Friday, June 26, 2009

Art: Dan Graham at the Whitney

Dan Graham is the ideal candidate for a retrospective at the Whitney; the artist and the institution share all the same character flaws: both are hyper-cerebral, tedious, self-important figures suffering from an identity crisis. Graham is not so much an artist as a scienceless sociologist who flits from medium to medium dabbling in linguistics, anthropology, and other social sciences. One of the retrospective's featured pieces is a video that, according to the wall text, juxtaposes the heady dancing of middle American Shakers with the same of teenagers at Woodstock. This piece is actually a poorly-edited "documentary" filled with pseudo-scientific, politically-motivated, "radical" "insights" (e.g., rock-and-roll is a something created by corporate adults to entertain and thereby control/defang young people. This statement holds some truth, if one removes the term "rock-and-roll" and replaces it with "pop," but Graham overinflates the bogeyman and centralizes it in a big, bad, single-minded and intentional consciousness that just doesn't exist. Most of his work lacks the subtle nuance that would make it potent.

Other work includes a large selection of printed work Graham placed in magazines (the original mock-up of Homes For America, sheets of semiotic "poetry," and ads inviting investors to send money in exchange for shares in Dan Graham (something that Duchamp had done less seriously and with more aplomb artistic eons ago)), a number of mirrored-glass installations (a small-scale fun house version of a Richard Serra, a room behind clear glass through which you see people in the other room, and yourself reflected in the mirror behind them, and a revolving door a guard ushers you through that only has two compartments, as opposed to the usual four), and a number of embarrassingly dated "post-modern" video projections (a filmed performance in which a nude man looked at a nude woman only through a camera, and she looked at her nude self on a television screen playing the camera's recording in real-time, a dual-projection of two nude people (Graham and a woman) holding movie cameras pointed at each other, and a room in which a camera records your image and projects it onto the opposite wall, while a camera on that opposite side of the room records the images of people there and projects it onto the wall on your side).

The issues of space and media and personality and control that Graham keyed into as long as fifty years ago are still very much relevant, if not moreso, in today's society. Unfortunately, Graham's work is too stilted and cerebral, too detached and obtuse, too moralizing and judgemental, to act as potent social criticism. It is too easy to write him off as a disgruntled, nerdy crank who, despite being very much stuck in the aesthetic of the early 1970s, nevertheless has aged without grace and continues to try to be relevant to alternative kids today, including a model skate park graffitied with names of punk bands in his oeuvre.
It's a little embarrassing, but mostly tedious and easy to forget. Poor Dan Graham. Poor Whitney. Both want so hard to be hip and relevant and radical and edgy, but ultimately they are just sort of ugly and boring. Posers, trying too far too hard, look like this.

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