"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?"
The "Once in Love with Amy" series dealt with a long-standing issue: What is the viewer bringing to the image in front of him? Less uncomfortably titillating was Adler's 1995 series, "The Problem Child," which were drawings of antisocial children at play. The implied question: How do we nurture and deal with parts of our society, or ourselves, that we can't control?
Thirty-four-year-old Sharon Lockhart constructs her photographs, too, although there's no collaging, no hand-built models. Instead, her eye is selective and deliberate, and in her interiors, time is suspended. Although that's true of any photograph, which captures no more than a moment, Lockhart's work feels as if there can be no past, no present.
Lockhart is a director, and the scenes she puts together are commonplace enough. A woman standing in her apartment, lost in thought. A girl slumped over, her head resting on a glass table full of reflections. The stillness of these images is eerie and contrived. For Lockhart, photography and art have nothing to do with capturing a moment of reality; she prefers oblique moments that defy interpretation.
At the same time, the pictures are wonderfully printed and can be visually striking, particularly the outdoor scenes. A shot looking down a cliff at a churning sea shows exquisitely graded but subtle colors and a terrific range of textures, from the swirling ocean to the rough-hewn cliff. A scene of a man holding his child as they look into a snowstorm is shot from the back. One might start to wonder whether they're waiting for someone to appear through the mist or are on their way somewhere. Or maybe it's as simple as a man and a child sharing the spectacle of a snowstorm.
Most people probably wouldn't know what to do with an overactive imagination, a sense of humor and a sense of loss, and a huge range of visual images bounding around in their head. Fortunately for Amy Sillman, she's an artist who can wrestle those diverse elements into some kind of order on canvas.
Sillman, who is in her mid-40s, paints everything from almost cartoonish doodles to words to Eastern characters to landscapes, in a fluid, almost ethereal wash. The combinations could easily look like a train wreck, and at times her paintings are so cluttered and dense that they can be agitating. But her 1997 works are more spare. In "Miniature Illinois," Sillman presents an incredibly simple scene: water, a beach, a small tree to the far left and a grayish sky. But simple as the composition is, she's used oil paint and the thinner gouache to create a wonderfully varied surface that somehow suggests depth in a painting as flat as any piece of folk art. "Ocean 2" is nothing less than a ravishingly beautiful work: simple in its use of color to suggest sea, foam, beach and sky, and a masterpiece of colors. What comes through in Sillman's work is a kind of diffidence and curiosity combined with a compulsive love of what she's doing. She's just one of those people who loves to play with paint, and her love shows.
Among other things, art should bring you into a world outside your own experience. Shahzia Sikander, 29, achieves that in large and small scale. A native of Pakistan, Sikander learned the rigorous tradition of miniature painting (intensely detailed, 8 1/2-by-11-inch narrative works) in her home country, where she also began studying Western techniques. She furthered her knowledge of the latter when she attended the Rhode Island School of Design. Indian gods and goddesses show up in her small works, the female figures sometimes floating, unfettered. Greek-patterned plates are layered over tea-stained paper, giving a feeling of warmth and depth to Sikander's densely imaged, complex art.
While the small East/West hybrid works are gems, they're outdone by a few murals that Sikander exhibited last spring. Loosely painted and diaphanous, the murals comprise a range of paints that create open, haunting imagery that makes no particular sense but which is compelling and draws you in. Figures float, colors seem to shift, and the effect is nearly hallucinatory.
Julie Roberts's work may not be hallucinatory but is unsettling just the same, a kind of Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde act. Meticulously painted subtle abstract patterns (checks, grids or stripes) are backgrounds for lushly, violently painted suggestive or horrific images. A toppled chair lies next to a séance table, as if the sitter was undone by the experience. Some paintings show nineteenth-century medical instruments that belong in the Tower of London; another one shows Sigmund Freud's desk. In "Crime of Passion," an Oriental carpet floats on the abstract background. The rug supports three chairs, a lovely little table and a young corpse.
There's much to imagine in these scenes, which are dark, mysterious and unsettling. It's enough to make the viewer question Roberts's belief in God. The 35-year-old Englishwoman has denied the allegation that she is an atheist, saying, "Even in the mortuary-slab/operating-table paintings there has always been a reference to the altarpiece--and to the sacrifice." But the question is, to whom?
Around 40 years ago, the idea that people should dredge up their nightmares, rather than try to bury them, became popular. Talk shows have made millions helping their guests confront their demons to the glee of voyeurs across America. One artist, 35-year-old Lisa Yuskavage, isn't content confronting her fears and concerns. She wants to confront yours as well, and she does it with beautifully painted images of Kewpie-like figures in rather open poses. "Rorschach Blot" has a naked blonde figure in an open squat. The pose is symmetrical, and her genitalia take the shape of an exclamation point. Talking about the painting with artist Chuck Close in a 1996 interview published in the catalogue of her work put out by the Boesky Gallery in SoHo, Yuskavage said that the work and some of her previous paintings were "about coming out toward making things completely explicit to myself." What is the painting about? She said, "Telling the viewer, 'Eat me.'"
Yuskavage's work isn't pretty. The women are flawed temptresses, uncomfortable with being sexually desirable. In "Good Evening Hamass," a woman with a large rear is shown with it scored like a ham. It is a commentary about appetites.
Another artist working with unsettling images is 39-year-old Gregory Green. His work showcases such items as a commissioned computer virus on a disk encased in plastic; missiles; pipe bombs lacking only a detonator; and an open nuclear bomb with a baseball where the plutonium should be. The tools of the terrorist trade are easy enough to come by, as Green shows in his nearly functional works.
Is there beauty in a pipe bomb? Actually, the response is more a combination of curiosity and horror. The objects are mesmerizing, triggering not explosions but an awareness of fragility and mortality, and, of course, a worldwide society where these things are easily accessible.
For pure visual pleasure, Green's "Untitled (22 Blade Wall Piece)" is a set of circular saw blades mounted on motors stuck on a wall. At rest, their teeth are menacing. In motion, a glimmering sheen makes them appealing and hypnotic. And that is scary.
Not every hot young artist paints horrific images. Take 33-year-old Elizabeth Peyton. Most people couldn't name a contemporary portraitist since Andy Warhol, and he's been dead for more than 10 years. So it's a surprise that Peyton paints influential figures from Napoleon Bonaparte to Kurt Cobain to Princess Di. Peyton, who grew up in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, turns out small, dreamy paintings, visual biographies of her heroes and friends. The paintings click because she has a great sense of color and of editing images--what to include, what to leave out. Her younger subjects (some of them are friends) have a wan, washed-out look about them. There's no judgment or harshness, how-ever: Peyton is tender and adoring, enamored of her subjects and their flaws. Her works are vividly colored, heavy on washed pinks and purples. They have a lovely, fresh feeling to them, verging on the innocence of uncritical love.
Juan Uslé takes pleasure in paint as well. His work is abstract, with occasional grid-like patterns or organic biomorphic forms floating in a sea of color. At times, it feels as if some of the shapes are going to come into focus and become something figurative, like ideas that won't quite formulate themselves clearly enough to be articulated. But Uslé isn't interested in recognizable images: he seems to love the feelings generated by color and ambiguity. His works are fluid, sensuous. Critics talk about his work in formal terms, but Uslé, 44, could care less about academia. He has said, "I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else. I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions--tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on."
While some artists look back in anger, 38-year-old Maureen Gallace seems to revere the kind of quiet, dreamlike imagery that suggests a weekend escape from the city or a simple childhood scene. Small houses in small paintings, stone walls with snow, the lush green of a New England summer's day, the stillness of a frozen lake--all are subjects of Gallace's paintings. Although her work appears serene, it does have an edge. There's no screaming or chair-throwing, but there's a slight awkwardness in the presentation. The perspective on the houses is slightly skewed, and most of them have no windows. They suggest sanctuaries that are less perfect than we remember them, but cherished just the same.
In the world of contemporary art, which tends toward the overheated at times, Luc Tuymans is a perverse player. The first shock of his work is its flat, nearly colorless palette: grays, whites and gray-greens are predominant. The American flag, which was turned into an art icon by Jasper Johns in the 1950s, is drained of color and appears listless. In another piece, Mount Rushmore is a slightly abstracted monument. Tuymans's work is striking and outrageous for its restraint and subtlety.
And, at times, for its content. Tuymans takes a deadpan approach to disquieting images and notions. What could be more earthy than a factory worker? The subject seems mundane until you realize that he's wearing a chemical mask to try to keep himself alive while earning a living. These images seem banal, but are, in fact, ghostly and haunting.
Like so many artists these days, 34-year-old Toba Khedoori likes disjunctions. Her large, fairly expensive works ($25,000) are wall-sized, though the far smaller, highly repetitive images they contain (a chain-link fence or an apartment house's balconies and doors) float isolated on vast canvases. The images she paints and draws often are related to construction (buildings, cranes) or lead somewhere: doors or windows take you into a home you never see, or the entrance to a tunnel that goes, well, somewhere. Her work is about existential questions: space, connectedness, crossroads and passageways. Her drawing is incredibly fine, and the compulsive relentless repetitiveness of, say, bricks or the links in a fence is somehow lulling. If Microsoft gives you a mouse and a jillion Internet links and asks where are you going today, Khedoori offers up the suggestion of a passageway but forces you to use your imagination.
A lot of the art around these days demands thought. It's been that way on and off for nearly a century, with artists engaging both the eye and the brain, not allowing you to slip into a pleasant or beautiful image as you would a warm bath. Now the twist is that the thoughts are not only about beauty and truth, perception and illusion, or grand historical moments. They're about what goes on inside the artist and what goes on inside the viewer and the reactions between the two. These days, looking at art isn't a tour of some abstract, theoretical landscape. It's taking a moment to look into souls--theirs and yours.
Andrew Decker is a freelance journalist based in New York and a contributing editor to ARTnews magazine.