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Last updated: June 15, 2011 2:24 pm

Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools, Whitney Museum, New York

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Cory Arcangel accumulates gizmos that inhabit a prestige-free limbo between the new and the antique. He sees something redeeming, even revolutionary, in recently obsolete technology – the kind of stuff that sits in a drawer, waiting to achieve the collectable status of kitsch or memorabilia. In Pro Tools, a disappointing and curiously inert exhibit of his work at the Whitney, Arcangel delights in the way that video games, computers and printers speed toward irrelevance. The show raises the question: is his career following the same path? At 33, he is the youngest artist honoured by the Whitney with a one-person show, and this high point comes not a moment too soon.

A billow of buzz has surrounded Arcangel since his piece “Super Mario Clouds” caused a sensation at the 2004 Whitney Biennial. In that work, which relies on a viewer’s presumably fond childhood memories of Super Mario Brothers, he hacked into the cluttered video game and erased everything but the cartoon clouds. With that stroke of subtraction, he offered a glimpse through the pop-cultural scrim into a sky-blue sublime.

Manipulating, cutting, editing or altering his ready-made sources has become Arcangel’s MO. Like so many of his peers, he traces his lineage back through Warhol to Duchamp. And he doesn’t hesitate to invoke, with a certain facile self-consciousness, other members of the modernist avant-garde. The show’s largest gallery contains a series of 8ft-high pictures that Arcangel made by duplicating, on a huge scale, Adobe software’s default colour gradients. These slickly iridescent prints erupt off the walls, mimicking the colour-field paintings of Mark Rothko or Jules Olitski, but without their warmth or humanity.

Resigned to a stance of cheerful irony, Arcangel seems wistful for the heartfelt ambitions of yore. “Research in Motion”, for instance, invokes the rigorous lyricism of Sol LeWitt. Motorised chrome display stands – the kind used to accent bling in cheap jewellery stores – are stacked into an open edifice reminiscent of LeWitt’s modular structures. The metal bars gyrate lazily to a silent beat. If LeWitt aimed for geometric exaltation, Arcangel settles for the knowing giggle, the art-historical wink.

He is used to allegations of shallowness; a critic once referred to a work of his as a “decorative one-liner” and the comment has dogged him ever since. He claims to embrace that description. “I’m all for it,” he has said. “I think the same joke over and over becomes something eternal.”

Perhaps. Or maybe it just becomes boring, like the repetitive “Volume Management”, in which Arcangel piled cartons of flatscreen TV boxes into a dense wall that diagonally bisects a gallery. The pristine televisions inside grow old without ever having been used. With nods to Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaners, Arcangel serves up the content-free screen as a pop icon. It is the medium of mediums, on to which we project our collective fantasies. Blankness is the message. But then Arcangel follows this short train of thought a little further and keeps the powerful screen confined in its cumbersome packaging. Get it? Maybe there is no screen in there at all: we are projecting empty lives on to a non-existent surface! That is a pretty depressing punch line.

Arcangel can be witty, too, and one of his funnier works comments knowingly on his own penchant for knowing commentary. In “There’s Always One at Every Party”, he has made an artwork out of making art about art. Or maybe there are two or three more turns of the self-referential meta-wheel in there, but they get harder to detect. Remember the recurring motif in the 1990s sitcom Seinfeld, in which Kramer conceives of publishing a coffee-table book about coffee tables? So does Arcangel, and here he has strung together every scene in which that project is mentioned, in a crescendo of hilarity.

Cory archangel
 Old tools: ‘Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ)’ 2011

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The problem with this particular piece is that it doesn’t make you want to see more Arcangel; it just whets the appetite for more Seinfeld. Referential works often count on the irresistibility of a classic. But the danger lurking in all quotation is that the quoted can upstage the quoter. Arcangel tends to prompt such tail-chasing thoughts.

The most ambitious work in the show is “Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ)”, in which a series of palaeolithic games, from a 1977 Atari 2600 to a 2001 Nintendo GameCube, are projected on a long gallery wall. You cannot play these games, though: the viewer merely watches the avatar of some absent and utterly hopeless player roll balls into the gutter, time after time. The digital humanoids on the screen express frustration in an escalating spiral of misery. In early games, the figure merely slumps dejectedly; in the most recent, he goes into violent spasms.

The sequence cries out for an extra helping of theory-laden commentary, and the Whitney thoughtfully provides one in the form of a wordy text panel. But at the heart of Arcangel’s metaphor is the simple, paralysing feeling, familiar to most creative people, of having run out of ideas. The same tools that nourish his technique also make it virtually impossible to be original, as Arcangel admits.

“The internet makes it very hard to keep ahead,” he told an interviewer recently. “The question of who ‘did’ something is moot. It’s just guaranteed that any idea you have has been executed by some kid somewhere. I mean, where is art left when everyone is a producer?”

Arcangel is fishing for the obvious one word answer: talent. The difference between assiduous Photoshoppers and true auteurs should be self-evident on the walls of the Whitney but, unfortunately, it is not. In the end, the outsized dimensions of Arcangel’s work cannot disguise the minuteness of its inspiration.

Continues until September 11

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