Global at the New Museum

Just as I was pondering how globalism and contemporary art are related, I visited the New Museum in New York and saw its 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience exhibition. Fifty-one artists from 25 countries were represented, all artists under 40, with works using many materials, technologies, and artistic references. In an interconnected world, ideas and trends are exchanged easily and quickly, so what can be new? And do artists evoke their own time and place anymore? I would think it excruciatingly tough to be innovative with art these days. The wonderful thing is, people all around the world are still meeting the challenge.

I try to analyze my own criteria for “interesting” art. What appeals to me has not changed much over time—I look for layered meanings, abstractions, and imaginative connections of ideas and feelings. Talented execution is important, too, but not enough alone. I don’t like obvious messages (that’s propaganda), and I don’t like interesting constructions just for the sake of display (that’s production).

Here are some works I admired at the Trienniel, and note the geographic origins of the artists.

The colors and textures of this piece attracted me, as much as the mystery of what it could be. The gray creepy suit needed a body, for sure, and the brown shell was some kind of armor. It turned out these were to be worn by a dancer in a performance in Central Park—the dancer would be a tortoise. I fully appreciated this work only after I  read the curator’s explanation that the artist was interested in a Galapagos tortoise’s sense of time, and the tranquility that might offer, compared to our high-speed world today.

These were a series of works exhibited together. I first looked at the gray rocky slab with a piece of clear plastic substance flopped over it. It reminded me so much of…of…my contact lens, warped and almost dried up, after I finally find it on the floor. Then I noticed the artist indeed had a contact lens package dropped behind the clear film. Hmm, that got me intrigued. The next one was a terracotta slab, like a Pueblo wall or something, with…something metallic and square slid into a groove. It was a SIM card. Hmmm. The third object was a dark and heavy rock, shaped like an ashtray, with some painterly streaks like cigarette ashes inside. The wall text said it was makeup, bird droppings, and cigarette ashes. Somehow the combination of elements in each of the pieces was both natural and synthetic, earthy and manmade, ancient and of the moment. The tension was palpable, and it left me thinking. Maybe our lives and consumer goods are just so fleeting?

I still believe in good old modern art. Evocative forms and colors work their spiritual power on me, and this was an update through photography. If these works were paintings, I might have thought them nice enough but not new. When I understood the artist’s process of layering and manipulating photographic elements and personal artifacts, I liked the resultant images even more. Usually color photographs give me a feeling of synthetic, hard-edged, cool reality…these surprised me with their warmth and personality.

The Trienniel offered an excellent variety of intriguing new works, which were exhibited tightly but comfortably in the New Museum’s intimate gallery spaces. I liked that each of the five gallery floors was a manageable, relatively small space, so I could walk through and around and back, to see all the works as a whole as well as individual pieces. The visit was fun. Kudos to the co-curators Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin!

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