Thursday, July 2, 2009

Younger Than Jesus: Party Like it's 1999

In the Hunter MFA program, there was an open-studio night toward the end of each semester; we would all throw open the doors to our spaces and show the world what we had been working on. It always had the atmosphere of a party as opposed to an art event, and it was always great fun.

At one such event in 1999, word starting spreading like wildfire that art impresario Jeffrey Deitch was cruising the studios. It was as thrilling as it was absurd that a high-power player like Deitch wanted to see what we were making. I was precisely the age of Jesus, at least as it's defined in the New Museum's "Younger Than Jesus: The Generational" press release.

What none of us knew at the time was that this was the beginning of a particular stage of the hedge-fund era of art collecting: The Time of the MFA's. Within months, major and minor dealers were trolling MFA and later BFA programs to scout out the latest, youngest, and hottest, showing them fresh out of school and sometimes while they were still in school. The prices they commanded were astounding, and the length of careers were often shockingly short. There were always more to fill the spots when a hot comer fizzled, often in a year or less.

Ten years on, the MFA look is somewhat difficult to describe but incredibly easy to recognize - as supreme court justice Potter Stewart said in reference to pornography: "I know it when I see it." It's quite multifarious, but will almost always have a few things from this list:

1. Painting and/or sculpture made poorly on purpose.

2. Pornography, often vintage or amateur, often featuring the artist.

3. Trash, often packaging from consumer items.

4. Hair and secretions, or things that look like them.

5. Organs and limbs, or things that look like them.

6. Appropriated imagery from art.

7. Appropriated imagery from pop culture.

8. Broken machinery, often computers or stereos.

9. Video.

10. Large photographs.

11. Pop music, 1970's to present.

12. Potty humor.

13. Installation, often made to look like low-budget television or film sets.

While this sounds like a wildly varied collection of stuff, it all tends comes together as quite homogeneous in a group scenario; maybe it's because I've been through the grad school experience and have seen it so many times. The artists in YTJ walk through the whole MFA playbook. I started writing a list of the artists in the show and matching the appropriate numbers from the above list, but it somehow seemed petty. If you're planning to visit the exhibition, though, I invite you to print out my list and take it along - I think you'll be surprised.

My wife pointed out that this exercise would hold for any period and style, and she makes a point. But I saw little in YTJ in which the aggregate of these attributes came together as something vastly larger than than the sum of the parts, which is the thing that would offer a defense against such a reductive method of taxonomy. And the omnipresent fig leaf of critique doesn't help much, either.

The MFA look seems to have waned a bit in the last couple of years, even before the hedge fund era abruptly drew to a close in fall of '08. The New Museum seems to have not gotten the memo, though, or maybe they began planning the show so long ago that it was too late to pull the plug. It's generally received a tepid response in the art press, and deservedly so. In it's incipient stages, the youth thing was synonymous with vitality and a close proximity to the zeitgeist. Now the look is a mannerism, and a tired one at that. The elephant in the room is that it wasn't all that great to begin with.

Feel free to take these comments with a grain of salt, though, they're coming from someone who is presently a full decade older than Jesus.