Romantic art in the 18th century conveyed a certain sense of exultation. It pictured untamed landscapes, strong emotions, youth and visions of escape from the drudgeries of an increasingly material and mechanical culture. Haute Romantics, a show of 13 young, mostly downtown New York artists sponsored by Art Fag City editor Paddy Johnson, attempts to capture the current incarnation of that spirit. What it does, mostly, is filter the subject through a lens of other less-exalted isms: narcissism, voyeurism, consumerism and careerism. Laced with strains of witty conceptualism, this photo-heavy show, which also includes painting, sculpture and video, doesn’t take its premise too literally, although sex and death do figure in. Alternately introspective and exhibitionist, it seems, more than anything, to want to have fun – or at least pretend to be doing so.
Fashion is a pervasive, if not dominant influence. Katherine Bernhardt’s four Swatch paintings –large canvases that occupy an entire wall – don’t criticize or analyze; they simply translate the visual language of magazine advertising into loopy, acrylic-and-spray painted works that feel like pop-graffiti product pitches. Naomi Fisher employs a punk/grunge/B-movie aesthetic in large-scale, glossy photos that conjure a universe of tropical zombie sex kittens – a haunted effect that is echoed in her mixed-media paintings. These combine the schematic style of fashion illustration with abstract, gestural brushstrokes, creating a Munch-like angst that rubs up hard against the faux innocence conveyed by the works’ illustrational aspects. Sarah Venderbeek’s black-and-white photo collages recall Man Ray’s fashion plates of the ‘20s and ‘30s. They’re gorgeous and technically brilliant, but in the end, impossible to disassociate from what Ray did with photograms, multiple images, solarization, and the placement of models in statuesque poses with otherworldly lighting.
Five short videos directed by Lena Dunham, The Delusional Downtown Divas, zoom in on the antics and obsessions of a group of trust fund brats trying to claw their way to the top. These segments mimic reality TV, but are, in fact, scripted to make the characters seem both plausible (“I can’t be honest with you unless I’m lying.”) and ridiculous (“I think fashion should be incredibly painful – like the choker I’m wearing.”). This conceit, which at first seems silly, pins its subject to the wall by showing how both characteristics co-exist shamelessly. Whether agonizing over accessories, scheming to crash members-only events or sucking up to each other (or to dealers who are themselves engaged in a parody of Tino Sehgal), the divas in Divas skewer the downtown milieu the way Tama Janowitz did a generation ago in Slaves of New York. Their parade of romantic and career longings overflows with sturm and drang, but it elicits no sympathy.
Like the characters in Divas, K8 Hardy (a self-described “video artist, stylist and queer activist” who recently launched a clothing line) demonstrates that she, too, will do whatever it takes to win our affections. Show extreme close-ups of women in menstrual blood-stained panties. Pose a model splay-legged, with an apple in her mouth. Feign sex with a camera tripod. Hardy does this (and a whole lot more) in the pages of four large-format photo books, each of which is littered with semi-coherent pieces of text that masquerade as diary entries. Youth and fecklessness may be qualities of Romanticism; but like a lot of fashion photography, this is just soft porn.
Asher Penn’s Kate Moss Rorschach Series — nine 8×10-inch black and white photos of the actress overlaid with lipstick-red Rorschach blots – is an exercise in serial re-framing that identifies, amplifies and focuses desire. Some pictures hone in on Ms. Moss’ face. Others show only portions of her body. Taken as a group, they function as keyholes to the psyche, and are as revelatory as they are manipulative.
Paul Gabrielli’s work leans toward nihilism. In his video loop, Alex Imagining his Own Body, a man’s tightly cropped face stares blankly at the camera and appears trapped inside the monitor. This unaffected visage does what Andy Warhol’s 8-hour snooze-a-thon, Sleep, once did: it turns us into listless voyeurs. More compelling are his two wall-mounted installations: Untitled (Handrail) and Untitled (Scale), both of which render each object unusable; the first by blocking the handrail with an artificial tree limb, the second by cordoning off the scale with a length of string. They’re cold, clever and effective, but have no apparent relationship to the subject.
Closer to the mark are two documentary-style photos from Peter Sutherland that capture decisive moments. Look Me Directly in the Eye shows a herd of deer caught in the headlights of a car, a sea of disembodied, glowing eyes. Dog Says Take a Vacation presents a tense stand-off between a man and an angry dog separated by a chain-link fence. For this artist, man and nature are clearly not on speaking terms.
Several artists do address historic notions of Romanticism directly. Maximillian Schubert casts two sculptures in wax that when lit as candles self destruct. One is a car tire littered with fruit rinds; the other consists of cinderblocks. Cast realistically, they recall the abject character of Robert Rauschenberg’s combines as well as the spontaneous altars that sprung up all over Manhattan after 9/11. As objects whose form and potential value decline with each passing second, they are the ultimate memento mori.
Kristen Jensen and Cian McConn approach the subject with a series of conceptual self-portraits in which they pose, variously, as corpses in Battery Park (with the Statute of Liberty in the background), in a cemetery saluting a monumental gravestone, and staring, like Narcissus, into pond. Sebastian Mlynarski provides the show’s purest take on Romanticism with photos of pink-tinged forest scenes, the most evocative of which have the ghost of a nymph emerging from a pond, as if in a visitation dream, and another showing what could be a landslide or an explosion in a similar setting – a picture that is intended to mirror the type of reverence for nature once elicited by a legion of painters, ranging from J.M.W. Turner in Europe to the stateside Hudson River School painters.
With its conflicting allegiances –to both bling and to sturm and drang — Haute Romantics seems to want to walk in both worlds; but it does so haltingly, like a woman negotiating cobblestones in high heels.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Haute Romantics @ Verge Gallery through March 20, 2010.
"Cover" image: Katherine Bernhardt, installation view (l to r): Waipitu, Pinstripe, Pink Flamingo, Flack; all acrylic and spray paint on canvas.