The Real Thing

Mollie Rabiner

It goes against my better impulses, but I'm going to climb out on a high precipice for a moment and say that I'm pretty certain, nay, I'm almost positive, that visual art is about to become interesting again. Hard to believe, I know. After all, we're not so many years removed from the programmatic art philosophies of the Nineties, with all their focus on the body, on self-identity, and on dry, deadpan conceptualism. Art has gotten so bad, in fact, that certain art critics (Dave Hickey, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Elaine Scarry) have made their careers out of wondering whatever happened to the actual "art" in art: Where are the beautiful objects, the well-made things that we once knew and loved and long to see again? ¬ Much art in the 1990s was a lot like watching a behind-the-scenes "making of the movie" movie. There were international art star Cindy Sherman's endless photos of herself in ever-more-ridiculous garb. And New York artist Glenn Ligon's "Untitled: Four Etchings," which amounted to nothing more than the phrase "I feel

most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background..." repeated over and over and becoming darker and darker until the last image was just a black piece of paper. This art was so fascinated with itself that it precluded the possibility that it might not be very interesting. Fortunately, relief is on the horizon in the arrival of a new generation of local (and national) artists that seems more outward-looking, inventive, and eager to please. And we can see their ilk in a smattering of shows currently up across the Cities.

Gerald Smith is a prime example, appearing in Soo Visual Art Center's sprawling group show "Untitled 1." He's the standout here: His sculptures are scale replications of actual satellites from the heyday of satellitedom--from Sputnik's launch in 1957 (the year Smith was born) to the satellite race of the early Sixties. But cast in peach-colored rubber, the objects become about something other than the space race. In fact they look like human body parts, reconfigured--all ovoid spheres, connecting rods, plump breasts, flaccid tendrils. These new forms, which seem impossible and ridiculous, speak ironically to the element of hubris in human endeavor. Smith's art amounts to a hyperreal and humorous reexamination of the very idea of a satellite.

Smith, who trained not as an artist but as a scientist, seems attracted to the Big Issues--"biology, cosmology, aesthetics, epistemology," as he lists them--and he's inventive in searching for ways to address such ideas. "Satellites represent something profound for me," says Smith. He speaks of satellites philosophically--how they operate as God did 300 years ago, as a sort of omniscient watcher. But now we're watching ourselves, Smith says portentously.

A few blocks away at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, two artists similarly spin reality on its head in a show called "R.P.M." Mollie Rabiner's Try Your Luck is a reexamination of our country's penchant for carnival barking and confidence games. Using the tools of the sculptor--cast and welded metal, primarily--she has created a coin-operated crane like one you'd find at the county fair, complete with toy prizes inside. The only problem is that though visitors are invited to vie for the prizes, the machine is actually a burlesque, its crane designed only to move up and down. It's all display and no payoff--like much of our entertainment-driven culture.

In the same show, J.J. Peet fabricates fake products--fake money, fake gold bars, obscure x-rays, and medical scans--that seem all too real in these worried days of Homeland Security. Titled collectively the P#2 Project, the work is set on pedestals, in wall-hung light boxes, and on shelves, as if this were a museum display of real cultural detritus. As such, Peet is striking a delicate balance--as do all these artists who deal with the hyperreal. His creations seem real enough in their fabrication to intrigue the viewer and evoke a response, but they can't be so real as to seem mundane.

Fabrication and simulation is at the core of this work, and it is what makes this new art thought provoking. This is fabrication and simulation not simply in the sense of making--all artists make things--but in the sense of deception and pretending, of forging a fake reality. Nationally, this trend seems hot right now, as was evident in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, where artists consciously rejected the heaviness of Nineties styles in favor of work that was inventive, irreverent, and inexplicable. Among the pieces in the Biennial were Roxy Paine's "Bluff," a life-size cast-metal tree installed in Central Park, and Robert Lazzarini's "Payphone," an exact sculptural replication of a pay phone slanted and skewed in a mind-boggling way.

But what to call this new art, assuming it is indeed enough of a movement to take on a label? These artists' theoretical great uncle, the postmodernist thinker Jean Baudrillard, writes of the tendency of modern culture for simulation and hyperreality--trends these artists have picked up on and mimicked. Simulation is, according to Baudrillard, the substitution of signs of the real for the real--think of reality TV, Disney, and the new Las Vegas strip. And while it is possible that these artists may not know Baudrillard from Baudelaire, there is at least enough of a connection here to suggest a potential label for their work: simulage. These artists are simulagists. Their school is simulagism, and their work is very simulagistic. (Ahem. I'll stop there.)

Perhaps the most accomplished simulagist in town is David Lefkowitz, whose show "The Surrounding Area" opened Friday in Project Room One of the Soap Factory. Talking about the show before its final installation, he explained his plan as two-pronged. On the walls will hang two large models of forts--architectural structures made entirely of cardboard boxes, illustrated with schematic diagrams of buildings. Lefkowitz describes it as "a child's fort combined with a Frank Lloyd Wright drawing." On the floor the artist will place an imagined city plan made entirely of Styrofoam packing inserts. "I don't do anything except arrange them as if they are a planner's model of a city grid," he says. "It's sort of a utopian model of a perfect city, but I don't disguise the source of it as Styrofoam garbage. So they hover in between what they are and a bigger vision of space....It's all about the ambivalent relationship human beings have with nature."


There are a handful of other Minnesota artists who have been faking it, so to speak, in recent seasons, and it's worth watching out for their work in upcoming months. Minneapolis artist Chris Larson's convoluted, Rube Goldberg-like, Midwestern inspired contraptions and video performances are making him a name in New York (of all places). Last year St. Paul artist Bruce Tapola created a library/conference-room/research facility, replete with fake books, magazines, and the like, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. And in the just-opened exhibition "The Minnesota Biennial: Sculpture and Installation" at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, Mankato artist James Johnson's "Wormhole" showcases a useless and intriguing wheel-like structure made of aluminum and wood.

By the time you've digested all this simulage, you may be hard-pressed to recall what was the big hullabaloo about Nineties identity art. Alas, we can't escape that easily. Witness Alexa Horochowski's "Vaqueras" (currently running at Franklin Art Works), which represents a good counterpoint to the creativity and exuberance of the above artists. Uninspiring and deadpan, the show is an accretion of four large cowgirl images sketched directly on the gallery walls. The women in these larger-than-life images are drafted in the single contour lines of a paintbrush, and flanked by backdrops of repeating colorful motifs--stars, birds, fake wood paneling. These have been printed from linoleum blocks right onto the wall.

The problem with this pretty but flat show is that once you get past a single-sentence description of the imagery--girls sure are uncertain about their (sexual, racial) identity!--you're not left with much to think about. Yeah, okay, so the girls get to hold the guns here, or act coquettish while they rope each other, their panties exposed by some unseen wind-machine effect, Penthouse-style. So what? I may not be the target audience for this show's sententiousness, but what is there to say about art that cuts off its audience, one person at a time?

The truth is, most of us get over what's underneath our pants and skirts (be it a pistol or a rope) and start looking outward by the time we reach adulthood. Or at least we learn to temper our self-fascination in polite company.

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