Sunday, November 28, 2010

[Untitled] Art Blog Post

Still image from Untitled, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. No, really funny, ha-ha funny, not funny-peculiar. We streamed an indie film from Netflix, called [Untitled]. That's the title: [Untitled]. It's set in the contemporary New York art world. Out last year, it stars Adam Goldberg, Marley Shelton, and Eion Baily, with a supporting role by Vinny Jones. The film is laugh-out-loud funny, if you've ever had anything to do with art, or wondered why some things get chosen as 'avant garde' and others get passed over. [My site-safety software has tagged the movie's web site,, as "untrustworthy", so I'm not sending you there, but here's a trailer from youtube:]

Adam Goldberg plays Adrian, a struggling experimental music composer. He drops lines like "melody was invented by corporations to sell pianos" as death knells to tonalism, the professional 'outsider.' His compositions feature wailing, torn paper, the sound of a metal bucket being kicked, and clarinet. He becomes involved with Madeleine, the Chelsea-style gallery owner that is representing his brother Josh, a commercially successful abstract painter whose work is bought in the back room, in large quantities, by corporate collectors who are looking for big, colorful works that blend into bland hotel lobbies. (Ouch.) Josh is expecting a solo show in the gallery, but Madeleine keeps turning him down in favor of showing her cutting-edge artists, like Ray Barko (Vinny Jones).

Ray, the super-self-assured artist arriviste is the kind of prima donna who spouts paradoxical nonsense like "history doesn't influence me -- I influence it." Barko's over-the-top work features taxidermy animals: a stuffed baboon smooching a vacuum cleaner, a deer in a barber's chair looking at his bleeding severed ear in a mirror, or a bobcat nailed to the wall, pheasants impaled in walls, or raccoons hanging from chandeliers festooned with pearls. His character's lines draw undoubtedly intentional comparisons to Damien Hirst, but it's worth noting that the work, as it was created for the movie by artist Kyle Ng, had more to do with the fact that Ng had a large collection of taxidermy than to the demands of the script (or producers), who originally asked for repulsive fountains and such.

The movie punches right through the issues of commercial art vs. high art, and the industry's fixation on celebrity and notoriety. It gleefully sends up the gallery scene, conceptual artists, speculating patrons, and the length and breadth of artistic angst and the desire for an audience. Untitled had us laughing and wincing, alternating between familiar hilarious absurdities, and the sting one feels from seeing someone you can't help but identify with, get slapped in the face by an uncaring world. Some characters worked their hearts and brains out, and failed to get a second look, but others, whose work seemed to be no work at all, are lauded as genius. I happily give it four stars, highly recommended for this audience.

Mass MoCA Strikes Back

The first time we got up to the Berkshires, we had time for the Clark Institute (tons of beautiful, classical European 14th-19th century work), and on the same day, a quick dash through the Williams Museum of Art (a fine collection of post-war modernist through post-minimalist work plus some themed post-modern shows), and that was it. Mass MoCA lay tantalizingly untasted, a few miles down the road. So, the MoCA was on the top of my list this time around.

I couldn't wait to see the Sol Lewitt retrospective [which turned out to be more conceptual than minimalist], was intrigued by the notion of an exhibit from Leonard Nimoy [which turned out to be a terrific notion executed with good technique, but little depth], and figured I'd have little interest in the material/process works [which proved to be wrong - it was very interesting]. I was hoping against hope that there might be some painting displayed, but understood that would be a long shot, since painting [have you heard?] is dead. [I did find paintings, in a back room. I'll try to post about that another time.]

The ground floor was allocated to "Petah Coyne: Everything That Rises Must Converge," a solo exhibition...

Image: Mass MoCA

Yes. Those are taxidermy animals. Melinda said, "Oh my God. Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

I said, "Wait, is this a joke?"

Other pieces featured a dozen peacocks in a jet-black iron tree. There were taxidermied pheasants, and ducks. Another involved ropes of pearls, and a chandelier. A bobcat and a bat made appearances. On entering the gallery, I had crossed a twilight line into a surreal, ultra-vivid version of Untitled. We walked about, counting coincidences, jaws slack, eyebrows raised. At any moment, one of the security people was going to turn to me and say, "You have an eye."

Even the gallery representing Coyne is in New York. [But then, how could it not be?] Suddenly cast into a satire, we laughed, snickered and coughed in our sleeves as we went from room to room.

Ray Barko lives!

Yes, the work is serious, and has an ominous presence of its own. Like "Untitled #1240 (Black Cloud)" it is uncomfortable, and the animals are posed in feral stances, mid-flight, fighting or mating. Some are half submerged, suffocating in fountains of waxed flowers. Black velvet and black forge dust soaks up the light and defies attempts to see it as more than a silhouette. It is a struggle of life and death. With a lot of death. But. it's. Barko.

Please understand, this isn't about the value, effectiveness or merit of the work. It's about the fact that we'd just had work like this broadly satirized, as over-the-top shock and awe art. With that frame, we were completely unable to see the work without referencing the joke, and so, we were thoroughly inoculated from being able to take it seriously. Just the fact that it made us 'uncomfortable' was a joke. As one buyer said in the film "It makes me deeply uncomfortable. And I think of that as a sign of the quality of the work."

MoCA said photos were allowed upstairs, but not in the Coyne show, which I take as an attempt to 'protect' the work from overexposure. Yet, when the most cutting-edge work in the museum screams "derivative" because of a parody film, it doesn't feel like it's cutting edge, regardless of who had the chicken, and who had the egg. It seemed like a parody of ... itself.


Barbara Muir said...

Hi Edgar,

I'm going to go and watch the film in a minute, but I wanted to comment first in case the short day with my son home before we drive him to the bus makes me forget. One of the loneliest periods of my life was just after university when I worked in a coffee shop at a golf club (I don't golf) in London, Ontario. I was living with a boyfriend, and London was supposed to be a mecca for artists. But the only artist I met through my musician boyfriend was a woman whose "art" consisted of stuffed Holstein still born calves standing in shattered mirror pieces. I spent such a depressing day with her, because I guess my idea of art was European, and painterly, and I loved Claes Oldenberg, but he was making something. So I'm not offended by modern art at all, but these poor stuffed beautiful calves
(one was two headed) were the grimmest examples of art I'd seen to
that point. I don't think painting is dead Edgar. Well at least not here, and I can't wait to see the movie. Not a big fan of Taxidermy. Not getting my horse, or dog, or cats stuffed for prosperity. But I do know someone else will think that whole idea is way cool. And I hope the girl with the stuffed cattle has moved on and had great success. By the way I love a roasted red pepper stuffed with rice. So it isn't the stuffing part that repels me.

Great post. I'll write more later. You made me laugh so hard remembering my tough slog in London.

Take care,


Barbara Muir said...

Hi Edgar,

I watched the trailer, and loved it. True, the past doesn't influence me, I influence it. That sounds like the "now" writing exercise I get my students to do in their journals. The impossibility of recording "now".
I am on the new art wavelength eh?

(Canadians say eh? It means 'don't you think?' in this context).

Great post.


Edgar said...

I'm glad this post kept you so engaged, and really love the anecdote.

I guess my poke at "painting is dead" is kind of tied into this entire swarm of ideas that we both seem to be talking about: what is in or out, what is "acceptable" and what is "not to be taken seriously." Obviously, painting isn't dead. Only a person who is completely out of touch with the zeitgeist would make such a claim -- probably while claiming we were out of touch with the zeitgeist, which I predict, based on the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Barbara Muir said...

Hi Edgar,

Okay, is my insecurity a sign of competence? Too scary. Keep on keeping us thinking.

Back to marking.


Edgar said...

Hi Barbara,
It's a good sign to have, considering the alternative. Although, I've had a sudden upsurge of confidence in the last couple of days, because I've been getting encouragement and positive outcomes... does that mean I'm becoming less competent with each success? Gah! Psychology sucks. I think I'll stick with making marks (albeit, not the marking you're talking about).

Anonymous said...

What a riot! How could such a huge coincidence occur?! Hey man, what is the universe trying to tell you guys?

When I had that unpleasant experience with the Art Rep in L.A. and left feeling despondent, I looked her up online. Can you guess what kind of art she likes to rep? I'm pretty sure she believes painting is dead. If she doesn't think so, then she's definitely trying to kill it.

I can't wait to order "Untitled". Excellent post! Made me kinda uncomfortable... must be good.

Melinda said...

I still laugh out loud, shake my head, grin again, look askance, and ask the same question Silvina asked, "What is the universe trying to tell us"?!

We must own the movie someday...

Do you remember how we whispered, "Ray Barko, Ray Barko," as we plodded from room to room, mouths agape and eyes bugged?

'Twas great fun. I love Mass MOCA!

Great post, E. Could not have told the story as well as you have.

Thinking of a number of answers.........

Anonymous said...

You guys, I just finished seeing "Untitled"! Brilliant! I have to buy it. My dog Bijoux watched it with me because Josh's music caught her attention (don't judge her, she's just a pup).

There's just too much I want to comment on! The gallery owner's noisy apparel, the creep with the push pin, the restaurant scene when Josh plays the piano! Every character was perfectly imperfect.
Thank you so much for bringing this movie to my attention!

p.s. I'm convinced the baboon was using the vacuum cleaner as a makeshift hookah.

Edgar said...

The universe is certainly an odd place. One thing that nags: if Barko was a parody, and the film was made before Coyne made these pieces... is Coyne's work actually an extended parody of the over-the-top work in Untitled?

It's really too many layers of meaning for my poor little head.

On your 'rep' and her elitism: remember Eleanor Rooseveldt's warning, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." And no one can kill painting, if artists are still painting. It would be a nonsensical claim.

Edgar said...

Mass MoCA was definitely a highlight of the trip. As we both noted, the work in the Clark was looking alternately flawed and dated, and the MoCA was challenging our interaction with space and objects in a very refreshing way.

And then there were the restrooms.

Edgar said...

Melinda and I have taken up a new catch phrase: listening to music, when we hear a new song that is almost—but not quite—excellent, one of us will invariably say, "That song needs more bucket."


Anonymous said...

"more bucket" ha! Around here we say "more cow bell" (SNL skit). said...

Best line in the movie is "I have a Plan" and it's response. Thank you for posting the clip. I always think that "shocking" art is a young , out of art school - look at me scream, eventually everyone settles down and finds a mainstream "product". Too bad, "shocking art" can be so fun.

Edgar said...


Thank you for finding me, and welcome!

When you say "Mainstream product"... is that like "melody" in music? [Which as they say in the movie, is "nothing but a conspiracy by corporations to sell pianos."]

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