Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Absurdist Yolk

Compared with New York, California may be a bit starved for culture. There is no equivalent to Brooklyn in L. A., and Los Angelenos suffer a differ type of creative angst. Los Angeles's artists starve in the sun, somewhat less nobly due to the persistence of solar rays and an opportunity to at least give an appearance of health. Although a case can be made otherwise, even San Francisco is slightly anemic.

But San Francisco has former Brooklynite Dave Eggers, founder of McSweeney's Internet Tendency and the writing workshop 826 Valencia. Eggers is cooler than you are. If you can't quite hook up with him intellectually, rest assured that you are in good company. People have died trying, which is why his turn curating an exhibition for apexart in Manhattan is so compelling.

The exhibition, Lots of Things Like This, is deceptively accessible. To begin with, the title sounds like something written by Miranda July. It's an ordinary, unpretentious title that immediately signals an exhibit lacking in academic heft; it's a collection of stuff. You only need to check your erudition at the door to enjoy it, even if halfway through you begin to measure your own artistic merit against its cleverness.

Its casualness belies its content. Lots of Things Like This is a stupendous collection of visual absurdism.

Eggers wanted Lots of Things Like This to be filled with "strange and funny things." To that end he (and two assistants) selected works that met a spare set of criteria. From the brochure, these were: an image, some words (usually referring to the image), and a sense of humor. What Eggers and his cronies selected is the visual equivalent of McSweeney's, meaning that you are alternately thrilled and terrified and well aware of your own shortcomings.

Artists make different kinds of statements, mostly of the non-verbal variety. By specifying the inclusion of narrative, Eggers engaged the work of cartoonists. Although several of these have drifted under the mantle of fine arts, comic art in general has not.

The exhibition includes works from Raymond Pettibon, David Shrigley, Maira Kalman, Tucker Nichols, David Mamet, Kurt Vonnegut, Georges Braque, and Shel Silverstein, among others. Eggers wanted to show to be free from the plague of editorial rhetoric, so rather than making intellectual assumptions he simply admits their humor and then leaves to the observer the task of rationalization. (Hint: There is none.)

Shrigley in particular is a whiz at scratching out the tedium of life, and he does it so adeptly that he comes across as an oracle. Shrigley understands that life isn't pockmarked by dramatic events so much as it is measured in the pedestrian. And that is simultaneously depressing and joyful.

The artist's world is a perfectly ordered mess. No event is too small to be documented. His work is somewhat analogous to horror movies, where the expected, the thing that is taken for granted, becomes threatening. He sketches the stricken so that you are well aware of their burnt edges and he outlines petty imbalances with crude insight and zero sentimentalism.

Fine, you might say. This is the art of tortured souls who have spent far too long a time in damaging contemplation. It's outsider art for and about people who spend all day inside their own heads. Yet Shrigley has a formidable pen: what might appear to be cleverness is its exact opposite. Shrigley's characters are flops at ingenuity. They abandon corporate lifestyles, get ear bones caught in their throats, drum maniacally, and commemorate the death of a pen. In one drawing, a disembodied head stares up at a streetlight, the lamp's glare recalling the hostile sun of The Stranger. In another, someone has a seizure in the middle of a pedicure, as mundane an event and setting as is painfully conceivable.

What Shrigley--and the rest--excels at is conviction in the face of drabness. They don't foreshadow or even say much in the way of what will proceed. Strictly speaking, this is art as amuse-gueule, something to excite the intellect, before a main course of self-deception. Eggers slices clean through Petronius's mundus vult decipi and leaves himself--and us--with only questions, one of which surely must be a quizzical inquiry into the repeat appearance of poultry and eggs.

Lots of Things Like This through May 10 at apexart, 291 Church Street, New York

Images: New Drawings 2007 by David Shrigley,


iñaki said...

Thanks a lot for your comment.
I want you to know that I keep reading "you", but I don't comment because, honestly, I have nothing to say confronted with your excellent writing and brilliant mind.


Thomas said...

Dave Eggers is a rather obvious hero of mine - went to his fundraiser in Seattle with Charlie and it was a wonderful night of entertainment. He has his detractors but I've drunk the Kool-Aid; the world would be infinitely better with more Eggers out there. I wish I could see this show - Shrigley is a kind of mad, child genius. Ideas over form? Or is the form the idea?

Suzanna Mars said...

But Inaki, dear, you are one of my VERY FAVORITE people in the wide and maddening world, and if you don't comment I feel all icy cold inside and rather quite unloved.

I don't mean my posts to be rhetorical; they do need your input and observations. And humor, especially that!

Suzanna Mars said...

Thom, to my mind it is best not parsed in typical artistic terms, and might I recommend this link to the work of Maria Kalman, which is similar yet more stylized:

She has eggs as well. I'm amused at how many birds--poultry especially--pop up in this type of art, and how Shrigley's people often have chicken-like bodies. I don't want to think too much about this.

Bobble Bee said...

let me repeat what dear iñaki has said : I don't comment because, honestly, I have nothing to say confronted with your excellent writing and brilliant mind.

Blue Floppy Hat said...

I've been admiring the work of a few LA-based artists for a while now, and on the whole they seem to be positive about the whole lowbrow scene (Camilla d'Errico and Audrey Kawasaki are two of these)..just an off-topic musing..

MR style said...

i couldnt agree more !! new york is new york and nothin can beat this !!

susie_bubble said...

An exhibition that I'd very much like to see.... I don't mean to parrot on but like others, I feel SM, your posts are so very spot-on and well-thought out, that it just sort of leaves me nodding and agreeing... damnit, you better write something like 'Alexander McQueen is God' and I'll have a barrage of argument to come out with....

Suzanna Mars said...

SB, Alexander McQueen is certainly not God. I am wearing one of his fragrant miscalculations today--the omnipotently horrible Kingdom--and I can tell you that he has a long way to go before attaining any sort of deification.

Sm. said...

I am in the process of googling all the artists you mentioned that will be featured in the show. And also clicked on the click you provided to Maira Kalman's column. I am always impressed by the creative and assorted ways that people use their talents and quilt together "a living" (if I can even use that word). It laughs at the concept of chipping away at One Career, and I love it. Lawyer/blogger/... ?

Iheartfashion said...

I love Maira Kalman! Her "The Principles of Uncertainty" is really fantastic. Sounds like a great show.