Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Your History is Not Our History" at Haunch of Venison

The exhibition “Your History is not Our History” at Haunch of Venison strives to aggregate disparate ideas of art and art making from one period in time by merely the basis of their chronological proximity. The show includes mostly painting with some sculpture and photography from artists who worked predominantly in the 1980s and seeks to impress upon the viewer that there is an underlying current that connects the ideas behind the work. The press release includes a writing by David Salle, one of the curators, stating, “the emotional current that runs through much of the best work of that time and is in some way its real subject is loneliness. The heroic or the abjectly un-heroic - the improvisational and the directorial - all resulted from a situation of dissipation that had to be upended: nowhere to go and no one much to go with.”

The implication here is clearly that the artists working at the time were reacting against an idea of progress, of excitement and energy, and that the work should somehow infer this kind of emptiness. Yet in practice, when the work of artists ranging from Eric Fischl to Terry Winters to Barbara Kruger is assembled to form something that should resemble a show, there is not much in the way of cohesion to keep a meaningful idea or narrative alive between the works.

From a purely stylistic level the work is difficult to follow. In one room a Ross Bleckner Op Art painting of vertical lines titled “Fence” confronts you as you enter the same space that holds the frantic immediate scrawling of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The comparatively small Basquiat piece “Untitled” shows a very different meter and control than Bleckner's visually disorienting display. While both artists show a distinct degree of insight to their ideas and means of rejection of certain established themes of Modernism, their approaches are radically different and don't communicate well with each other. “Fence” features non-spatial vertical lines that are adorned with a stylized top piece, abstracting a familiar concept into something vague and oppressive, distant by means of its regularity. Basquiat's head in “Untitled” meanwhile vibrates with energy and impulsiveness, an attack on the surface rather than a calculated and planned execution. Their relationship to each other, other than being created within a time span of only three years, is tentative.

This wide ranging and disparate collection creates a narrative that meanders without clear direction. Perhaps it is to be implied that this is the point, that the loneliness Salle talks about is indicated by lack of communication, by work that doesn't strictly relate to the other things happening at the time. This association may well be very true of the feelings artists were dealing with at the time, however, it is hard to justify that by means of the show itself. Several artists in the show are represented by multiple works, and considering the works of one artists, Terry Winters for example, begs for more works of that artist together, to gain a more lucid understanding of the ideas that are starting to form. His piece “Flush” begins to have the trappings of a cave painting, almost mystical, and feels erroneously at odds with the Jeff Koons cast bronze diving suit so near by. Barbara Kruger's pseudo-advertisement begins to speak about the rise of the culture of consumerism, yet when placed in so close proximity to a Fischl painting of figures on a boat, the dialogue begins to break down and lose its tenacity. Perhaps both artists are lamenting the evaporation of intimate connection to others, but the context is handled awkwardly, and that is true of much of the rest of the show.

The press release claims that Haunch of Venison is acting as “a welcoming platform toward supporting an unbiased look at the history” and that this history is being presented in a way which, “place[s] these works side by side and let[s] them speak to each other (and to us) in ways that have previously been denied.” Yet instead it has the feeling of pretentious self-importance. It strikes the viewer as an artist assembling works of art at an important gallery as if to say “yes, we're successful, and yes there is a validation in this claim, because here we all are.” Each work itself, rather than speaking more clearly by association with other works of important artists of the time, is silenced of its own message, of the artist's personal investment and meaning, by an attempt to squeeze some idea of complex interactions out of the grouping of works as a whole.
Far more than a narrative, the show “Your History is not Our History” serves as an overview, a pastiche of artists whose work was contemporaneous, but had far more to say than this catalog purview allowed. It was not an exhibition of unimportant or disagreeable artwork, but the work was no more blessed by proximity than it would be in any modern wing of a major art museum, a documentation of the era more than a discussion. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect to the whole assemblage however, is that none of the works at Haunch of Venison are particularly iconic or notable of their respective artists, that while it is a fantastic opportunity to see a Ross Bleckner or Terry Winters painting, it's not that you'll be astounded by the particular quality of the pieces as compared to any more recognizable examples of their work.


  1. Your conclusion about the exhibition is so accurate: it is very eclectic, but not in a good way. The most interesting experience for me was being to see some original Basquiat. It is unfortunate the curator/artist feels that the works can speak for themselves, and yet because of their many voices, not one of them can be heard clearly. The exhibition seems like an attempt by David Salle to recall the good times, an attempt which he thinks is unbiased (how can it be?) and reflecting a shared “emotional current.” Your words describing the show as “pretentious self-importance” succinctly summarize the effect of these pieces displayed together under the direction of Salle.

  2. I like your review of this show. Especially the part about "the feeling of pretentious self importance." And I agree. Since the show was so diverse, I think a little bit of broader or more general description of the types of stuff (conceptual, figurative, etc.) would be helpful for envisioning the show. Perhaps some nod to the politics behind the show; Salle being artist and curator. And last I would say that there are some iconic pieces. Koons vacuum cleaner is one, and I think there was a Kruger piece there that is pretty well known.