How do you spot a trend? If you’re Kay Larson, you see perversity everywhere. If you’re Jori Finkel, you find poetry in the Home Depot esthetic. And if you’re Carly Berwick, you conclude that a penguin embodies the spirit of the upcoming Whitney Biennial. While the list of Top Ten Trends our editors and contributors assembled is, of course, subjective, it might be viewed as a composite photo of the contemporary art world. So are there any trends among the trends? For one thing, whether the work our writers discuss is Baroque, Gothic, or Romantic, to name some art-historical influences they cite, it is anything but Minimal. And whether the themes are political or religious, they might also be described as earnest. Several artists we interviewed say they want to heal the world—and many others do their part by recycling.
If it’s sweet and sad, sentimental and repulsive, cute and creepy, it must be postmodern mannerism
By Kay Larson
The art historian Walter Friedländer, early in the 20th century, defined Mannerism as an extension of the High Renaissance style—and an evolution away from its grace and balance. Emotionalism, distortion, the disappearance of symmetry, unnatural or extreme exaggeration, and an unsettling anxiety—these are the signs of the anti-classicism that emerged in the 16th century.
The dissolution of a classical ideal into something “mannered” ought to sound familiar to today’s art audience. The formal balance of 1950s modernism and the anti-emotionalism of early Pop have evolved into an over-the-top art that one could call postmodern mannerism. Matthew Barney puts on satyr’s ears and parodies frat parties and chorus lines in his films and performances; Damien Hirst brings the abbattoir into the art gallery; and Patricia Piccinini takes a cue from E.T., Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the Pixar esthetic to give us creatures that share kinship with orcs, trolls, goblins, and hobbits.
Just as the emotional turmoil associated with Mannerism persisted into Baroque, contemporary mannerism shades into the contemporary baroque. For curator Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Barney’s art has qualities in common with Mike Kelley’s and Paul McCarthy’s, in the complexity and richness of their performances, videos, photography, and installations. McCarthy’s current show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, for example, includes a life-size frigate, a houseboat, and a fractured film, all based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. He will have a major retrospective at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm this summer.
“All three of these artists deal with elements of caricature or exaggeration,” says Schimmel. Their multi-component performance-installations have the exaggerated grandeur he associates with opera: “It exists in time; it uses a symphony, a chorus, and individual singers; it has an evolving narrative; and it has always been one of the most challenging and complex of the arts.”
But historical Mannerism and Baroque were not identical, and their contemporary analogues also differ. In the historical Baroque, an earthy obsession with entrails, martyrdom, and emotional shadows (think of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro) conveyed dramatic exuberance and, paradoxically, optimism. Body parts and their emotional baggage are a favorite topic for artists now—Louise Bourgeois has been mining this terrain for years. In Sue Williams’s latest paintings, shown at 303 Gallery in New York, elegantly flowing lines in cursive forms slyly resolve themselves into quivering organic elements—a piece of intestine here, a scrotum there—arousing fascinating emotional tremors in the viewer.
The qualities of historical Mannerism, in contrast, are artificiality, bizarre color, illogical compression of space, and an anxiety that breaks through a superficial naturalism. Mannerism puts emphasis on the artifice of emotional expression.
Curator Norman Kleeblatt of the Jewish Museum in New York regards this emotionalism as a positive quality. “When I look at classic Mannerist art, there is such playfulness,” he says. “I think that is the connection with contemporary art.” He defines mannerist art as “a formal or conceptual ploy. Matthew Barney, for instance, has a distinct mannerism,” which plays with an earlier classical form “attenuated to the point of near-absurdity.”
In the late 1980s, Mike Kelley wrote about another aspect of mannerism: its tremulous, satirical, bombastic, or anxiety-ridden relationship with popular culture. Jeff Koons and other appropriationists took the Pop esthetic to extremes, not only compressing styles but also assimilating aspects of commercialism that proved impossible to consume at first, even for Warhol and his peers.
Post-Pop mannerism is evident in the artifice and anxiety of Piccinini’s bizarre bestiary, which drew international attention at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Piccinini, who shows at Robert Miller Gallery in New York, has absorbed not only the strategy of cultural appropriation but also the look and feel of the warrior epics of current cinema. The superficial naturalism of her silicone-and-fur critters—their sagging skin, age spots, translucent ears, and overgrown toenails—induces viewers to identify with them, as with Yoda or Frodo. Scaly, creepy, and warty, they are deliberately sentimental: repulsive and cute, sweet and sad. Darwin’s gargoyles, they mock evolution and play to our fears of peril to the natural order. Scientific materialism has given us our own monsters, literally in bed with us, they seem to say. Piccinini’s sculptures are priced as high as $250,000. Her photographs go for about $8,000.
Take a step back, however, and the artifice itself seems to be deliberately concocted to dovetail with a general nameless unease. In postmodern mannerism, popular culture and its ethos of unrestrained consumption and insatiable entertainment accumulate a momentum that proves hard to resist. The consumerist attitude toward art has already obliterated much that was once considered serious and “high.”
For Kiki Smith, the self-consciousness of mannerism gives it a “perversity that is interesting. It has nostalgic or sentimental aspects. It makes hybrids—you take known elements and play with them. I’m always looking at things from the past and embellishing them or reconfiguring them.” Mannerism, she continues, “has awkwardness to it also. It’s the second coming of something. But it always implies that it needs to be revisited, that things are not used up, so it has energy from that also.”
Yinka Shonibare, in examining colonialism via African cloth, or Canadian sculptor David Altmejd, in creating a “werewolf esthetic,” are making such a loop through older cultural forms. Another is Kim Simonsson, a Finnish sculptor whose doll-like ceramic figures portray the gnawing anxiety under the surface cuteness of Japanese manga comics and anime. Figures that might have graced Grandmother’s china cabinet now vomit a thin stream of glassy spit or engage in strange rituals of bondage and submission, echoing the fear that mannerism’s illogicality spawns—its sense of a world out of control.
Kay Larson is an independent writer and editor.