“What makes us decide what has worth and what doesn’t?” asked a painting in a stairwell in the Brooklyn Navy Yard this weekend. There are, actually, many answers to that question. Good art selects one image or a set of images, to the exclusion of infinite alternatives, in order to express a specific thing; failing to do this summed up what was wrong with most of what I saw at GO.
The Brooklyn Museum’s open studio weekend should be applauded for being the latest in a line of initiatives (the Brucennial, Hi Jack!, Hennessey Youngman’s open call for art at Family Business) to tear down the wall between the art world that gets discussed in the New York Times, and the much larger one that watches. But even in the last shows like the Brucennial, or David Zwirner’s staff show, or Jack Shainman’s art handler takeover, the outsiders are often Bushwick gallerists and emerging artists, people who have a pretty good chance of squeezing in eventually. This one was really open. After this weekend, I was glad the two are separate.
Arbitrary decision-making and random imagery dominated what I saw of the painting scene. Repeatedly, I was told “It looks like wood…but it isn’t!” or “If you use x kind of ink on x kind of paper, you get x kind of texture!” And that was it. The subject matter only conspired to make things worse; I saw paintings of swirls, birds, forks, blur, and a hell of a lot of bad geometric abstraction. My photo album would have looked similar had I spun around and shot at random.
To be fair, I only spent one day in DUMBO, and I did see some work that was made better by long conversations with artists. Hearing about Kyle Goen’s practice, for one, made me think about the political issues he’s identified in his work. Through large-scale screenprints made with Ben-Day dots, he speaks to the war in Iraq and draws ties between resistance movements like the Black Panthers and those in the Middle East. The intent was clear, as he’d intended, which was a relief.
Others were in it to win it (“it” being an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, selected by a public vote and the museum’s curators). One art dad shut me and a bunch of other visitors in his studio, turned out the lights, and sat us down to watch a video about his abstract-expressionist-styled paintings. As he explained his process in voiceover—he started making Ab-Ex paintings with his kids’ toys about twenty years ago, and never looked back—jam band jazz started playing. The names of his exhibitions intermittently scrolled up the screen, as though indicating a rise to success. The film cut to a bouncy blowfish, a remote control car– and then other things: a woman walking on her hands, a wheelchair rolling in paint. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach when a toy dog on wheels drove around in circles with a paintbrush attached to its ass. Maybe I would have had the patience in the beginning of the day, but by 5 PM, it was starting to get to me.
Bad art can be really disheartening. It means not having the self-awareness to challenge or question oneself, and worse, pretending that we’re developing an idea when there never was one. As I saw over and over this weekend, not everybody wants ideas. As one collector said to me, and I quote, “Fine definition, realistic drawing, a range of materials…this is high-quality stuff!”
The best idea I found was not in the art, but in a Duchamp quote used in an artwork by Bridget Mullen, my last studio of the day. It read: “To grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina.” Wish I’d seen that earlier.