Jerry Saltz, one of the better art minds around, has a lot to say about the current Biennale in Venice. And a lot of other international shows. As is often the case with Saltz, he just cuts through the bullshit and makes so much sense.
His description of a particular malaise in the world of art that I too have seen evidence of everywhere I look is something he refers to as “reflexive conceptualism.” As I look at the work that predominates in the international arena I am struck, as is Saltz, with what’s missing. Self-perpetuated through events like the Venice Biennale and the internetwork of art schools throughout the world, the current mind set has landed on a self-referential form of expression that is conducted in “art world-only” code. It feels as strictured and narrow in its delineation of what’s acceptable and what is not as the starchy salon world of the 19th century that drove the Impressionists to set up their own Salon des Refusés. Ironically, there is a–dare I use the word–parochial quality to it all.
In Saltz’s view, it’s a curator problem: “Curators seem to love video, text, explanations, things that are ‘about’ something, art that references Warhol or Prince, or that makes sense; they seem to hate painting, things that don’t make sense, or that involve overt materiality, physicality, color, or strangeness.”
I know I’m not the only visual artist who is still seeking after those experiences and expressions that don’t “make sense” on the linear plane. I am also not the only painter who loves overt materiality, physicality, color or strangeness. But I am particularly appreciative that Saltz keeps lunging at these issues. He’s a street fighter with the armature of followers, and one of them is me.
Here’s an excerpt from his review in New York Magazine:
Venice is the perfect place for a phase of art to die. No other city on earth embraces entropy quite like this magical floating mall. There are now more than 100 biennales around the world (most of them put together by the same 25 celebrity curators, drawing from the same pool of 100 or so artists); Venice is often called “the most important” of them. The main show of this year’s Venice Biennale is the work of Daniel Birnbaum, a well-respected 46-year-old Swedish critic and curator. His “Making Worlds,” held in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni delle Biennale and in the magnificent Arsenale, attains an enervating inertia of exhibitions and brings us to a terminal state of what we’ll call “the curator problem.” The show, containing the work of 90-plus artists, doesn’t offend or go off the rails. Rather, it looks pretty much the way these sorts of big international group shows and cattle calls now look; it includes the artists that these sorts of shows now include. It’s full of the reflexive conceptualism that artists everywhere now produce because other artists everywhere produce it (and because curators curate it). Almost all of this art comments on art, institutions, or modernism. Basically, curators seem to love video, text, explanations, things that are “about” something, art that references Warhol or Prince, or that makes sense; they seem to hate painting, things that don’t make sense, or that involve overt materiality, physicality, color, or strangeness.
Any critic who says this, of course, is accused of conservatism, of wishing for a return to painting. I’m not for or against video—or any medium or style, for that matter. Nor am I wishing for a return to painting, which can never come back because it never went away. (That said, it’s hard to imagine anything more conservative today than an institutional critique. That sort of work is the establishment.) My beef is with the experience that “Making Worlds” produces. It’s just another aesthetically familiar feedback cycle: impersonal, administratively adept, highly professionalized, formally generic, mildly gregarious, aesthetically familiar, totally knowing, cookie-cutter. It is time we broke out of that enervated loop.