Isa Genzken, MoMA, New York – review

Isa Genzken, little known in the US, makes a messy splash at the Museum of Modern Art with the jerry-built things she fashions out of trash and tape. They’re intentionally ugly, indifferently assembled and manically exuberant, and in their brutish way tell us something uncomfortable about the world. A typical piece elevates an old slot machine into an altarpiece, plastered with snapshots and topped by a portrait of the 65-year-old German artist herself.

This freewheeling improvisation makes the MoMa show diverting, if not all that good. Genzken dips lazily into kitsch. She weighs her most delicate constructions down with crude political messaging. Spontaneity devolves into sloppiness. For an artist who seems to approach her work philosophically, she can seem remarkably superficial.

The show begins with the products of a disciplined, fastidious mind: long, quasi-minimalist wooden lances milled, sanded and lacquered to a dazzling gloss. But Genzken keeps reworking her style, doggedly manoeuvring out of ruts. Even as she was working on these giant’s toothpicks in the early 1980s, she was already transitioning into a phase that seemed like a stern self-rebuke, stacking rough, ungainly concrete blocks on black steel stands. These pieces have the look of architectural relics – surreal remnants of a bombing raid, perhaps. Genzken invoked the most naked, rudimentary elements of architecture; she found “the core structures of new buildings more interesting because the rational thinking of the engineers has more to do with truth than the routine masking of the facades with pseudo-precious materials”. Yet the pieces don’t look rationalistic or efficient. Rather they suggest crude defences, hurriedly erected under fire. They carry a memory of violence.

By 2000, Genzken’s roiling undercurrents erupted in an installation with an unprintable title that, shall we say, rejects the Bauhaus. Her hostility seems directed less at the prewar German school than at its heirs, the clean-lined modernist buildings that give so many central business districts their homogeneous air of money. Using cardboard, plywood, plastic and assorted oddments, she slapped together a lunatic city, something a group of architecture students might have produced with an X-Acto knife, a box full of bric-a-brac and an ample stash of drugs. A miniature red skyscraper sprouts a stretched-out Slinky. Clamshells encrust a yellow façade. A cylindrical tower of discs sports a set of blades from a desk fan; it’s as if in a child’s fantasy, the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles had acquired a rooftop wind turbine.

The piece is not so much postmodern as post-everything, a frantic, angry urban vision fuelled by nihilistic inertia. Genzken got to know New York in the late 1970s, and, like many artists of her generation, she was drawn by the scent of decay and the chaotic energy of the streets. Those were the years when Rem Koolhaas wrote his ode to irrational urbanism, Delirious New York. Gordon Matta-Clark was chain-sawing away chunks of abandoned buildings and, out in California, Frank Gehry festooned his house with chicken wire and plywood. Genzken arrived late to this rough-hewn revolution, and by the time she exhibited the anti-Bauhaus work in 2000, it snarled helplessly at the deluxe sleekness that was taking over both the cities where she spent time, New York and Berlin. In particular she saw the new glass-and-steel Potsdamer Platz as an egregious act of sanitised reconstruction. It’s hard to escape the irony of seeing her work collected at MoMA, the art world’s ultimate embodiment of corporate seamlessness.

Genzken has lived in New York off and on, and she has spent a lot of time wandering around the city with a point-and-shoot, taking pictures so haphazard that they seem practically inadvertent. Most are of buildings. I keep looking at them to see if I can pick up some hidden deftness, some camouflaged brilliance that would warrant their presence in a museum instead of, say, an overstuffed drawer along with the electric bills. Genzken is intent on celebrating amateurishness, including her own; MoMA, on the other hand, blows them up to poster size, giving them a misplaced monumentality.

In 2007, the New Museum mounted an exhibition called Unmonumental, in which 30 artists pursued the anti-masterpiece. Genzken’s untidy assemblages fitted comfortably there, and one of that show’s curators, Laura Hoptman, organised this one, along with Sabine Breitwieser, Michael Darling and Jeffrey Grove.

Genzken’s portentous mishmash reached its apotheosis after 9/11. “The American Room”, from 2004, is a collection of symbols in search of a cogent statement. Two rows of pedestals bearing an assortment of allusive ornaments – plastic eagles, miniature suitcases, magnetic-stripe cards, a model police car – lead to an executive desk where Scrooge McDuck brandishes a fistful of dollars. Genzken has rounded up the usual evils of American jingoism and insatiable capitalism into an installation that Hoptman insists is not “a simplistic screed”. She doth protest too much.

The “Empire/Vampire” series, apparently inspired by the US military response to the World Trade Center attacks, is even blunter. Episode VII is a mirrored, blood-spattered diorama featuring a pair of running shoes that have been ripped open so that they gape like open jaws. One chews on a toppled goblet, the other spits out wounded wildlife, and the scene is strewn with miniature rubble and the gory cadavers of toy soldiers. It’s hard not to read this work like some Maoist billboard parable: Consumerist Imperialism Trampling the World.

In the view of her champions, such savage outbursts are perfectly natural reactions to what the art historian Benjamin Buchloh calls “the terror of mass consumption”. Genzken’s rages should provoke our empathy; she is suffering artistic PTSD, caused by the world’s excess of shopping. And yet as she gropes for a way to process this horror, she comes up with confusion. It’s unfortunate that one of the byproducts of global capitalism appears to be her constant sense of personal aggrievement, but surely that’s a weak justification for her slipshod craft and hectoring incoherence.

Until March 10,

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