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Art's Next Wave

Today's Artists are Creating Distinctive and Thought-Provoking Works, and Making a Name for Themselves in the Process
Andrew Decker
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

"It's an end-of-the-century thing," suggests Annabella Johnson, director of the Sean Kelly gallery in New York's downtown art enclave, SoHo. Her answer is probably as good as any. The question is: Why is so much of the art by today's hot young artists unnerving?

The relatively "old" Belgian, Luc Tuymans, who is 40, looks at his father's generation and his countrymen's collective memories in a portrait of a man wearing a Nazi uniform that is discreetly identified by its collar. Amy Adler, 32, makes fine drawings of herself and others, photographs the drawings, and then destroys the originals. The convoluted machinations deny anyone access to her work, and by extension, herself, while allowing Adler to be a bit of an exhibitionist. Maureen Gallace, 38, creates lovely paintings of houses set in bucolic, mute countrysides. Yet most of the dwellings have no windows, making one wonder who can live without light, and just why the inhabitants want the world shut out.

In one way or another, the darker side of human behavior shows up in one end of the spectrum of contemporary art--the part that is a reflection of the times. At this end of the art scene, art is a mirror of the artists and their thoughts and of society. Artists play with and explore what's going on in their environment or parallel disturbing sociopolitical events: the Unabomber and Oklahoma City; the fascination with newly unearthed memories, such as adults who discover that they were victims of sexual abuse as children; feminism and masculinity and the roles that grow out of them; sexual intrigue and power; and, of course, narcissism.

But these are not the only motivations for today's young artists. At the other end of the spectrum is art history itself. It's a more traditional realm where artists build on and mutate the achievements of earlier artists: abstraction, Surrealism, found-object art, etc. Here, too, a few artists watch their work get snatched up by collectors whose choices help guide other collectors.

At this time, no dominant school of art exists--no Cubism that everyone has to try his hand at. While abstraction is still popular, it's not compulsory. The identity-based art of the early- and mid-1990s (a variant of existentialism, boiled down to gender, sexual preference and class issues) has died down some, but some artists are still effectively mining that vein. A banal version of Surrealism, with objects painted in an incongruous or floating context, is having a run, as is an attraction-repulsion mode, in which artists present the most beautifully painted images of somehow chilling scenes. An example of the latter is the 1994 Luc Tuymans work "Portrait," which is sublime, quietly toned, and could be anyone who killed millions for a hateful cause.

So who keeps tabs on it all? A variety of individuals and organizations do. Critics make endless rounds of galleries and artists' studios. So do museum curators, who may be lured to a gallery by the promise of a limousine and lunch. Museum directors may be coaxed to a gallery or studio by a trustee's interest in an artist, whose work may or may not be in that trustee's collection. Then there are the bellwether collectors, such as Saatchi & Saatchi co-founder Charles Saatchi, who in the 1980s bought out entire exhibitions of Neo-Expressionist artists and who, in the '90s, is at it again.

Through the jostling and friction of these influences, some kind of consensus emerges about which artists are hot. It doesn't take much to make someone a rising star; just three or four people who want to own his art and are willing to pay for it. Most of the artists in this article are 40 or under, sell some of their works for under $10,000, and have a following. Some create art that is serene, others that is challenging, and still others that is thought-provoking. View an exhibition of Lisa Yuskavage's art, for example, and you'll have new disdain for any man who leers at a woman's posterior.

Almost 20 years ago, a raging debate among artists was resolved: photography was legitimized as art. In the '70s, a handful of artists started toying with a medium that had previously been a record of events and people. Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, two well-known artists, staged scenes and photographed them. James Casebere took a more distinctive approach. He built small-scale models of houses and buildings and clicked away. The interiors are anything but dollhouse-sized decorator showcases. They're spare and stripped down, musty and abandoned. A jumble of institutional beds are piled in a room with vaulted ceilings and arched windows, suggesting a fourteenth-century monastery to some, a mental asylum to others. The models are crafted carefully enough to look real at a glance, but soon reveal themselves as miniature constructions of the artist's imagination. And they're big--two feet by two feet in some cases, while others are even larger. Visually, they're nearly luminescent. The prints are laminated on aluminum panels.

A contemporary artist that has taken photography to new creative heights is American-born Amy Adler. Adler has led a charmed life for an artist who has a slightly twisted world view. While frolicking at a beach with her parents, the then 13-year-old Adler was approached by a man who wanted to photograph her. Her parents consented. When she was 19, an older woman took some explicit photographs of Adler.

In 1997, after receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts and having two one-person exhibitions, which are the benchmark of any recognized artist, Adler exhibited the series "Once in Love with Amy." The exhibition focused on the explicit photos that were taken of her when she was 19. Adler scanned the snapshots into a computer, made drawings of her own image, and placed them in the same interior she had photographed. In one, she's looking warily at the viewer and unbuttoning her pants. In another, she's naked and prone, her arms outstretched on an oversized round coffee table. The same year, she did "Very Lolita," a face-on drawing of her head with an expression that is even too confrontational and probing to land her a part in a remake of Vladimir Nabokov's once-banned classic. "How are you responding?" the images ask. "Are you seeing me? Are you seeing your own desire?"

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