May 15th, 2006


Nice twee experimental stuff for good-hearted, shy people

One of the things the Unreliable Tour Guide says, in as quiet a voice as possible, when passing through Lucas DeGiulio's room at the Whitney (green bottles set into the wall offering views of a parallel world, twigs in pots) is that since delicacy, fragility and sensitivity are the ultimate taboos in this loud, brash world of ours, this is the most subversive work in the Biennial. And, you know, I sort of believe him. I mean... me.

On Saturday I left the Whitney early and headed for Chelsea. Because of my working hours, I haven't really had time over the last couple of months to comb through the commercial galleries in the world's densest art district. I only managed to see about a third of the shows before heading for Stux on West 25th to see an excellent Tamy Ben-Tor performance, but I thought I'd make some big generalisations here and just say that I thought the work I did see in the commercial galleries fell into four broad categories:

1. Parody-politics-porno-kitsch-satire-revulsion. This is bitter, cartoony work which hates yet also celebrates an age of cynicism. It's libertarian, but also attacks right wing libertarians, whose energy it cannibalizes in a rather disturbing way. It could be Ashley Bickerton depicting fat Western slobs on Bali or Ivan Witenstein's rambunctuous show at Derek Eller Gallery, "Infidelicious, U2, peace and other queer shit, Bonding across lines of difference. The abortion of cool, Grey Broadway, It's a ghetto sound wave now!" It shades off into a land of goofy, dorky cartoon imagery, like Sean Landers' drowning pig-beast or Uwe Henneken's funny Bob Ross-plus-goofy face paintings at Andrew Kreps (see photo above, right, also featuring Tracy Nakayama's reworkings of "The Joy of Sex"). Somehow all this imagery strikes me as manic, and I switch it off the way I switched off a one-hour Terry Gilliam animation special the other night on TV. It's just too violent and idiotic, even in its apparent condemnation of violence and idiocy.

2. Formalistic, rather dull. Helen Verhoeven at Wallspace might be an example, or some painter I saw whose gimmick is to paint the effect of shuttling a VHS video tape forward. This is mostly painting that looks like other painting. There are lots of rather dull galleries in Chelsea that show work that's probably worth a lot of money, or sells well, but just has this "art inspired by other art" look to it. It feels remote, academic and head-in-sand, not particularly trendy or angry or... well, anything, really. You walk in and walk out.

3. 80s-style glossy agit-prop liberalism-guilt, plus "world art". Jenny Holzer's show at Yvon Lambert sets the tone: Holzer has blown up classified documents about human rights abuses in Iraq. The show crackles with self-righteous anger. Or perhaps the Palestine show I saw on West 26th Street sums it up: pieces made by Palestinians, not particularly remarkable as art, but remarkable for their origin in a troubled warzone. This is art angry New York Democrats can get behind. Not nihilistic, guilty.

4. Twee, lyrical, funny, gentle, whimsical, poetic. Art for tender-minded introverts! This is where we came in! Lucas DeGiulio's work fits this category, and so do my friend Yuh-Shioh Wong's paintings. Roberta Smith in the New York Times was slightly impatient: "Ms. Wong's work falls into the overpopulated category of small, endearing, casually improvised art that seems to long for a lost childhood, but one hopes she is just passing through this stage... But her tendency toward cuteness is balanced by a likable recklessness and a clearly confident sense of color, scale and touch." It needn't be painting, though. Michael Bell-Smith's electronic work, shown at Foxy Production (a nice, twee gallery with good taste for good-hearted, shy people, the same way Tomlab is a nice, twee experimental label with good taste for good-hearted, shy people) is probably my favourite thing I saw in Chelsea this weekend. The Little Prince-like character above is a piece of his. It reminds me a bit of the work of my San Francisco friend Sean Talley. Sean makes absurdly, cutely reduced video games (follow the link to play one). He's also the boyfriend of Hikaru Furuhashi, who I blogged about in my Hello (and goodbye) flowers! piece about art and ethics.

This gentle, twee sensibility is, it seems to me, both playful and ethical. It's also thoroughly Japanese in its tender lyricism. Another American who's come to these values by way of a Japanese girlfriend is Lullatone's Shawn Seymour (actually, I believe he's now married to Yoshimi). A Japanese friend who makes work very much in this spirit is Tam Ochiai, who shows at Team Gallery. Words like "eccentric" and "fragile" come up in descriptions of Tam's work. I feel like he's "one of us" in the sense that he used to date Takako Minekawa, and his concerns are familiar to anyone who's been immersed in her 90s albums "Roomic Cube" and "Cloudy Cloud Calculator". I stole some of his puns when I put together the Mashroom Haircat project in Tokyo in 2001 with Emi Nekozawa, the cat girl ("haircat" is a Tam motif).

Tam dropped by the Whitney last week and we shared a cup of tea. He's a shy and attractive, somewhat feminine man, someone I'd fall for easily if I were a shy and attractive feminine girl (and Japanese). We'd go shopping together, at Agnes B, then buy some cakes. No doubt we'd be as wispily cute as the couple in Tam's little book, published in 2005 by Little More and Team, "Tail Tale". It's as cutely formalistic as you might expect. The story is of two friends, ttt and mmm. They're girls, and cats. They eat a lot of cakes together, and count the stars, and hook on different colours of tail each day. The atmosphere evokes Alice in Wonderland, Calvino's Cosmicomics, Olive magazine, Queneau's Zazie on the Metro...

I sat in a congee restaurant in Chinatown yesterday, feeling a bit frail, reading "Tail Tale", and was charmed, heartened and healed. The book felt like the biggest "fuck you" to war and brashness and violence anyone could deliver, and yet it wasn't saying "fuck you" at all. In fact, it was saying:

"Without meaning anything in particular, mmm said to ttt: "I really want to go to Brazil." ttt also thought that Brazil sounded good. It would probably be a lot of fun. Look at Brazilian music and you realize that somehow there is something just slightly sad about it. And what sort of tail do you suppose is fashionable in Brazil? Tails striped like school jackets in England, only with lots and lots of colors, etc."

There's also a character called Mr Beaver and one called Mr Squirrel, and they play chess. Whenever Mr Beaver is about to lose at chess he plucks out his cream-coloured front teeth and uses them as chess pieces. You have to read it for yourself, it's totally subversive!