The Walker’s Woes
Copyright Ó by Dan Schneider, 3/12/01

  This past weekend my wife decided she wanted to go to an art museum. Having previously taken her a few times to the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts (MIA) it was high time she experience the Walker Arts Center. To those outside the Twin Cities area the MIA/Walker difference is akin to that of New York’s Met/MOMA. The Walker is the upscale place where the relentlessly avant-garde hope to be seen & exhibit.
  Attached to the Walker is the Guthrie Theater, & we purchased some tickets to the ongoing Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? show starring noted thespians Patrick Stewart & Mercedes Ruehl. We then entered the Walker & saw that the 2 main ongoing shows were YES, an Exhibition of the art of Yoko Ono- yes, that one! Also, there was a show called Painting At The Edge Of The World, an exhibit of 30 under-50 painters. The 2 shows represented what has become a local in-joke in the Twin Cities, namely the Walker’s schizophrenic take on art. The Ono show was one of the worst museum shows I’ve ever encountered while the Edge show feature such a goodly number of talented painters that I plopped down $30 for the accompanying exhibit book for there are at least 8-10 paintings rife with possibility for an ongoing painting-poem series I have. The Walker has in the past been hailed as visionary & laughed at as cronyistic & money-grubbing. This duet merely adds grist for the fire.
  First the Ono show, YES. Were it not so well documented that Ono is a leach, financially, personally, & artistically- & by those as me who care not a whit for her Beatles connection- one might even be lulled into thinking that this woman is a daring & visionary satirist. But the accompanying placards & exhibit explanations quickly dismiss all hopes of that end.
  Now, I am a poet & self-educated art/painting lover. I make no claims to understanding, say, brushstroke technique in painting, or sculpting or filmic intricacies, or what makes the difference between outstanding dance & preening pomposity. However, I do know a con when I see one, & while I may not be able to make the hairline fine differentiations between near-great & great dance or photography, I can tell the great from the terrible. I simply lack the particular vocabulary to define what is apparent. For example, the Walker is famed for several of its pieces from its collection that are permanently on display. Mark Rothko has an untitled painting that is merely one color with a different colored stripe at top & slight hue changes below that. This is shit- pure & simple con artistry from the heart of American Abstract Expressionism. The poetic equivalent of Abstract/Surreal/Dada/L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E/found/concrete poetry- i.e.- do nothing, call it art long enough & if you have enough charisma you can always find some acolyte to shill your “genius” to the world. Rothko was a brilliant marketer- no doubt- but a man of little artistic talent. Another is a renowned Chuck Close self portrait- basically a painted enlarged closeup of his not too handsome mug. Now, here is a potentially good idea, & unlike Rothko took some actual dedication & craft. Is it great? Perhaps; but it’s not an argument I’m qualified to judge. Is it art? Certainly. The main difference is I could not paint it in 30 minutes, ala the Rothko. Also on display is the famed Andy Warhol silkscreen series on the electric chair. While Warhol was the consummate salesman & I think alot of his stuff is as lazy as Rothko’s, there is no denying the power of this work. It seems to combine the unique idea/POV of Close with the supposed “idea” of Rothko- i.e.- the pure emotive power of color itself. Again, I may not be able to make the borderline call on this series’ greatness or lack, but I can state it is art & definitely good art.
  Thus entering to see Ono’s work was an experience. The names of the pieces are no real concern since she gave as little thought to them as the art itself. But here is some of her vision: 3 ongoing films so blatantly derivative of Warhol’s 60s experiments, as well as other experimental filmmakers of that era (of whom I have seen but whose names slip my lay mind) that one has to wonder if only her Beatles connection & economic clout saved her from lawsuits. These films are borderline experimental/snuff crap. One was of Ono’s clothes being cut off, another of a naked Ono’s genitalia & nipples being explored by flies as she lay perfectly still, & a 3rd where a fat hairy male ass, & then a bare female ass are seen from the rear as they move- presumably on a treadmill or step machine- as inane palaver drones on in the background of all 3 films.
  After that there was poor folk furnishings, all cut in ½, for a ½ Room exhibit. There was ½ a suitcase, ½ a dresser, ½ a toaster, ½ a bed, 2 ½ chairs- but get this; they were 2 ½ ‘s of DIFFERENT chairs, not 1 chair halved. And on & on. Such insights I am sure set on inflaming the young, impressionable, & retarded into believing deep meaning exists in their halving.
  Another exhibit saw doodlings on real blank white paper (ooh). Another had personal letters & journal entries with rips so carefully constructed that one could have sworn they were “accidental” rips (ah), obviously symbolizing the random fractal chaos that infests the material world. There was a series of everyday bronzed items, to show that everyday items are owned by celebrities- & can be bronzed! There was the bronzed darning needle facing down, so not to prick anyone who might take a blowtorch to its hermetically sealed plastic case, open it & feel if its point were real & sharp! And the utter masterpiece “Pointedness”- a bronzed sphere (not ball- this is art, recall!) meant to show the irony of calling a bronzed ping-pong (or similar game’s) sphere pointed when- unlike the darning needle- it lacks a point! The real-world dangerous kind of point- not an idea/point; get it? Although I’m sure Ono would admit that the idea-type point is even more dangerous than the real-world dangerous type, a further masterstoke of subversion in that the point of “Pointedness” is that it both has no point (either definition) while having many points (socio-politically)! That Yoko!
  There was the equally subversive “Water Piece”- an eye dropper & its bottle pedastaled with a sponge- the real kind, not the dayglo colored kind! The tension developed between the natural urge to drip drops on the sponge & the fear of being scolded by the socially outcast docents naturally develops the rising ambivalence of the dropper bottle relieved of its seeming intertwinement with the dropper’s raison d’etre.
  Other visionary pieces included a chair covered by rags & covered again by some solidifying agent- perhaps cement, or as the Euros say: “concrete”; 3 concave like structures technically called bowls, filled with igneous structures called stones (of varying #) made to form abstract primitivist designs  called smiley faces; a green (possibly Granny Smith or Green Delicious) apple pedastaled alone- to show the inherent decay inherent in us all, inherently; a folding ladder paired with a magnifying glass hanging above & behind it, to show that if one could climb the ladder & look through the glass the world would be a blur- this symbolic of the risks of rising too far above your station in life without a requisite opthalmological plan. There was even the famed “Magic Box”- a box/pen case whose contents would- if opened- evaporate due to chemical interactions with the air. Unfortunately this was all hypothesis since the box was mistakenly sealed in another of those damned infernal hermetically sealed plastic cases. And also a plastic maze that folks could walk through- 1 at a time though, lest ruin the ambiance of the aloneness amid 1500 lbs. of plasticity vertically held in an upright position- not sideways, that is.
  But the real “stunner” of the evening was a blank piece of white paper with an black inken dot drawn upon it. This study in “oppositional tendencies in the world at large upon a traditional media & its effects upon the retinae of sentients who view it” was so profound that when I encountered local chanteuse & Balls cabaret guru Leslie Ball at the exhibit, I remarked, “Can you believe that white sheet & dot?” (between chuckles), whereupon Leslie turned to me & wide-eyed marveled, “Yes, she was so far ahead of her time!” I rejoindered, “Leslie, I was being facetious.” The startled thrush paused, replied deeply, diaphragmically, & breathily, “Oh!”
  Now, if upon reading this you had to wait for the Leslie Ball anecdote to get my sardonism- guess what: you & Leslie Ball are not alone in being snookered. To be fair, though, I have never encountered an exhibition that produced such a quantity of folk who unabashedly laughed at the exhibit’s absurdity- yours truly among them!
  And to be equally fair, there was one small glimmer of artistic hope on display- a 1998 series of pen & ink drawings in geometric shapes on paper that showed some skill, if not vision.
  But how this utter fraud can command an exhibition of this crap plus some John Lennon-centered memorabilia is a travesty. The Walker should be ashamed, for this garbage makes its infamously bad Beatnik exhibit of a few years ago (consisting mostly of 50s-era 1st edition books & scraps of paper & poorly conceived photos) seem luminous in comparison.
  On the other hand, due credit must be doled for its other concurrent exhibit, Painting At The Edge Of The World. This exhibit features about 30 artists from around the world. What separates this from your typical knee-jerk PC liberal display of politesse is the quality of the works. 15-20 of the artists are of demonstrable talent- skill with a brush, as well as an ability to conform ideas to their medium- most importantly good ideas. Of course, there are the usual suspect poseurs, & some flat out hacks, however, juxtaposed to the Yoko Ono YES exhibit even the worst of them seems to possess some virtue. So let’s work our way up from the sewer to the penthouse. “Quoted segments are from the Walker’s unrelievedly ridiculous descriptions of the art.”
  The bad-mediocre: Brazilian Helio Oiticica has a piece where the painting is 3-D. Not particularly interesting, memorable, nor unique. Belgian Marcel Broodthaers has something seen before: a slide show of photos of an anonymous 19th C. painting by an unknown. The slides are the painting from different angles & in different closeups. The painting was apparently a curio shop pickup but Broodthaers “transforms it....so a static composition becomes temporal progression....a 19th –century artifact is recast in a 20th-century medium”. What vision. American Paul Thek frames poorly painted ‘naïve’ paintings in gilt frames with individual display lamps. In other words, Grandma Moses & Thomas Kinkade framed as velvet Elvi, thereby brilliantly underscoring crap by consciously making ‘crap’. American Mike Kelley reuses 1950s Americana imagery in a series called The Thirteen Seasons (Heavy On The Winter)- but the imagery is mere recap & no real idea coheres although it bravely tries to “examine the system of values underlying American popular culture”. Why didn’t anyone else think of such a thing to examine? Compatriot Paul McCarthy does the radical- makes “orgiastic use” of bodily fluids “to confront the purity of painting”. Dare I reveal it’s shit? Even worse perhaps is Belgian Francis Alys- he punches holes in paint cans & walks around so that their drippings can give record. Of what? The waste of taxpayer dollars? Wait- let’s pray he’s on the Belgian payroll! Even the Walker can barely muster a defense. But it is novelly called The Leak. German Mark Kippenberger combines painting with 3-D hanging rubber appendages. Been there, seen that, ho-hum. Landsman Andreas Gursky manipulates photos in a painterly way- not much to say, while Thomas Schutte hangs painted wooden rings from nails on a white wall. Again, while no art historian, they offer nothing new. Belgian Kevin Appel paints fractal forms in green & white- not bad, but not original either. Same goes for Deutscher Franz Ackermann’s geometrically-oriented paintings. Ditto for German Thomas Scheibitz’s color & line paintings. Italian Rudolf Stingel photographs his paint-mixing process while “exposing the myth of unique creation”. Please. Scotsbabe Lucy McKenzie paints Olympic-inspired art from ‘found’ objects. NOTE- whenever the word ‘found’ appears in conjunction with ANY art form- BEWARE! & hold your nose for the stench acoming!
  Now, on to the better stuff. The good-great: Unlike Alys’s The Leak, Scotsman Jim Lambie ‘paints’ floors with multi-colored electric tape- quite a dizzying experience- especially when trod upon. Almost like walking into a Piet Mondrian! Fellow Scotser Richard Wright does similar visual doodah to the walls- rays of color emanate from circles & other shapes. While neither man may be ‘great’ artists- they definitely are highly ‘effective’ artists at achieving their disorienting ends. Now onto a trio of ‘OUTSTANDING’ artists: Dutch Marlene Dumas has a startling painting of naked prepubescent boys queued up & in some distress. To its left is the even stronger The Painter- a vision that scared my wife shitless, & caught my eye as well. An almost albino child of 4-5 years (nearly fetus-like) glares out at you with big eyes & its (his/her?) hands drunk with paint- one hand blue & the other crimson. Ghastly & nightmarish, perhaps the painter’s demiurge? Regardless, it packs a visceral wallop! American Boy John Currin has a trio of paintings of distorted women- ugly to beautiful women- with swan’s necks & weird facial morphings. Yet, set in classical backgrounds, the effect is thought-provoking, as well as satiric. But, perhaps the best exibitor was Italian Margherita Manzelli. The Walker guide says that she paints subtle self portraits- perhaps. But the 2 paintings on display amass power from their reduction of the human dilemma to nightmare. One work has a teen-looking girl with big eyes & almost translucent skin hunched & looking out plaintively at the viewer. The cadaverous maiden seems to be being drawn in to some dark green-black vortex swirling to her right in the rectangular canvas- one can almost feel the tug & suck on her bones. It reminds most of the scary posters from the 1st Alien movie a couple decades back. Yet, even more jarring, if not in the horrific vein but the sense-twisting is a similarly complected near-teen girl apparently sitting on a line. Above the line is a painting so bland I forget its content. Below is yellow space & her legs & toes dangle off as if she were about to slip out of the painting at you. Both paintings jar because the females are almost photographically painted (yet cadaverous) & both seem prey to forces pulling them in different opposing directions. Now, neither idea is new, but the realism of the girls contrasted with the suck/spew polarities of the paintings achieves an effect that previous paintings I’ve seen attempt this seem failures by comparison. Dutchboy Michael Raedecker has a painting of Kismet that reminds of Dalian landscapes- there seems to be a white pond in the center of the painting, seemingly set in a cave- for there is 3-D applied organic matter that seems to be the tops of trees from painted upwellings on the lower half/floor of the painting & from the top half/roof of the painting they seem to be lava bursts from stalactites- very intriguing & disorienting. Then another dream-vision of a dark room, intended to be more primal but not as interesting as Kismet. Japanese painter Hiroshi Sugito is the most subtle of the artists up for review. Employing soft bright colors reminiscent of Juan Gonzalez, & subtly skewed images like a restrained Magritte, he effects a very intriguing yet understated effect. The best of his pieces is probably The Pink Floor- almost like a blurred dream of childhood reminiscence- sweet, forlorn, yet also dramatically resonant.German Eberhard Hakevost paints what appear to be blurry photos of photographers in action & American Laura Owens has 2 paintings in a somnolent (in the best sense) vein- one of the glowing moon which while breaking no new ground does show some unquity of skill. Turk Haluk Akakce would make Keith Haring proud with his room-sized paintings of aqua hue & outlined figures reliefed in brown. Nader (not Ralph!) of Iran paints Magrittean/Dalian surrealist stuff with a touch of Rube Goldberg. His paintings portray humanoid like contraptive figures & are piquant, amusing, & provocative. Ethiopean Julie Mehretu’s work seems Pollockian from a distance, yet far more structured & provocative- the piece Bombing Babylon especially so- as a layman I can merely describe it as Pollock meets Guernica meets comic book fantasy. But it has that thing all good art possesses- my vocabulary’s limit does it not justice. Thai Udomsak Krisanamis also draws from Pollock in using seemingly randomized splashes of paint & other media organized in Mondrianesque linearities. Quite fascinating to look at- I’m tempted to say like a car wreck but that snideness would not serve the definite thought his provocations deserve. Another outstanding artist is Nippon’s own Takashi Murakami- his combination of Nihonga-style Japanese painting with pop art produces bizarre Disneyan-cum-Godzillan nightmares rendered cute as an old MGM cartoon character- yet, again my lay description fails the artist’s ouevre. The final exhibitor is the recent scourge of New York’s art scene- Afro-Brit artist Chris Ofili. His Sensation exhibit last year at the Brooklyn Museum Of Art brought apoplectic replies from concerned morons & sincere dolts. While that work is not here the few works of his that were were very detailed & LUSH with color & history. He uses paint & collage technique to far greater use than some of the bigger NAMES I have read of & seen in art books. It’s too bad his name has been tarred by priggish reactionaries who would make one believe he is just another BADBOY ARTISTE in the Kerouac/Pollock mold, because the man is a very interesting visual stylist- his use of Africana & Americana is stunning! As frustrating as it is for my lay eye & tongue to adequately convey the positives of the good art currently inhabiting the Walker- especially vis-à-vis my ease in outing the atrocious- I realize this is a very positive thing. This is what good art does- impel us to get that vocabulary, seek that insight, & master that will to engage. The majority of this exhibit does that marvelously!
  Especially set against the backdrop of the laughable Yoko Ono, this series of under-50 painters is one of the few shows in any art media to really bolster my assertion that the current malaise in art (especially poetry) is a passing phase- for just as the Abstract Expressionists are being re-evaluated anew (& downward), & con artists like Yoko Ono are being laughed at out loud in formerly sacrosanct venues like the Walker, it shows that good & great artists are always present. They just need recognition as good/great, as do the bad artists as bad. One of the verities that frustrates artists is that the excellent, scorned in their lifetime by the ignorant powerbrokers, almost always become the icons of future generations’ own ignorants, who in turn ignore their own contemporary greats. The obvious reason is envy, but that is not an excuse. About the best solution I can suggest is we all help speed along our own generation’s ignorants’ demise by really guffawing at the next piece of garbage we see foisted by some well-connected & talentless fraud. For if we don’t there is no one to blame for the silent stew of resentment, frustration, & disgust we bitch about. Pogo will then be seen as the lone visionary amongst us!

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