tom moody

joshua decter: gallery art critic as new media artist

Some notes on a Rhizome.org post about Joshua Decter's curated shows of mostly painting, sculpture, and photography with a "new media" gloss. Decter walks us through three projects from 1996-2006. A common thread is The Curator As Artist.

I saw his "Screen" show in '96 at Petzel, a scattershot, salon-style installation of works by top painters of the day, mainly in the abstract vein. He placed TV cameras in the room to film the works -- I supposed the images were being fed to this now-quaint web page on adaweb. Today we would call the design of that site "dirt-style" HTML -- a hideous ochre background with magenta letters, shaky frames, and a charming "while you're waiting for the images to load..." apology on the checklist page.

Decter had been writing for Arts magazine, when it flourished in the early '90s under Barry Schwabsky's editorship, and his byline began appearing in Artforum around this time, so he had gatekeeper power to attract top artists. Many of these painters may have professed an interest in electronic media but their primary focus was still the slow, hand-crafted object. Their work wasn't particularly well served to be hung in a cattle-call show, shot on video (cropped and off-center), and ultimately reduced to low-resolution raster images. Yes, there was mediation, spectacle, etc, hot buzzwords at the time, but a painter takes some pains to make an object that thrives on slow, "time-release" time scale. The disservice is even more evident now, as the captures from mid-'90s TV interwoven with the paintings on the website have a depressing, late-night infomercial vibe, while the paintings barely register.

Decter feels that his "virtual artist" and "virtual curator" kiosks at MCA Chicago in 1999 differed from the familiar interactive displays of museum education departments across the country. This seems wrong but I can't back it up with hard stats. It would be interesting to do a survey of how many virtual galleries with Google Sketch-Up-like versions of the collection have been presented by museums over the years, or programs like Decter's "Make your own Baldessari" software. They reduce the, again, slow, process of artistic thought and individuation of the physical collections to simplified mix and match objects, and minimize artists to a few characteristic style tics, e.g., "put a blue circle on a face and make a Baldessari." The MCA Chicago show also anticipates the virtual gallery trend of current new media artists, which flatters art world power structures by placing (mostly inept) 3D objects in white cube environments.

For his 2006 project at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Decter sided with the architectural community in its ongoing war against artists, typically manifested in high-concept starchitect buildings that reduce the art to ornamentation or afterthought. Decter commissioned a firm to build a crazy, room-filling kiosk -- a biomorphic jungle of sleek forms invoking HR Giger and The Matrix's robotic squids, for display of comparatively tiny, digitized versions of artists' artworks.

In all of these projects brand name artists from the gallery system serve as a salad bar for Decter's new media exploration. Most are probably resigned to seeing their works reduced in size and impact for the intellectual cachet of a modern high-tech show. And most are "old media" names: John Currin, Anna Gaskell, Andres Serrano, Matthew Barney, etc. Similar concepts to Decter's (surveillance, quantification of "unique" objects, virtual spaces) have been simultaneously limned in the new media sphere, at SIGGRAPH or Eyebeam or on Rhizome, with their own networks of curator and artist celebrities. The Rhizome post ultimately provides a fascinating glimpse at how fields with differing expectations and critical standards can exist side by side, each without ever critiquing the other.

Update: I wrote that in Decter's "Screen" show of paintings at Friedrich Petzel in 1996, "he placed TV cameras in the room to film the works." In his reply to this post on Rhizome Decter clarifies that he "took photographs of the installation of artworks, digitized these images, and worked with an editor on an AVID system at a professional studio to generate a video catalogue of the exhibition. This video catalogue was distributed as the only catalogue of the show, and was also played on video monitors within the gallery during the run of the show." Apologies for the error.

- tom moody

May 6th, 2014 at 7:23 am

Posted in general