Friday, 3 February 2012

Critic Going Off: A Critique of Cory Arcangel’s Speakers Going Hammer at the Lisson Gallery, October 12 – November 12, 2011

Did I mention that I'm working on my MA? I guess not. That's why I've neglected you, Gentle Reader. Apologies. Anyway, here's a rough copy of a review I haddado for class in early November 2011. Thought I might show it to you, change things up a bit in the subject matter department:

In broaching an attempt to write a review, or better yet, critique of Cory Arcangel's Speakers Going Hammer at the Lisson Gallery, this critic opted to allow the contents of the exhibition to sink in and wash over the psyche in order to compile a fresh, objective approach. Frankly, I had my worries as I found myself ruminating between a brutally honest approach and one based upon my tutor's presumed respect for the artist.

There always exists in my mind two or three worlds of art analysis; the world of the high brow, stately, thoughtful chin scratching analysis, the world of legitimate awe and wonder analysis originating from the depths of my inner child to teen artist who worshipped the greats ("the greats" of course being totally subjective), and the world of the I-love-art-and-everything-but-this-is-bullshit-and-I'm-outta-here analysis. Existing outside of the professional and/or academic art sphere(s) for such a long time has afforded this critic the unchallenging luxury of remaining in those median or latter worlds of art analysis without every having to worry about maintaining diplomatic appearances. Admittedly, as I left Cory Arcangel's exhibition, worries over the possibilities of a need for false diplomacy rose like a bad case of heartburn.

There was a side, a very predominant side, of myself which considered the probablility that I simply hadn't the right, or better yet, the chops to critique any professional "hot shit" artist mainly because I had existed outside of the professional and academic art sphere(s) for so long. Just to cross-check, and possibly broaden my perspective I asked each of my fellow students who had accompanied me to this show what they thought of it. One of them shrugged, another smiled, shook her head, then admitted that she had no idea what the artist was trying to say to her, and another grimaced, shrugged, and then launched into a fragmented and uninspired soliloquy about alleged meaning of the Photoshop CS (2011) series being a criticism of the use of primary colours according to something someone else had said; and then her face drew a blank.

Cory Arcangel's Photoshop CS (2011), Timeless Standards (2011) , and Regular Flex (2011)
Lisson Gallery, London

Many seem to have a fear of admitting when publically sanctioned or popularly endorsed art work doesn't speak to us, particularly if it posesses the combined qualities of minimalism, dubious or ambiguous tone, and especially if the work represents a departure from traditional high art. Often, we feel as though we're missing something; some intellectual or sophistication chip that one needs to posess in order to comprehend works of art whose meanings escape us. Along these lines I can speculate as far as considering the possibility that having been fairly unfamiliar with Cory Arcangel's larger body of work, it is possible that I seem have missed the punch line at the very least, and missed the whole visual language at the very worst - and I do not say this casually; being unfamiliar with an artist's larger body of work can present a significant element of confusion. But I will also admit to feeling slightly ambivilant about works of art which are apt to leave the viewer puzzled and/or uninspired should they happen to be viewed outside of the context of the artist's larger body of work. I tend to be drawn more towards work which stands as strongly on its own as much as it does within the context of the artist's overall body of work.

There are valid questions somewhere therein along the lines of levels of required viewer continuity, ‘good’ art being able to effect a person on a visceral level outside the intellectual minutia and explanations attached to it via authorities and the artist's general body of work, and insider and outsider identities with respect to art viewing; questions which defy definitive answers, especially for a novice. But having mentioned all of the above, permit me to draw nearer to the point and take the proverbial plunge by saying that I found Arcangel's exhibition overall to be uninspiring and lacking a certain depth. 

Cory Arcangel's Research in Motion (2011)
Lisson Gallery, London

To begin, the curatory approach felt fragmented. Arcangel's dancing homage to Sol Lewitt, Research in Motion (2011), bears little aesthetic relationship to anything else in the show. Not that it is of real importance that art objects contained in one show be totally matched up, but this show seemed like such a mishmash that there was a tendency to latch onto that thing which was large and significant enough in physical presence to exist independently and long for some sort of continuation of its aesthetic somewhere else in the exhibition. It is a somewhat interesting piece on its own because of the mesmerizing effect of the motion, if not marked for slight laziness on Arcangel's part for basically commandeering a pre-existing gadget and not really constructing something more original. Of course it could, and will be argued over and over years beyond my existence, that post-post-modern art is marked up and down the road with the presence of readymade art (or ready-bought art). But the common presence of so much readymade art actually enhances the possibility of coming off as unoriginal, pretentious, and flat out lazy, which translates into uninspiring at best, and anger inducing at worst. And that sentiment also goes for the pair of purple Ugg boots (lead ingots or not) featured in A Few Casuals (2011), and the Diet Sprite spraying humidifier, Real Taste (2011) (which emitted a mist which smelled like something found near the bottom of a public toilet). Not to digress, those two pieces were presented in such a way that they appeared to have little to no relationship with each other or with several other (visually anaemic) works, Three Palms, Taurus, Clinton (2011) with which they share a space. 

Cory Arcangel's A Few Casuals (2011)
Lisson Gallery, London

On the subject of Three Palms, Taurus, and Clinton, presumably the viewer is encouraged to consider that these works were produced by the obsolete pencil plotter machine programmed by Arcangel and view them within that context. But they’re flat, depressing, and soulless. Perhaps the evocation of those feelings pinpoints Arcangel’s intention, or perhaps he would just take that sort of response with a good deal of humour over disconcerting viewers. I have read about the theme of delineation of authorship attached to these works, but the interesting thematic goal does not translate into an interesting visual representation; certainly it is possible to accept that it might not be meant to, but if there’s little to no visual interest, no matter how great the ‘concept’, people will end up disappointed, pissed off, and feeling like they’ve been conned.

Cory Arcangel's Clinton (2011)
Lisson Gallery, London

Forward Attitudes (2011) much like A Few Casuals and Real Taste, is another almost ready made pop cultural object with a pair of earbuds outfitted through the drawstrings of a hoodie and some Steely Dan just to tweak it, but that too fell pretty flat. Perhaps the solution would have been to draw these three objects closer together to gain some sort of grasp on them as a collection of passé pop cultural artefacts, if that was his intention (an intention we’ve actually seen over and over at least since mid-Twentieth Century). As they are presented, these objects just feel like lost, half-hearted efforts towards an already exhausted theme – The presence of a passé quality concerning the theme itself is ironic, as the thematic core of this exhibition, at least in part, appears to be asking the viewer to view and consider the presence of objects which are soon to be passé.

Since U Been Gone (2011) reads like a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with a cringe-worthy former American Idol contestant as its original subject. Was it designed to make highbrow art people cringe because of its subject, Kelly Clarkson? Perhaps, but it felt vacuous and dull, though the execution by way of screenprinting and metallic foil on paper is well executed.

Cory Arcangel's  Since U Been Gone (2011)
Lisson Gallery, London

The room containing Self Playing Nintendo 64 NBA Courtside 2 (2011) the Photoshop CS series, the Timeless Standards (2011) series, and Regular Flex (2011) obviously houses works which have a vibrant colour relationship with each other – yellow is the tie in. The color field mimicry is generated with a simple gradient tool, and the pop art mimicry is made via scanning and it seems clear that the simplicity in recreating or mimicking well established mid Twentieth Century art movements is the point. But his color field and pop art mimicry thrown together with the golf clubs and the self playing Shaq game read almost like a spoiled, rich bad lad’s room – and again, perhaps this was his intention overall, especially when one considers the fact that Arcangel’s goals tend to include the exploration of trends and fading trends of pop culture (which one would certainly find in a spoiled bad lad’s room). But is this exploration exciting and punctuated? As far as I’m concerned, no.

Finally, many still draw the distinction between mainstream pop culture and African American pop culture. This distinction is drawn because of the particularly sensitive nature of the African American existence within the dominant culture as a stratified, estranged group who routinely have their art forms (especially music) and colloquialisms appropriated, distorted, and ridiculed on one hand, and popularized and capitalized off of on the other for the benefit of the dominant culture. I find Arcangel's use of the colloquialism, Speakers Going Hammer, to be disturbing. By using an African American colloquialism likely to be unfamiliar to his audience, Arcangel can easily borrow - read appropriate - and capitalize off of the "coolness" of black American culture while standing behind the sheild of polarization which will keep him from ever really being challenged on the authenticity of his use of the figure of speech by the cultural source of the figure of speech.

It should be noted that Soulja Boy may be a “pop star” but he’s still an African American and nothing evidences this more than his music video to Speakers Going Hammer, where he presents the familiar scenario of infiltrating a white, wealthy neighbourhood and winning them over with the power of his beats and ability to party. It’s essentially a fantasy about acceptance and inclusion, both social and economic, which still remain fantasy for many African Americans. Arcangel doesn’t seem to be addressing these sorts of issues with his commandeering of Speakers Going Hammer, he seems to be using the colloquialism to represent pop culture and kitsch. If Arcangel’s overall artistic goal is to explore the relationship between technology and culture, I sure would like to see him explore the concept of appropriation of materials from subcultures and minority groups in the technological age. That would certainly be interesting.

Work like Arcangel’s, while there’s certainly a place for it in the wide world of art, strikes me as part of what I like to call the Anti-Ofili. Chris Ofili can be respected because of his tireless craftsmanship, his technique, his bizarre choice of mediums, his visual originality, his biting, honest, and emotional themes which balance on joy and angst of being the other and being the artist. If I’m being honest, it’s safe to say that I also get the sense of this balance from many other artists from many walks of life, but for simplicity’s sake, I tend to reference the likes of Ofili. What is at hand, for the sake of this examination, is the sort of work which doesn’t require a curator or catalogue to parse the visual language, takes no short cuts (and I’m not referring to the use of new media versus old here – I’m talking about originality), and creates some political tension or deep discomfort. Maybe my trouble is that I need some angst and I don’t get any angst from Arcangel’s work. Maybe Arcangel’s work has created some political tension, but if so, it’s the sort of political tension that I’m tired of experiencing; that which emanates from a privileged class of people making art for the viewing pleasure of a privileged class of people and relies on its ‘edgy’ status because of the fact that it wasn’t traditionally constructed. That simply isn’t enough for me.

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