In October, I found myself in New York City with a few days off in between work projects. I therefore decided to spend some time exploring Euro-NY connections, by charting an expedition into the heart of the city’s visual art world. I aimed to discover which younger European artists were being represented in New York galleries this autumn and what kind of commentary their work was making. This interested me both for the opportunity to learn about new artists as well as to see which kind of art is traveling outside of Europe to major centres like New York.
There are about 1,500 art galleries operating in NYC, so to reduce the enormous selection I downloaded the fabulous (and free) See Saw app – a guide to contemporary art galleries in New York and Los Angeles. From there, I made an itinerary of spaces exhibiting works by European artists. There were plenty of big names like Magdalena Abakanowicz, Richard Long, Alberto Burri, Gego, COBRA and even Banksy, but my personal mission was to see output of younger artists. I whittled down the list by age. Finally, armed with dozens of addresses and high hopes, I set off to see the galleries.
I saw painting, photography, sculpture, installations, drawing, video art and more; by artists originating from all over the European continent. There was no lack of young names, and one certainly noted the enduring allure of the “old world” – Europe still has enormous caché. However, I am afraid to report that of the near-100 artists whose work I saw exhibited in 30-odd venues, there were only a handful that I found compelling. Generally, the art was palatable and innocuous; very few pieces could be called awe-inspiring, daring or even thought-provoking.
As New Yorker David Byrne so acidly summed up in a great essay titled I Don’t Care About Contemporary Art Anymore?: “I go into a gallery now and—rightly or wrongly—immediately think, ‘inoffensive tchotchkes’.”
That’s pretty much exactly how I felt.
New York is one of capitalism’s beating hearts, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the selections of its art world reflect this. However, as a person who lives in Europe and has a voracious interest in art, I feel rather justified in saying that here, too, the challenging, exhilarating and risk-taking work remains vastly overshadowed by the prepotence of the mainstream. That “inoffensive” and vendable mainstream. Unfortunately, this is true even in the up-and-coming generation of artists.
Nevertheless, in this Big Apple quest, I did happily encounter a few eye-catching and bold exhibitions – the exception to the rule.
Here were my favourites:
Artist: Martin Roth (b. Graz)
Exhibition: untitled (debris) at Louis B. James
Martin Roth’s installation at the Louis B. James gallery was a standout to me, for the artist’s virtuosic and daring use of the space. He designed untitled (debris) specifically for this gallery, in an installation included live parakeets and bullfrogs. The floor of the main space was covered in concrete and stone debris. Above, on exposed pipes near the unfinished ceiling, a dozen parakeets rested or flitted about, free to move around as they wished. (Perhaps intra-species art with an ornithological bent is a new European artistic trend—a few years ago, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot created a “live” sound sculpture with zebra finches, see here or here). The pitch-dark basement downstairs was filled with 25 centimeters of water and 10 bullfrogs, whose periodic croaking vibrated through the marshy air. Despite rather harsh lighting, the installation and its accompanying soundtrack (a slowed-down recording of a young Syrian refugee playing the harmonica) encouraged a pensive viewing on war and domestication, much in contrast to the hustling city just outside the gallery doors.From the press release: “Entering the main space, viewers encounter a desolate landscape of crumbling masonry and sand, partially brought to New York from a destroyed building from the conflict in Syria. The scene is unsettling yet familiar; it resembles any number of conflict zones we are accustomed to viewing on the nightly news. Yet the space houses unlikely occupants: colourful parakeets that roost on the pipes and ducts of the gallery’s bright ceiling, using the debris as their litter.”
Artist: Piotr Uklański
Exhibition: Collages at Nahmad Contemporary (b.Warsaw)
From the press release: “The white lines of the torn edges, generally associated with scraps and failed attempts, are used to construct seductive images of landscapes, lightning bolts, bombs and other imagery frequently alluding to war and environmental disaster.”
These pieces were as interesting to me for the techniques and colour palettes used as their content. Borders, white spaces and subtle paper textures work together to create an atmosphere reminiscent of children’s art. The colours themselves are innocent and cheerful while the subject is often foreboding.
Artist: ELEKTRA KB (b. Odessa, raised in Colombia)
Exhibition: The Accidental Pursuit of The Stateless at BravinLee
This artist drew me into a fierce, disorienting world that see-sawed between science fiction and revolution. Her multifaceted identity plays a significant role, with nods to Latin America, the United States and European colonialism.From the press release: “Elektra KB’s body of work is of a performative nature in the thread of the post-colonial discourse and uses the platform of the personal mythology: The Theocratic Republic of Gaia, a Utopian-Dystopian world.”
All in all, I found it interesting to contemplate the idea that foreign art shown in any given city is likely more telling about that place’s values and obsessions than those of the work. We do see transplanted art engaging in dialogue with its new locations but the dominant voice is the host city’s. And New York’s is clamorous.
The standout emerging European works that rose above the monochrome landscape and asserted themselves last fall were few and far between, but well worth the trek.