Saturday, January 15, 2011

Softcore Modernism in Toronto

The skepticism which fails to contribute to the ruin of our health is merely an intellectual exercise.
E.M. Cioran

In 1995, Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley got together to create a video called "Fresh Acconci." In it, they used nude models to re-enact a series of pieces that Vito Acconci had done in the 1970s. The sexual aspect in the Acconci work was retained, but given a force which was decidedly different from the original. Exaggerated glamour and softcore porn production values garnish Acconci's desperate pleas and discomforts, flattening them out, making them pathetic but funnier. They are spread among an ethnically and gender diverse group of performers to give them a sense of universality. The bleak light of New York is replaced by California sunshine. All in all, the freshening up of Acconci softens out all of the hard edges but highlights the romantic desperation, all the while making it seem cute and restoring the sense that its feeling could be readily purchased for private needs, rather than festooned on an undesiring public.

This process of softening is also what's been at stake in much of the work going on currently here. Unlike most of the retreading of old avant-garde fads that made up the latter half of the twentieth century, there's something uniquely softcore in this current take on Modernism. Most artistic innovation of the past century was largely the result of the 'new' getting somewhere several generations late and then being misinterpreted to the point that it had nothing to do with the original. The value of delay is something which is rarely appreciated, especially, it seems, these days. It isn't just that speed makes people lazy (though it does), but that it makes them more idiotic. And it's not as though art school pedagogy is giving people tools to actually think with. Much of the work currently being produced by younger practitioners either falls into work which is highly derivative of that being done in Europe more than a decade ago, but differentiated by its unconscious channeling of a peculiarly Canadian pathology, and work which revisits the various fads of High Modernism with an ambivalent nostalgia. While this is happening across the country (it has a more mature variation in Winnipeg and Douglas Coupland's recent re-imagining of the Group of Seven is another positive example), its manifestation in Toronto is uniquely Torontonian.

The last decade has seen several distinct trends develop around young Toronto based artists. There are hipster folk artists, sentimental shlock modernists, collage inspired fantasists, abstraction inspired pornographers, dance hall conceptualists and those who try to turn painting into a different kind of drawing. There are a few unclassifiable oddballs as well, but if you could characterize the work of most of the generation who are currently showing, it would probably be by calling them nostalgic. Perhaps that's not unusual. To paraphrase Heidegger: nostalgia was the disease of the twentieth century (and they're old enough to have contracted it).

Of course, being nostalgic for the twentieth century is a completely different kind of sickness than that which afflicted that rather barbaric century. To anyone who can look back at that period without nostalgia, that time seems an odd thing to get nostalgic about. The reasons for this mind-numbing nostalgia are complex, but they are, by and large, the byproduct of technological advance and the absurd acceleration of the subjectivization of matter. There are few things more sentimental than technology. If Marinetti could have known that technological innovation ultimately leads to this, he might have thought twice about being a Futurist. The nostalgia for the present is not about youth, it's a fantasy of senility. Youth dreams of the future.

The obsession with old school Modernism takes many forms, the most blatant of which is the huge market upsurge in the renewed evacuation of content, or, at the very least, its rendering as a fantastical element which is readily amenable to the daydreams of the condo and cottage owning class. There attraction, or the attraction of their interior designers, focuses in on the charisma of what was new and has been enshrined as the new, even if it isn't. For example, the prevalence of sellable op art and grotesque pop art which can both function as dinner party conversation pieces or the complement to salvaged antique furniture. What is currently at stake in all of this revamped Modernism is not an engagement with the spirit of the earlier movements, but with their regurgitated and repackaged charisma, their antiquated part as a player in History rather than as a break from history. It is the art world equivalent of what is called neo-conservativism in politics.

Art is the murder of the present. I mean this in the sense that Adorno had hinted at, if never thoroughly pursued. The objectivity of art is the violence done to the enduring subject, be it individual or group. Their reality, as present, constitutes the wall that art perforates or collapses against. But at the moment, little of the praxis that is going on does this. In effect, it does the opposite. There are all sorts of reasons for this. The demise of the avant-garde (to whatever degree there ever was such a thing) is only part of this, but the myth which seemed to animate faith in such a thing seems to persist. Indeed, it is this myth that is still present and accounted for, albeit in a highly ironic manner as fashion. Rather than a push against the present and the past for a possible world, work has come to be about the constitution of the present, either as memory or as nostalgic fantasies. In either case, it doesn't matter much, it is the present which is being accorded excessive power.

Although this nostalgia is manifest in various forms throughout many of the exhibitions of the past few months, in a couple of instances it was explicitly addressed. "A Regime of Chaos" at Gallery 1313 and "Parts of a Hole" at Xpace, were just some of the more explicit examples though you could find it as readily in the various retrospectives on display or in the works of more established artists like Arnaud Maggs' "The Dada Portraits" at Susan Hobbs or in the David Hoffos' show at MOCCA to name a handful. The Gallery 1313 show promised artists grappling with their, "sense of alienation in a world that seems too content to conceptualise irresponsibly and bathe in the facade of logic without the integral measures of foresight or hindsight." The show didn't quite work as a return to repressed Modernism though. While the styles, a patchwork of ballpoint Surrealism, vaguely politicized abstraction and a few odd objects had a certain personality to them, their flaws were less interesting than that would suggest and the show felt like exactly what it was: recent art school grads rehearsing the latest script they'd been given.

Canadian art (small 'a'), as Jack Chambers once put it, had no history so it had to invent something out of what was lying around, something which might not be art at all. Many of the most ambitious artists worked through this to produce curious hybrids, a kind of orphaned art that was sterile and quickly faded from culture in general. That is, after all, why most current artists acknowledge so little about it. But there's something funny here, which is that this, in itself, has long been part of the tradition, a kind of forgetting of the past, a concentration on the present. This had a lot to do with the country's rather nasty colonial heritage. But today, things are different. People look back (though not so much to Canada). In fact, there's an obsessive backward glance, a search for parents.

All of these shows are really about history, but history manifest as the desire to have History as a present. As Mark Cheetham demonstrated in "Remembering Postmodernism," quite contra Frederic Jameson's conception of Postmodernism as a time of amnesia and emotional deadness, it proved to be a period of hyper-historical awareness and sentimentality wherein the subjective and the historical gradually became indissociable. This personalization of the progress of matter has reached even more vertiginous heights in our time, in spite of the illusion that it may have subsided. This faith in the present (which was symptomatically outlined in the Clark and Faria show Reality Check but is something of a commonplace) is part of a weird metaphysical conjuring trick.

History in art is a difficult topic. In fact, I would argue there never really was any until recently. (Christian art was about the eternal and exists in theological time; 'History' painting is actually futuristic and utopian: both are about the presence to come or to be re-discovered). It is for this reason that so much current art seems anachronistic, the way individuals often see themselves. But while the twentieth century opened with artists bent on destroying museums, it closed with quite the opposite. In effect, it mirrored the progress of technological capitalism which has gradually made the most banal aspects of the world into museum pieces. This personal history is no longer material, but a spiritual one. This modernism, even more than that of the Theosophists, is a spiritual revolution that relies heavily on the negation of the primary processes of matter, instead drawing itself through a set of anemic moments which can be sentimentalized and packaged – a process extensively documented by the conceptual art movement.

The fanaticism of the contemporary commemorated in Malevich's black square with its completely renunciation of history is reversed as everything is placed within history. The black square just become a reflection for the sentimental concerns of the present which are then blown up into a religious universalism. One can also see it in a more established artist like Eli Langer and the all black paintings he showed at Paul Petro in "Toronto Mon Amour." Although he was playing on the modernist idea of the monochrome, he turned it around. All black, but highly textured, placed at eye level or on the ground (in what must have been a deliberate gesture at Malevich). The black painting captured and reflected bands of light in their grooves. These were then played against suspended glass bulbs set beside large photos of tree sap.

You could ask, which modernism was being addressed in these shows? It certainly doesn't seem to be Canadian Modernism. There was such a beast after all and it is still very much at play in other cultural centres of the country. It was a rather eccentric creature which often seemed out of step with the rest of 'the world' (that is, New York or whichever other city fancies itself as centre of the universe). One could argue that Canada actually had one of the most successful experiments in Modernism, one which is often misunderstood for, among other things, the smallness of its scale. What is more unique in all of this perhaps, is the way in which these events, whether consciously or not, were involved in an almost militant ignoring of the idiosyncratic form of modernism that once, and perhaps still, percolated in Canada. It would be false to say that Canada has never had a radical art scene. On the contrary, Quebec's Automatistes were probably (though it's not really that arguable) one of the most genuinely radical and politically significant art movements in North American history. The regionalist school in Ontario could claim something similar. However reactionary it may appear, their vehement rejection of anything that smelled American was an exemplary kind of productive negativity. With its rigorous formalism, startling juxtapositions of avant-garde techniques with regional concerns and generally incoherent political and metaphysical stances, much of the art in this country between the 1930s and 50s exemplified a lot of what was good in Modernism done right, rather than in a merely provincial way.

(Photograph: Peter Croydon, 1957. Copyright © 2011 Lynda M. Shearer. All rights reserved.)
But, for the most part, that wasn't the modernism that was on display. Instead, there was something else. Something more, if not easy, at least comforting. It's a kind of kitsch modernism. With some it's just a pose, like the hipster posturings of Team Macho which amount to another edition of the city's long history of comedy groups, and for others it's just naïve. This provincialism isn't a new criticism of Toronto art. When Clement Greenberg came here more than fifty years ago to see Painter's Eleven, he said pretty much the same thing. Most of what they were doing was schlock and they needed to stop paying attention to the rest of the world and just get to work. (Greenberg also said a lot of other things which were more dubious...) With the rise of the art scene in Toronto in the late 50s and its frequent trading back and forth with New York, a lot of that changed, though more peripheral and obscure parts of the country continued making defiantly avant-garde, if often almost anti-cosmopolitan, art. To paraphrase Robertson Davies: Toronto's a fat girl with loads of money but no idea how to make herself attractive. Of course, he was saying that of the city several decades ago. Now she can afford liposuction and has joined Jenny Craig, but most of the time she still looks like she just wants to join the cast of "Jersey Shore."

Another question one might ask is: why Modernism at all? The backward glances weren't isolated. For "Traffic," the University of Toronto galleries (in co-ordination with other institutes across the country) concocted a massive look back on Conceptual Art praxis in this country which demonstrated how extraordinarily regional the conceptual art movement really was. The approaches they came up with are still alive, although the bureaucratization of banality that was undertaken in the 1960s and continues today doesn't bother calling itself 'contemporary art' (which is just a hodgepodge of market tested styles), but 'current work' (which is a hodgepodge of pseudo-academic disciplines without an institution). While Conceptualism developed largely as a critique of Modernism, like all critiques it was basically a reformist movement and it resulted in highly protestant kinds of art – high on intentionality and subjectivity but low on actual thought. Instead, it worked through what had happened in painting just using other media and marginally different rhetoric. Ironically, what really distinguished the original work done in Conceptualism was its intense localization, frequent pettiness and snideness – factors which were more explicitly present in Canadian work than in that of their American contemporaries.

Everyone does conceptualism now. Of course, post-Conceptualism, no one actually does Conceptualism, or almost no one. It has just become a style and a clichéd way of talking about things. There has always been a tendency to this vague generalization, whether in the abstraction which dominated so much of the art history of this country's recent times or in the anemic multiculturalism that inflects the current understanding of the country's supposed geo-aesthetics which replaces an abstract universalism (now synonymous with imperialist capitalism) with a food court notion of pluralism which is actually equally universalizing and ultimately even more attuned to the vicissitudes of capital. After all, if N.E. Thing Co. Ltd. really proved anything in their often underestimated work, it was that humour, irony and parody are not subversive of the market, but the ultimate marketing tools.

Modernism was, to a large degree, a reactionary tendency against the coming of a technologically advanced pop culture, that is, it was a hard "aristocratic" gesture against a soft and "plebeian" one. PoMo and Conceptualism were reactions to this. They don't aesthetically challenge capitalist imperialism, they extend it and make is seem heroic. As Benjamin Buchloh has pointed out, what these movements ultimately accomplished was the aesthetic validation of the bureaucratization of material life and, one should add, the enshrinement of a banal and masochistic form of subjectivization which lauded itself with a new kind of transcendentalist pose.

Perhaps the most telling instance of these trends was on display at Nuit Blanche, the softcore version of the Productivist dream of public art fairs. Dan Graham's work was there, sitting appropriately in the garden of City Hall and bewildering those who engaged with it. Functionally, it made explicit what kind of our tourist trap the city already was, offering a postcard into botched vanguardism. And if that wasn't to people's tastes, they could readily engage in the various re-enactments of the history of the avant-garde that were taking place around the city, most notably the re-performing of the chess match between Duchamp and Cage. The most interesting show in the festival however was one by Derek Liddington. "Allegory for a Rock Opera" managed to be the most intelligent engagement with the entire event. Using a campy set, he examined the attempt to bring 'high art' to the masses through opera, fusing a capella aria with Springsteen songs. What emerged was a freakish endurance test as the audience crowded around to watch these people exhaust themselves in what was achingly reminiscent of a brutal sequence from a reality TV show. Liddington would later extend this for his performance piece and installation "Coup de Grace" at Clark & Faria, although it lacked the over-the-topic masochism that made the previous work so successful, though it made more explicit the fantasy role of retro-modernist as a kind of pop culture heroic dandy.

Liddington also served as the curator for "Parts of a Hole," a group show at OCAD's Xpace. The show explicitly dealt with the legacy of Duchamp and Modernism. What resulted was a kind of kitsch avant-gardism, which is basically like a Che Guevara t-shirt or the resurgence of burlesque dancing. From Hugh Scott Douglas' thinly painted monochromes on linen with their material blandness to Ben Schumacher's toilet bowl cleaner, hair gel and oil on raw linen, to Liam Crockard's giant and useless tools, the works were positioned half way between homage and parody of tradition. Tradition and the historicized object are the essence of this glance backward that we've seen. The intense sentimentality that underlies so much work being done is both a masochistic performance of current art's irrelevance to the public and the attempt to Oedipally redeem it. There is no faith in Modernism at work here, but a faith in the idea of a heroic present and the present as the culmination of subjective history. Tibi Tibi Neuspiel and Sara Cwynar's inflated consumer objects (a Milk Bone box) offered the maxim for the whole show with a line he culled from circling letters on the drug information panel of a giant Advil box: "History is under attack because it upsets us more than the pain of new problems."

Photo credits: Paul Petro, Curtis Amisich, CCCA, Clark and Faria, G1313, Painters Eleven

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