astronomy, Watchers of the Stars. In his next-to-last chapter, Moore describes how Galileo was threatened by the Inquisition, perhaps with torture, until he recanted his recently published argument that the earth revolves around the sun. In the final chapter, "The Truth Will Out," Moore describes how the revolution of the planets was accepted soon afterward, even by the church, although Galileo was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, suffering deeply for his publication of the truth.

Postmodernists who want to claim, as Lynn and Redding do, that the "distinction between truth and falsity" is "nebulous" should examine the use of the word "truth" in Watchers of the Stars. But Moore's book can have only the most "nebulous" of relations to Fontcuberta's intent, because the artist didn't select any of the books or magazines for this installation himself.

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