The Critics: Dumb, dumber and dumbest
Dumbpop Jerwood Space, SE1 Rosemarie Trockel Whitechapel Art Gallery, E1
Sunday 13 December 1998
"Gone is the brash hedonism, the commodity nightmare of the Eighties; gone is the anecdotal pessimism of the early Nineties," says the "Dumbpop" publicity. This sounds like good news, though it might be all in the head of the person who put the exhibition together. Some shows give the feeling that they belong to their artists. Others are markedly the property of their curators. "Dumbpop" is one of the latter. It displays the excellent talents of Stephen Hepworth, who has assembled the artists. He plays them off against each other, and neatly allows them to say no more than they need to say. And furthermore - this is delightful, and, I hope, a sign of art to come - doesn't ask the visitor to watch any boring videos.
Because it's such a curator's show, you don't get the impression that the artists know each other. If they do, they may meet only in airports: Sybille Berger is German, Ana Genoves Spanish, Jun Hasegawa Japanese, Sarah Morris American, Jean-Michel Othoniel French. I'm not sure about the others. The Jerwood Space provides none of the usual biographical information about its artists. They may have decided that the usual catalogue entries ("Born Manchester 1964, educated Trent Polytechnic etc etc ...") lack panache. But most of us like to know who an artist is and where he or she comes from.
The Jerwood exhibition is indeed a holiday from knowledge and reality. The only person who shows any sign of meditation on her art is Sybille Berger. Her paintings - which have been around for some time now, and are usually seen in quite different company - employ four or five deep horizontal bands of different colours. These colour relationships speak of her artistic disposition, which is deadly serious and slightly severe. The point is that Berger is a developing artist with classic modernist concerns. Her paintings get better the more she considers the past, while the other people in "Dumbpop" show little sign of knowing that the past ever existed. One or two of them recall their childhood. Hence their brittle, ephemeral charm.
This is combined with formidable technical expertise. Everyone in the show has a total and precise command of their materials. The painters seem to belong to non-painterly forms of contemporary human skill. It's as though the best young graphic designers or computer technicians had been invited to have a go at art. In not one work is there a feeling of the human hand. The "Dumbpop" style invites the thought that paintings might be manufactured by nyone, or anyone's assistants, so long as you're ahead of the game.
The best performers in this game are Paul Morrison, Sarah Morris and Jun Hasegawa. Morrison uses a small format, so that his black-and-white pictures of landscape are even more like book illustrations or magazine advertisements. Feld has a top half which looks as though there's an abstract sky above its apple tree. It's the most successful picture in the show, though I wouldn't like to live with it. Hasegawa is even closer to illustration. Her Second Hand Shirt is more "pop" than other pieces in the exhibition, and is endearing for a little while. Morris has a merciless take on sign language. She makes numbers or words, in 45 or Please, into abstractions. The abstract forms in these paintings aren't good enough, so she does better with a picture of wire fencing - more accurately, a picture of a denotation of wire fencing, repeated time and again.
The "Dumbpop" manner doesn't extend to sculpture because it requires an instant image, and three-dimensional work takes longer to consider. Graham Little tries to make stripe painting into sculpture. He hasn't got the right feelings for scale or volume, but it's a brave attempt at an impossible problem. For he wants to make sculpture speedy - instantaneous, even - and this cannot be done. A shallow, half-cheerful instantaneity of effect is essential to "Dumbpop". That's why there's no video in the show. It takes too long to consider.
Videos are a prominent, lengthy part of the exhibition by the German artist Rosemarie Trockel at the Whitechapel Gallery. As always, we see the cliches of this supposedly liberating medium. People hit each other over and over again or read incomprehensible texts aloud (Andy Warhol's thoughts spoken in German!). I suddenly wondered what tortures of the spirit must be endured by people who marry video artists. Obviously it would be good if they all married each other, then went off to found a colony in some remote part of the world, or preferably outer space. Then we would be free of the absurd idea that video adds anything to the aesthetic life of humankind.
Video does not contribute to art. It subtracts. What still from a video ever makes a good photograph? None. Even television is better to look at. Why does video never give us a proper narrative? Because it would then be in pathetic competition with film. Why are video artists so pretentious? Because they are uneasy about their abilities. I often like them when they are students, but not when they're grown up. And here one parts company with Rosemarie Trockel, born 1952. For every single thing that she does is like the work of an art student of the 1970s.
Trockel tries everything. Besides her videos, there are a couple of paintings in wool, photographs of naked people in sexual poses, very bad drawings, more photographs (in colour) of people whose faces have been made absolutely symmetrical, and some cases of material that seems to be memorabilia from her adolescence. None of these things give us an individual artistic creation. The heavy programme of talks and discussions at the Whitechapel will no doubt take a different view.
'Dumbpop': Jerwood Space, SE1 (0171 654 0171), to 17 January; Rosemarie Trockel: Whitechapel Art Gallery, E1 (0171 522 7888), to 7 February.
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