Art After the Apocalypse

by Kenny Schachter


Self portrait as a Jon Rafman, by the author

I don’t think expectations were ever high in relation to the loosely denominated money-movement called Zombie Formalism (hereafter, ZF), but perhaps the precipitousness of the fall surprised some expecting a slower decline. In another sense, bland stylization in art has existed forever and nothing in the foreseeable future will change that, ever.

In uncertain economic times, many art collectors are moving towards safer pieces, encompassing the strategy of buying minor works and/or drawings by famous artists instead of young art, e.g. modern masters like Calder, Dubuffet and Picasso, and classic contemporaries like Warhol, Wool and Basquiat.

Out of the young hot-lot from only a few years ago, who were unashamedly propped by a gang of market buffoons since all but dissipated, will any careers be sustainable? A better question would be do any of them still have markets other than Oscar Murillo, and how long can that last? Ahem, I am just speaking about spec-u-lecting, not passing (career) judgment.

A significant issue facing young artists is not to fall into a trap of using technique, technol- ogy or labor (artisanal, craft based work) to prove not only worth, but just how ZF they are not. The self-reflexive canvases of an artist like Avery Singer have managed to redefine what is “relevant” while still being “understandable” by institutions – sifting through technology rendered in a more traditional manner, that of paint.

As techniques in CAD and 3D printing develop, expand and flourish in an art context, the majority of which is probably still not entirely archival, let’s not forget pizazz-y technology is not a be-all, end-all. Are Jon Rafman and Katja Novitskova poster people of the new commodification of technology, in heated romance with Silicon Valley entrepreneurship? Rafman’s generic wavy sculptural forms could be a stand-in for another type of walking dead: the Zombie Geek. While Novitskova’s distorted-in-scale animal kingdom pairings and disjointed compositions of seemingly random objects (and mediums) are more compelling.

On the other side of the (art)tech boom, there are also a lot of depictions of nature, plants and the organic as a way of seeking safe authenticity, like the thick, lush greenery in the paintings of Jonas Wood. But hey, flowers (and nudes) will forever please a crowd no matter rendered out of what.

There is art claiming more sociological ground often employing technology, see Amalia Ullman or the identity politics pieces of Juliana Huxtable. This type of art is more relevant but hard(er) to scale in terms of product, obviously not in terms of likes/ popularity (no surprise with the content). In spite of being a DJ, poet and artist with a strident activist bent – no easy market mix there – Huxtable is the rare bird that can make such disparate output converge into the covetable.

Amalia and some of her post-internet/porn and video art reminds me of an updated take on Vito Acconci wanking under the floor of Sonnabend Gallery (Seedbed, 1972). In an effort to dematerialize the object and buck the market he ended up thwarted and transformed into the very thing he sought to critique – big bucks (well, slowly but surely). The market is a violently flowing body of water that can liquefy steel and swiftly absorb any anti-movement in the process.

Danh Vo’s got his own concoction of identity concerns that he miraculously spun, Rumpelstiltskin-like, into a steroidal amalgam of (faux) gold and copper: namely his gold-leafed corrugated consumer packing crates and endless fragmented Statute of Liberty sculptures. But in Vo’s case, the consumer is put in a dilemma as to what the intentions of his work actually are. Then there was the dispute with the flipping collector that has indelibly marked the artist’s career for better or worse.

In a nutshell, before it was settled after two contentious years of litigation, Vo tried to wiggle out of selling the notorious spec-u-lector Bert Kreuk an installation, after he posed as a bona fide collector with a museum show lined up that was only a ruse to confer more value on his assemblage of pieces readying them to be thrown into the market fireplace (auction). When Vo was initially ordered to comply with the earlier agreed upon sale he offered up the following text work: SHOVE IT UP YOUR ASS, YOU FAGGOT, which was astonishingly not well received (that was a joke, if it wasn’t clear) and incidentally, I subsequently tried to buy (to no avail, sadly).

How cool is the Shove It Up Your Ass piece? So redolent of an old school dialogue, both vital and alive, it just sings to me. If that isn’t identity politics in the flesh, literally, than what is? The Exorcist, from which the Vo text originates, is a better analogy of the art world going forward than the realm of zombies, returning from the dead to make more...bad paintings. Good art, as was always the case, needs to be exorcised like giving birth to hidden demons.

Good looking objects come out of all of these positions but they don’t move the debate away from a Warhol paradigm i.e. commodity fetish - if anything, they hide behind a perverted Duchampian veil, whether analog or digital - trying to shy away from being an easy target of criticism, and moving art towards what it used to be seen as in the past. Let’s face it: you can’t argue with beauty or the seductiveness of a well-honed object.

The big question is – how can young artists not fall into thinking solely in speculative terms while making art? Can the long-term prospect of being part of art history outweigh the urge to jump into the financial arena? Are they mutually exclusive, a zero sum game? Can the debate veer from the marketplace and become more long term oriented when judging artists careers? Otherwise we end up with caricatures and stereotypes of a fully formed extension of the branded luxury goods space.

The market it what it is, the dialogue, whatever is left, is what it is and so it always was and will be. Art, rats and cockroaches would survive an apocalypse; like eating and pooping, beyond even compulsion, art is a primal, ineluctable consequence of the human condition.

ZF and its ilk was just another pretense for the urge to succeed at any cost. On a side note, how many of the most expensive living artists are basking in the enormity of their wealth? How many could be considered sellouts? For every Koons, Murakami, and Hirst, there is an equally prosperous artist that wouldn’t be able to define selling out yet capable of the act: Peter Doig, Mark Grotjahn (too crazy to capitulate – have you checked out his Instagram?) or David Hockney and loads more. Kusama, at 84, has every right to cash in at this point, so far into the game.

Even Rembrandt lived large, went bankrupt and couldn’t paint in his name due to his accounts being garnished. The day of reckoning is when, or should I say if, the market screeches to a halt. In any event, art soldiers on no matter the social, political or economic climate, always will.