20 May 2013

The Rotters' Club

Angus Fairhurst, Gallery Connections, sketch for presentation, c 1995

Some straggling thoughts on the New/Young British Art topic of earlier...

The artist I was trying to think of earlier (to no avail) was Angus Fairhurst -- a first-gen "YBA" artist, having participated in the famous ground-zero "Freeze" exhibition of 1988, subsequently not one of the better known of the YBA coterie, and who died by his own hand some five years ago.

The work in question was called "Gallery Connections," which Fairhurst executed in 1991. A more technically-precise account of it differs from what I remembered. More specifically, it involved Fairhurst taking two telephones and fusing their handsets together -- mouthpiece of one affixed to the earpiece of the other and vice versa, in yin-yang (or sixty-nine, if you like) symbiosis. Then one each phone he dialed the number of a different art gallery, dealer or institution; leaving the two parties to sort out the confusion among themselves. Dual pranking-calling, effectively. Fairhurst recorded the results, and a transcript of the tapes ran in the debut issue of Frieze magazine, who later reprinted it on their blog shortly after the artist's death.

In terms of artworld precedents and similarities, I'm reminded of Chris Burden's Wiretap (1977). In which Burden was dealing by phone with a young gallerist who was trying to entice him away from his present dealer, the young woman continually bad-mouthing Burden's dealer throughout the exchange. Burden recorded the phonecall, then later played it back for his dealer, in turn recording that session as the two listened to the tape and commented on the young gallerist's spiel. The tape was then presented as a work in itself, in the form of a sound installation. Around that time, Burden's work had taken a decisive turn away from the violence of his early, notorious performance pieces, with a few of them dealing (somewhat sarcastically) with an artist-as-laborer theme. Wiretap is, however, the only one that involves a pulling-back-of-the-curtain strategy that addresses the business side of the artworld. (Some critics have also pointed to how the work echoes a very era-specific Watergate theme -- a public paranoia about surveillance and the like.)

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Sarah Lucas, Self-portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996

One common complaint about the art bubble of the 1980s was that all criticism surrounding the art of the era was tainted by association; that it mostly only served to grease the gears of the hype industry. So to with much of what was written in the U.K. about all art connected with the YBAs.

In one chapter of High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, Julian Stallabrass addresses the New British Art's relation to criticism. Stallabrass concurs with those who say that much of the so-called criticism amounted to only so much promotional copy -- in turns laudatory, gossipy, hinging on a great deal of fawning or triumphalist home-team rah-rahing, etc.*  Also, there was the matter of of whether any rigorous favorable critique of the work would stick or just slide off the surface:

"Sometimes the ponderous mechanisms of what passes for intellectual justification in art writing was applied to this work, but with limited success. If Lacanian voids can be discovered in the slick, glib surfaces of [Sam] Taylor-Wood's work, then it is obvious they can appear anywhere; similarly, the claim that she put 'fissures' into the rigidity of symbolic codes is no more than the minimal claim made about any work of art -- that it does unconventional things with its ready-made elements. If writing about high art lite in this way is unpopular, it is because the mismatch between work and theory tends to rebound on the plausibility of the theory, and raise questions about the arbitrary character of its application everywhere."

Elsewhere in the book, Stallabrass decrees much of the work critically "bulletproof" -- impervious to analysis on account of much of it being so deeply steeped in a "pervasive and disarming irony." In other words, designed to state to the potential critic or skeptical viewer: This art doesn't take itself too seriously, so why should you? Only a total prig would do so.**

* * * *

Celebrity gab-fest exchange:

DB: What seems to define your work as being so different from that of your peers is a far greater degree of personal passion. A strong resentment of the idea of death. It certainly strikes me as emotive, a reverberation of sorts, whereas in the work of your friends like Gavin Turk or Sarah Lucas say, the basis seems to be a no- nonsense cynicism, a dark ironic stance maybe. You seem to straddle two worlds - conceptualism and a rather more traditional self-expression. Something that smacks of an emotional life. Is that accurate?

DH: Yes I think it is. I mean I can't deny it. I think that at the end of the day, art is not only a visual language that communicates an idea. The ideas maybe don't change but the world certainly does. So then, does the context of that idea change?

However, something that really gets to me is that the work should be totally delicious visually and that you shouldn't necessarily have to work hard at intellectualising. It can just be something fundamentally expressionistic. Like Bonnard said, 'I just love these colours.'

DB: So, what's the title of your fabulous pieces with the butterflies embedded in the paint?

DH: 'In and Out of Love.'

DB: Yes, 'In and Out of Love.' Those pieces are as strongly aesthetic, as thoroughly beautiful, as they are broadcasters of ideas.

DH: I think they contain contradictions. I mean, they're beautiful as paintings I suspect, but if you look closely, the butterflies are stuck in the paint, so you ask yourself, did they get there by accident or is this a result of some evil little scientific experiment or is this merely a display of some kind? I find it beautiful. I also find it repulsive. Imagining oneself as the butterfly in question, it would be quite an awful thing.

DB: Does one have to have a social conscience as an artist?

DH: I have no social conscience when I'm working. It's out of my hands. The viewer may want to make that judgement. I'm not too concerned with interpretation. Neither can I allow myself to be bothered by taboo or even an idea of integrity. Integrity you either have or you don't.

Damien Hirst interviewed by David Bowie, c. 1996 [ # ]

* * * *

Above: Paul Thek, Meat with Warhol Brillo Box (1965), and
Ray Johnson, Jean Cocteau and Spaghetti Eater (1960)

The matter of precedents was a nagging issue for some critics of the New British Art of the 1990s; or, more exactly, the perception that much of the work relied too heavily on a casually ironic recycling of recent forms and innovations. Writing about the Sensation exhibition in a 1998 issue of Art Journal, Alexandra Anderson-Spivy complained:

"To an America weaned on Vito Acconci, Bill Viola, Jeff Koons, David Salle, Carolee Schneemann, Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy, Matthew Barney, Kiki Smith, etc., 'Sensation' came across as a fascinating but day-old pluralist salad of art historical and design references, pop culture borrowings, social documentary, autobiography, domesticated formalism, and eighties video and installation art."

Fair enough. One might with Anderson-Spivy's assessment on a couple of points, particularly the lineage cited.*** But the matter of the primary sources of art-historical influence and inspiration for much of the YBA turns up in text after text on the topic. Yes, there were the work of Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach and others associated with the wave of "pop-conceptualism" that had emerged out of NYC in the late 1980s, which was clearly the most immediate and recent precursor. That, and the "slacker art" that immediately followed, by the likes of Sean Landers and Pruitt & Early, as well as the "abject" art of Mike Kelley, Cady Noland, et al. From there the aesthetic line is usually traced back through various conceptualist and postmodern practices of the 1980s and 1970s, ending with the movement's earliest patron saints -- the figures of Bruce Nauman and Gilbert & George, both parties being po-mo progenitors from the late 1960s. With perhaps a simultaneous nod to art that emerged from the Arte Povera movement in Italy in that same era.

I see other precursors, falling even earlier -- back in the era of postmodernism's first stirrings, sometime roughly about 1960. One might think of the boxes of Lucas Samaras -- hand-crafted, fetishistic objects in a sort of colloquial surrealism à la Meret Oppenheim, each intertwined with the artist's own self-referential Iconography of the Self. And it seems (superficially speaking) that its a small step from Paul Thek's pristinely lurid "Technological Reliquaries" to the vitrined viscera of Damien Hirst's early works.

And, tracing certain strands of creative DNA back to its source, one might arrive at Fluxus -- or at least that more idiomatic subdomain of (oh so diffusive and farflung) Fluxus activity that aimed for "art with a lowercase a." The variety that took its cues from the more mundane aspect of everyday existence and the common culture. Mail art and kitchen aprons with the Venus de Milo or a diagram of the human stomach printed on them. Art being -- for some of the Fluxus affiliates, anyway -- just another means of sharing or communicating and sharing, as easily (or perhaps better) rooted in smaller ideas than in Grand Notions, and as equally capable of telling a decent joke. The big difference being -- of course, of course -- that we're talking about two widely disparate generations; two very different ends of the postmodern spectrum. Much of the initial Fluxus artists having come of age in a common culture was somewhat more organic, whose formative lives and experiences predated the mass-manufactured consumer culture of the post-war economic boom; whereas everything thereafter would be saturated by subsuming tide of 'pop.'

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*  Add to all this the expected reactive, "philistine" attacks on the work that came from the conservative tabloids, which -- naturally -- only served to elevate the work's notoriety in the time-honored "no such things as bad publicity" sense.

**  One could argue about how (if at all) Kiki Smith factors into the equation. But Matthew Barney? Unlikely, considering that his own ascent into the public eye occurred in the mid-90s, running roughly concurrent with that of the YBAs.

***  The peculiar anomoly here, Stallabrass at one point acknowledges, is Tracey Emin. In Emin's case, the work follows another route -- that of supposed Authenticity, rather than irony. Being autobiographical in the way in draws from the traumas of the artist's life, it makes criticism of the work problematic, in that any attack on the work could be considered -- in the realm of public perception -- as a personal attack on the artist herself.

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