NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, New Museum, New York

Art lovers who feel too cosseted by New York’s sleek and superheated gallery scene might head over to the New Museum, which is celebrating the authentically gritty city of 20 years ago in a shrill and sour new show. NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star returns to a moment, just before the Clinton/Giuliani boom, when murder rates were buoyantly high, parks were spangled with crack vials, and disaffection wafted through neighbourhoods that were doomed to become rather nice.

“Although I missed out on that period in New York, I’ve always imagined it as the last bohemia,” muses Massimiliano Gioni, one of the organisers. To bolster that notion, he has assembled a cabinet of grunge: grainy photos of Aids patients, snapshots of body parts, portraits of dismembered mannequins, handwritten journals, pages of crossed-out print, low-def videos and so on. It’s tough to romanticise a time that produced such unsentimental art, but Gioni and his co-curators do their best.

Nostalgia almost always involves gazing at a particular time through the prism of the ensuing years, and NYC 1993 is deeply ambivalent about its chosen moment. It begins with a video timeline of human events (remember Bosnia?) and artistic landmarks such as that year’s much-reviled Whitney Biennial. The implication is that culture grappled with politics and embraced global complexity; instead, the show chronicles a bout of intense navel-gazing. One vast wall is devoted to Sean Landers’ “Improbable History”, a wall-sized grid of yellow sheets torn from a legal pad and filled with illiterate confessions and vapid minutiae – the journal transfigured into billboard. Meanwhile, everything beyond the studio recedes into insignificance. Robert Gober captured, and maybe mocked, that self-confining spirit in “Prison Window”, a square of painted sky glowing beyond jail bars, high on a gallery wall.

Much of the exhibition is stuck in the bedroom, or thereabouts, dwelling on the joylessness of sex. One gallery is suffused by the soundtrack from Lutz Bacher’s looped video clip of William Kennedy Smith on the witness stand, relentlessly repeating “my penis”. That mantra makes it difficult to focus on Paul McCarthy’s “Cultural Gothic”, a sculptural automaton of a man resting his hand on the shoulder of a young boy who couples mechanically with a stuffed goat; or on Patricia Cronin’s Polaroid crude anatomical close-ups of her love life; or on Cheryl Donegan’s “Head”, a brief but still overlong video of the artist guzzling a creamy liquid as it squirts from a plastic jug.

Art about sex isn’t about sex, of course, but about gender roles, subjugation, identity, the body and various other concepts explained in the indispensable text panels. The great innovation of the early 1990s was art that required written translation – John Miller’s “Clubs for America”, for instance, a suite of ugly photos of dreary locations. Their meaning resides in the wall labels, which explain that each is a view of a gay bathhouse, shuttered in the age of Aids. Unfortunately, what we’re shown and what we’re told doesn’t add up to a whole artistic experience. Once you’ve read the text, you return to the pictures, only to find them untransformed.

If NYC 1993 has little to say about the world at that time, it suggests plenty about New York’s evolution since then. It tells of a fall from gracelessness, from interesting dereliction to bland luxury. (It is an irony that the New Museum went up on the Bowery in 2007, contributing to the gentrification it’s now busy deploring.) The scholar Megan Heuer writes in a catalogue essay that the city has, in her opinion, been scrubbed shallow: “that old sadness and profundity . . . have largely disappeared.” At the time, though, most artists didn’t see their lives through the lens of poetic melancholy. They were bellicose and cerebral. The show’s logo could be David Hammons’ decapitated sweatshirt hood, whose title, “In the Hood”, puns on fashion, race and urban geography.

Even the gruesome year of 1993 had its subtler spirits, and their shoots of humour and evocativeness poke up amid the hectoring. The finest moment of quiet poetry is a high-ceilinged gallery papered with two billboard-sized photographs by the young Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of Aids just three years after making them. In one, a bird is silhouetted against lowering clouds; in the other, it wings into a patch of distant brilliance. Another Gonzalez-Torres piece hangs in the same space, a chain of light bulbs cascading from the ceiling to the floor. The whole room – immense black-and-white photos, bright orange carpet and that electric wreath – is elegiac and touchingly indirect.

Pepón Osorio’s installation “The Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?)” allows a peek into an apartment furnished with an “I-Spy”-like profusion of tchotchkes. The scene is ghoulish and vital at the same time. A body lies covered on the floor and the walls are spattered with blood, but I loved the baroque exuberance, the radio playing salsa, the invitation to deduce whose lives were lived (and ended) among so many mementos. At the 1993 Whitney Biennial, Osorio remarked that “it almost felt as if I’d taken a piece of the South Bronx and placed it in the middle of Madison Avenue.” The piece’s charm comes from the richness of domestic detail, the sense that the home’s invisible inhabitants exist outside the artist’s head.

An even more refined take on the exhibition’s gross-out culture is Janine Antoni’s “Lick & Lather”, a chorus line of deceptively serene busts made of dark chocolate and white soap. They are all identical self-portraits, except for the colour and the smell – and the various ways foreheads are eroded, eyes blinded and noses literally eaten away. The statues are not timeworn or vandalised like the marble statuary they resemble, but lovingly pre-effaced.

All these strands of mournfulness, wordiness, roughness and improvisation come together disarmingly in the work of Gillian Wearing, who accosted people on the street, persuaded them to write a sudden, honest thought on a scrap of cardboard, and got them to pose for her camera with their instant signs. There’s a raw poignancy to her shot of a well-put-together young man in a dark suit displaying a Mona Lisa smile and a card saying “I’m Desperate”. It makes you wonder whether, two decades later, he’s found a little peace – and, if so, whether that would make him less useful to the cause of art.

Until May 26,

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