IN THE END WE ARE ALL ALONE
– and so is the spectator
It can’t, now, be much of a secret that the whole idea of ‘avant-gardism’, as it was once constructed by experimental artists, and by the curators and critics who followed in their wake, has long been in trouble. In fact the whole thing probably lay down and died in the 1970s, nearly half-a-century ago. Suitably enough, its obsequies were conducted by two related art movements, Minimalism and Conceptual Art. These tended, in their different ways, to tell aficionados of contemporary art: “Look, baby, there’s really nothing here any more. If you want to be up-to-the-minute, nothing is what you get.”
For powerful commercial, as well as purely psychological reasons, the art world needed to find ways to go on. The commercial reason was, paradoxically, the inexorable growth of public collections, which continued to remove the major works of art made in the pre-Modern past from the market, and which, indeed was also doing much the same thing to the major works inherited recently from the giants of the 21st century Modern Movement, most of whom were now dead. The only way for the financial mechanism to survive was for artists to continue to make art and for dealers to find ways to sell it. Art and capitalism were intimately intertwined, and had been so since at least the days of the Dutch picture-merchants of the 17th century.
In addition, there was an increasing tendency for contemporary culture to lose its grip on the past – to find difficulty in connecting with the mind-set of earlier societies. To quote the opening sentence of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” That book was published as long ago as 1953, but is now best remembered for the 1971 film derived from it, with a script by Harold Pinter. The timing was apposite – the film was released just at the moment when programmatic Modernism, as it had been defined for the whole of the 20th century, was pushed into limbo.
The art situation we are in today is often described as Post Modern. That is, contemporary artists are busy making art best described by two words that tell us what it is not. By definition, it isn’t really Modernist in the old sense.
One of the consequences, intended or unintended, is that contemporary artists have been cut loose from any kind of stylistic framework. To quote another half-forgotten and in this case distinctly dodgy figure, the would-be magus Aleister Crowley: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
None of the artists represented in this show closely resembles any of the others. It does not represent any easily definable stylistic tendency. Though the exhibition is being held in London, now the acknowledged capital of the 20th century art world, they are not all of them based here, though the majority of them work here. One the Korean Jimin Chae, works here only part time, moving between Seoul, London and New York.
One of the few things they have in common – something obvious, but nothing to do with any sort of stylistic reference – is their relationship to IsisPhoenixArts, the organization that promotes and represents their work. IsisPhoenixArts has no fixed gallery space of its own, either in London or elsewhere. It co-operates with a wide variety of other organizations, in this instance with the well respected Griffin Gallery, already known for its interest in presenting and promoting young artists, to put new departures in art before the public. The artists included are very much part of the way the ever-resilient market continues to develop. The hierarchical model proposed by official institutions is still being fiercely resisted.
Perhaps the most important thing they have in common artistically is a paradox – the sense of ‘aloneness’ that is summarized in the title given to this show. Each of them gives the impression that he or she has embarked on a voyage of exploration, with no known end, no conclusion in sight. Where painting and mixed media work are concerned there is, for example, often a fascination with spatial dislocation. The world portrayed has a resemblance to the world of everyday perception, but it is nevertheless one where space slips and slides in a way that is disorienting to the spectator.
Where sculpture is concerned, there are references to familiar forms – the appearance of the human head and the human body – but these forms seem to be in a state of perpetual transformation.
One of the striking things that the Modern Movement in art accomplished, both for good and for ill, was the abolition of all the long established frameworks of comparison. That is, from the Renaissance onwards, it had been possible to judge the quality of a work of art, in part at least, by its faithfulness to what the artist had perceived in the external world. Artists achieved a greater and greater command of different kinds of representation – the representation of what was three dimensional on a flat surface, the representation of human proportions in a way that seemed convincing when the art work was compared to what existed in ‘reality’, so called. The criticism of art, as it developed from Vasari’s time onwards, was largely founded on greater and greater elaborations of the comparative method. This work of art seems superior to that one, when we put the two of them side by side.
Just at the moment when Modernism in art was overthrowing this long-established methodology, its life was prolonged by the emergence of the fully illustrated art book as an instrument of cultural instruction. We tend, today, to forget how short the dominance of the fully illustrated mass-market art book actually was. It didn’t achieve pre-eminence until after World War II. It is now starting to wither away thanks to the success of the Internet. At the same time, hierarchical models for presenting and evaluating contemporary art, as favored, for example by official museums and their slow moving curatorial committees, look increasingly cumbersome and outmoded.
In my own mind, as a writer of art books, I tend to associate this trajectory with the kind of challenge to agreed stylistic categories and established ways of looking at the world that one finds displayed here. The artists shown are struggling to orient themselves in a world where visual imagery is increasingly fluid. Their virtue is that, each of them in his or her own completely individual way, nevertheless struggles to engage the spectator. Thanks to this struggle, their work continues to evolve as we look at it. Our relationship to what they present us with is never static, always dynamic. The artists’ cure for their aloneness is to ally themselves with ours, with our own uncertainty about where this supposedly Post Modern world is taking us.