Friday, December 16, 2005

Good Stuff, ArtForum

Back in August, I complained about the Art World's celebration of superficiality, using the June 2005 issue of ArtForum as evidence.

"As I flip through [the pages], I find myself wondering what the point is, or thinking about just how very irrelevant most of the artwork is alongside the "real" issues of the day. Obviously, artistic likes and dislikes are subjective, but what I deal with now is best described as Art World ennui."

Well, the seasons, they go round and round. December's ArtForum includes excellent articles and features terrific work. Carol Armstrong, Doris Stevens Professor of Women and Gender at Princeton, writes a brilliant review of the "The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult," on display at the Metropolitan Museum earlier this year; Jeffrey Weiss, a curator at the National Gallery, reacts to the traveling exhibition, "Melancholy: Genius and Madness in the West;" Arthur Danto sharply critiques "Uncertain States of America," until recently on view at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, Norway. Elsewhere in the magazine, Slavoj Zizek writes "Biopolitics: Between Abu Ghraib and Terri Schiavo," an incisive take on the hypocrisy of the "Culture of Life" and the bizarre ethical loopholes rational humans seek when looking for escape from a moral - I'm gonna use a buzz word! - quagmire. Anyway, my August rant seems to have been answered, as the December lineup addresses "the 'real' issues of the day," and does so intelligently.


Last year at this time I didn't read Art Blogs. I didn't know such things existed and, furthermore, Hungry Hyaena was still a couple months from conception. I was a timid, uninitiated participant in the blogosphere - I found it amusing that my buddy, Recon, of Monkeys For Helping fame, ran a blog of his own - but I did visit several sites that provided a range of content, including art and music news. Last December, most of these sites offered "Best of 2004" lists. Curiously, the writers and editors usually seemed embarrassed by their decision to include such a tally, and invariably poo-pooed the practice in their the list. This self-conscious posturing - "Well, I know a Top Ten list is problematic and reductionist, but, hey, everybody's doing it, right?" - irked me and I'm glad to see less of it this year. Whether this means the writers and editors have succumbed to market forces and "listmania," as calls it, or that they've just realized how whiny they sounded a year ago, I don't know.

Which brings me back to ArtForum's "Best of 2005" issue. Frankly, most of the Top Ten lists were rather boring - not bad, just predictable - but I came across a few items that excited me. I was glad to see Matthew Higgs, curator of White Columns, give Kay Rosen props; she is deserving of more attention. (Folks who know how "traditional" my tastes can be might be surprised by my championing of Rosen's work, but she rocks in her own quiet, thoughtful way.) Thelma Golden's picks were satisfying, though I must admit to some bias; I root for her as an Art World personality, even if I sometimes find her language pretentious.

Most exciting, however, were the two works featured below.

Image hosted by

Guy Ben-ner's Treehouse Kit is one of the most compelling performance works I've seen in years. Despite being set in a contemporary gallery, with the standard-issue white walls and cold stone floor, Ben-ner's interaction with the "tree," an assemblage/sculpture that will have IKEA designers drooling, grants viewers a look into the private world of that much beloved literary figure, the Everyman. Relating everything to the self, as we are apt to do, I immediately recall an old artist statement of mine.

"My own opinions and arguments are flawed, of course. Simply because an ideal is unattainable, however, one need not abandon it. In essence, this is the stuff of art – a flawed platform with no up or down, no east or west, on which to build the self and, in turn, shape objects to explain the proposed self. Art reveals the private obsessions of the psyche and better expresses the individual’s inner fragmentation, a consequence of the ideal being at odds with the real."

And yet, Treehouse Kit doesn't only address philosophical contortion or creative effort. Ben-ner's methodical remodelling and retrofitting call to mind a day in the life of anyone - all the little victories, the failures, the ruminations. Watching the video, I suddenly hear in my mind the wretched theme song from America's Funniest Home Videos: "America, America, this is you!" Ben-ner gives us a more generous, honest rendition, something along the lines of "Humanity, Humanity, this is you!," though it sure-fire sounds better than that. Having familiarized myself with a number of Ben-ner's videos over the course of the past year, I'm sold. If I were to make a Top Ten of '05 list - which I won't 'cuz it's so damned passe - Ben-ner would rank near the top.

Image hosted by

Look at the picture above for a moment. Now tell me some piece of you, no matter how buried under years of theory, rhetoric or disillusionment, doesn't warm up to this work, even if it's a melancholy, nostalgic embrace. I doubt many of you can. I don't have much to say about this piece, a giant stuffed rabbit, made by the artist collective, Gelitin, lying on a hillside in Italy. It's funny, surprising and even magical. A lot of reviewers have called it "smart." I disagree. It doesn't have to be. It just is and, in this case, that's enough. I mean, hey, it's a big fucking pink rabbit on a hill! Sometimes you just have to let your inner kid run and jump and scream "Wheeeeeeeeeee!" The hills are alive with ginormous rabbits.

Image hosted by


Michael said...

Two things:
1) That dude makes me want to build one of those in my own house. I've always wanted a jungle gym... especially in these old, high-ceilinged Richmond houses. Done right it wouldn't even interfere with normal, 'floor level' activities.
2)If I'm not mistaken, that bunny's got a flow of innards pouring out of his side. The only thing that could be more fun would be if they could get a coupla A-10 Tank Killers blow the shit out of it. Could be good practice too... Frankly, it's only a matter of time until them terr'ists get an army of giant bunnies.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Yeah, you gotta keep an eye on the giant bunnies. One never knows when they might rise up and attack.

BTW, did you notice the first commenter on the previous post, the silly one about the hydra and the SPAM email? It's someone from Sparkledrive! Not to get all insidery here, but I think you're one of maybe four people in the world who will recall the "fan mail" prank. Whudda thunk that, almost eight years later, I'd hear from someone in the band? Small, funny world.

Michael said...


Michael said...

This morning, as I was eating my toast and listening to the radio, I found myself contemplating one of the main dilemmas with which I struggle. I see elements of this conundrum in both of these works of art, as well as in my own.
Essentially this problem is a struggle between two conflicting mythos. On one hand, I often feel that this world, brutal and terrible as it is, is proceeding As It Should, and the challenge for me lies in accepting it living accordingly. On the other hand, I often feel that... well... we're fuxxed... that the whole thing is about to come crashing down around me, and that we are squarely to blame.
When I am in step with the first mythos, I can savor the world with a certain Tom Waits/Neue Sachlichkeit relish. Its blemishes are its jewels, my painting has some place in the scheme, and I can enjoy things like Christmas or rush hour. When in the throes of the second mythos, I feel doomed. My work is either vain self-indulgence or a desperate attempt to stave off the abyss.
Obviously, the first is much more personable, but is it justified? How does one, as the Buddhists say, joyfully participate in the sorrows of the world?
I dunno, but when I look at enormous eviscerated bunnies and half-naked men in coat-hanger trees, I can't help but think that there is some connection.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Hmmmm....well, I think Tom Waits is a rich musician/song writer because he bridges the divide you describe. Even in his maniacal, Neue Sachlichkeit moments, the associated grin is both that of delirious voluptuary and melancholy boddhisatva.

Now, like you, I just gotta figure out how to embrace both perspectives simultaneously...without going mad. The alternative, the vacillation you described, can make for a rather manic-depressive experience.