Marking the institution’s 32nd birthday, the New Museum’s inaugural “Generational” triennial showcases artists under 33-younger than the Savior when he ascended the cross. There are reasons to study this demographic, argue curators Lauren Cornell, Massimiliano Gioni and Laura Hoptman. For example, more than half the populations of India and China are under 33-many millions, that is. Does that mean the Renaissance is less worthy of study because there were fewer people living then? But never mind. The show is fun, and museums are for entertainment, right?
Representing 25 countries, the 50 artists included are an admirably international group, and there is certainly captivating work to be seen, much of it brimming with youthful flair. As if arguing for the pure creativity of the (really) young, Ziad Antar’s charming 3-minute video WA (2004), tucked away in a stairwell, shows two pajama-clad little kids performing a catchy song with only the titular lyric. Exemplifying skepticism toward elders is Anna Polska’s 5-minute video Tanagram (2006-07), in which two nearly nude, physically perfect young men rearrange large black blocks into geometric shapes and converse in phrasebook Russian, in a parody of Soviet-style Constructivist art.
Even among this young faction, painting, that ancient medium, remains vital. Tala Madani’s tiny paintings of men behaving mysteriously, and seemingly badly, cast a spell, and Jakub Julian Ziolkowski’s finely detailed oils, especially one of the skeletal remains of a U-boat officer, are seductive. On the other hand, one of the largest displays is Josh Smith’s 2009 mural Large Collage (New Museum), marked by not only indifferent composition but also unappealing surfaces.
Just in time for a global depression, there is much low-budget, concept-rich performance work. Antique cassette decks play Tris Vonna-Michell’s rapid-fire lectures, which test the distinction between narrative and abstract sound. Liz Glynn re-created, with many helpers over 24 hours, a room-size version of the Eternal City — building Rome in the proverbial day and leaving behind its cardboard ruins. Most affecting is Chu Yun’s 2006 This is XX, for which a series of young female volunteers each sleep alone, with the help of pills, on a bed in the museum during public hours. It is, among other things, a genuinely discomfiting collision of public and extremely private.
Unsurprisingly, many works mine youth culture. There are the lightweight, like OMG Obelisk (2007), a sculpture built around the glowing acronym for “Oh My God,” by the regrettably named duo AIDS-3D. And there are the lazy, notably Guthrie Lonergan’s flatly displayed, flagrantly boring selection of several teens’ MySpace video intros. In the pop-culture category, little can compare with the work of Ryan Trecartin, whose untitled two-room installation (2007) is endlessly horrifying and hilarious. The rooms are outfitted as combination airplane cabin/living room/bedroom/den, and each displays deliriously over-the-top videos of Trecartin and friends mugging in outrageous drag. Spouting phrases like “identity tourism,” “personality shares” and “intellectual sexaganda,” they shrewdly capture the collapse of corporate and personal, advertisement and expression, that defines the YouTube age.
All told, the show has the expected drawbacks — like half-baked work in a crowded and noisy installation (in galleries where the central elevator’s constant ding is inescapable). Moreover, the too-clever-by-half exhibition title, and clumsy hype in wall labels and two catalogues (one featuring a numbing array of sociological essays on the concept of generations), smack of overcompensation. (At the press preview, Gioni boasted that many participating artists so wanted to be in the show that they came to New York on their own dime. “Younger than Jesus, richer than Croesus,” quipped a friend.) Maybe they’re overcompensating for the fact that the show could as easily represent artists under, say, 45, or that there is no distinct style or medium (what ever happened to Internet art, anyway?) to distinguish this cohort. Or that no matter how you dress it up, a focus on youth for its own sake, in art as in commerce, is little more than business as usual.
[Top: Chu Yun: This is XX, 2006/9, female participant, sleeping pill, and bed; on wall, Cory Arcangel: Photoshop CS: 72 by 100 inches, 300 DPI, RGB …, 2009, chromogenic print, 72 by 100 inches. Bottom: Ryan Trecartin: K-Corea INC. K (Section A) 2009, video, approx. 31 1/4 minutes.]