What’s the worst show in Chelsea right now? Critic Peter Plagens told The Chronicle of Higher Education he didn’t want to pick on individual artists, which probably makes him a better person than me. As I hinted earlier in the week, Janine Antoni’s “Up Against” at Luhring Augustine easily offered up the poorest blue chip contemporary show I saw Saturday.
To be fair, her exhibition explores the body as a metaphor for the world, a rather out of vogue subject matter these days. Even her most compelling photographs — Mortar and Pestal, a 1999 work documenting a tongue licking an eyeball amongst them — might have trouble in this climate. But so does first wave feminism, Frida Kahlo inspired self portraits, and eyeball art, which creates more than a few challenges for the show. There’s only so much work a viewer will dedicate to the overly familiar.
Undoubtedly the most problematic aspect of this show stems from Antoni’s melding of earnestness with cliché subject matter and aesthetics. I fail to see how a bronze gargoyle designed to allow a woman to pee standing up will empower her, but the solemness of Antoni’s pose in context with a political driven show suggests she believes it will. Given the art-with-a-message tone of her work it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to make the point a little more interesting then reclaiming a largely male interest in peeing off the sides of high buildings.
Lack of conceptual rigor proves to be an issue in every piece exhibited. Tear marks the highest point in a series of lows by pairing the sound of a crashing wrecking ball with a projection of a blinking eye. Sure, it tells us everything we already know about eyeballs, but at least the dramatic lighting is effective. First conceived for the New Orleans biennial Prospect One, the installation fared a little better in its original humble environment. Though flawed, it felt more sincere than calculated.
The final nail in the Antoni’s coffin consists of a large colorful photographic self portrait picturing the artist suspended from the ceiling with a dollhouse around her torso. The chest straps holding Antoni up recall Frida Kahlo’s Broken Column, and the wearable miniature, Laurie Simmons. But unlike these artists, Antoni brings very little compelling to the table. A few detail shots of the leg inside a dining room, and an undefined fleshy form near a bed provide more compelling imagery and compositions, but are ultimately undermined by an almost uniformly shallow show.