“Whippersnappers”

Fatima Hoang will endure just about anything to bring you the rock: A dimly lit parking lot. A low wall. Even, for God’s sake, a Creed song. In My Sacrifice, Creed, a Hoang performance video currently on view at Conner Contemporary Art, he faces these challenges and more—all so he can bring us…96 seconds of air guitar. He lurches around. He windmills. He tosses his long mop in shirtless abandon. When the music runs out, he lopes away, disappearing again into the night.

Hoang’s video is part of “Whippersnappers,” a show gallery owner Leigh Conner describes as “an exhibition of young, bright, culturally astute artists who, in our opinion, rock.” The last part of that sentence isn’t difficult to parse, at least in this instance: Hoang is indeed rockin’.

But what it means for these artists to be “culturally astute” is a little more difficult to untangle. Sure, it’s tempting to think that Hoang’s videos—there are three of them here, all similar—might be a dig at the title of Dave Hickey’s influential 1997 book, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy. Or that Hoang is exploring the circumscribed life of suburban youth and the obscure yet powerful feelings they fail to find outlets for.

But whatever subtext you assign to this piece immediately gets short-circuited when you discover that Hoang is the United States’ national air-guitar champion. He even flew to Finland last August to compete in the world finals. In a gallery culture so given to posturing and assumed identities, it’s almost bewildering to find an act so authentically inauthentic—or is that inauthentically authentic? Whichever, Hoang just really loves to pretend to play alongside Scott Stapp—and you’d be hard-pressed to find any context in which that might be considered culturally astute.

Hoang isn’t alone among these artists in exulting in pop-cultural detritus, although he certainly seems closest to his subject. Elsewhere in the show, there’s faux-naive comic drawing, a silly video about boners, and bubbleheaded manga-style painting that seems—here we go again—either genuinely awful or awfully genuine. Each artist has managed to distill something individual from objects and entertainments that are meant to appeal to as many people as possible, which isn’t the same as producing a successful work of art. But the best pieces in “Whippersnappers” manage to embody not only moments of heightened consumer self-awareness but also the ambivalence those moments can bring.

New York–based artist Michael Magnan certainly knows a thing or two about addressing the fickle desires of the marketplace: He graduated from Arlington’s Marymount University with a BFA in fashion design. His five pieces at Conner are crude collages, all based on bad nature photography and/or pictures of robots. Titanium Expose (2006), for example, features a blue robot hand preparing to feed a metallic-looking gem to an enormous baboon head that fills most of the picture. The baboon has been given simplified, spiky hair à la Lisa Simpson. Peeking out here and there is a slightly dingy, wholly unremarkable color magazine photo of a forest—a third-tier attempt to capture the fleeting beauty of nature that seems all the cheaper when combined with low-rent sci-fi. While he clearly relishes in his playfully ominous scenarios, Magnan seems to be pointing to the general failure of commercial graphics to envision either the present or the future compellingly. Weirdly, it’s not a bad fit.

Whereas Magnan seems aware of the limitations of his source material, 2005 Corcoran College of Art grad Maki Maruyama appears to be totally committed to his idiom. Yellow (2006) and Pink (2006) look very much like first encounters with oil paint, as executed by some diligent high-school student. In both pictures, Maruyama delineates a simple, recurring iconography: a path running through a field, fringed with spiky cartoon signifiers for grass. Above this float round moppet heads, their lips, noses, and eyes indicated with half-hearted slivers of brown and red. Ominously floating behind the heads is a gear or some sort of circular sign for machinery.

This reductive world is as cute as it is crude, and if Maruyama’s artist’s statement can be believed, it expresses familiar, stereotypical themes about Japanese culture: the fear of automation and sameness, the struggle for individual expression, and so forth. Whether these sentiments are genuine or parodic, the work’s general aura of guilelessness is off-putting. More than an identification with the adolescent appeal of manga, this is just bad painting, and Maruyama should know better than to think any amount of self-awareness changes that.

Another recent Corcoran grad, Zach Storm, makes tentative scribblings that refer to another medium of mass reproduction: His untitled drawings, taken from the ongoing series Trade, Business, or Correspondence School, are all imagined, implausible covers for books. Oddball graphic motifs connect these thin pen-and-ink images: pairs of glasses in fluorescent colors, glum-looking male ne’er-do-wells with scruffy unibrows and five o’clock shadows, clumsily drawn shoes, rockets, guns, and cars. The fake cover for A Jetpack Ending (2006) is typical: One of Storm’s mustachioed characters, drawn in careful ball-point-pen hatchings, is propelled into the upper third of the page by his jet pack. He holds his hands over his face and has his eyes closed—in resignation, apparently, not horror. Text in the trail of his exhaust reads, “They go really fast and explode at 200 500 feet.” There’s an air of clumsy improvisation here, of these drawings as some leisure-time goof—throwaways, indicating a nascent cleverness barely realized.

Each one of these pieces attempts to mine some elusive loser aesthetic—think Steve Buscemi or Daniel Clowes or, even better, Steve Buscemi as rendered by the arty chick in Ghost World, that movie written by Daniel Clowes. Of all of the artists here, Storm is the one most obviously putting on a persona. When he closes his artist’s statement—written all in lower-case letters, thanks—with the sentence “take care of yourself…tell all your friends i said, ‘shove it,’” he pre-emptively shuts down any substantive critique of his work. That’s a loser act that looks remarkably like defensiveness.

Annie Schap knows a thing or two about defensive behavior, too: After receiving her MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004, she moved to Brooklyn from Baltimore and apparently became agoraphobic, retreating from the world into the refuge of her own disordered apartment. The results, as captured on video, occasionally look like bad community theater. ME TIME: Re-enacted From the Film “Parenthood” (2006) was shot with a cheap home-video camera and available light. The roughly minute-and-a-half loop shows Schap in Keanu Reeves’ role from Parenthood, explaining to an anxious mother that her son has been masturbating. Schap’s hammy imitation of Reeves is pretty funny, but aside from driving home that, yes, most Hollywood movies are awful and yes, Reeves is awful, too, the piece’s deliberate crudeness and pointlessness have little resonance. After a few viewings, this vignette about masturbation and stunted intellectual development begins to seem masturbatory and stunted itself. Keanu Reeves, meet Scott Stapp.

The one unreserved success story in “Whippersnappers”—and the piece that ultimately makes a trip to Conner worthwhile—is Matthew Sutton’s A General Inventory of CVS Recalled From Memory (2006). Sutton is a D.C.-based artist and 2002 Corcoran grad, which makes him an old man in this crowd. He’s perhaps best known for his project in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Census ’03: New Art From D.C.” show, in which he and his two collaborators—their group was called Team Response—built models of the studios of the other artists in the exhibition, based entirely on assumptions and stereotypes.

Like that piece, A General Inventory stems both from things actually perceived and from Sutton’s ideas of what things should look like. In two spiral-bound notebooks, Sutton attempted to list all of the objects he would expect to find in his local CVS. The level of detail is astonishing: In careful cursive, Sutton provides as many brand names and varieties as he can manage. He concedes possible omissions or updates in all caps: “(THERE MAY BE A NEW SIERRA MIST FLAVOR—TURBOBLAST? NOT SURE WHAT IT’S CALLED BUT IT’S PALE BLUE IN COLOR.)” Where he can’t provide specifics, he does the best he can according to his recollections: “The cosmetics aisle for many CVS shoppers is probably one of the salient themes of their retail experience,” he offers. “It’s inevitably along one of the walls, away from the front door.” If Sutton can’t describe every kind of sunglasses, he can make observations about styles and product placement. If he can’t describe every last greeting card, he can list a couple of pages’ worth of categories and brands.

The project is first about absurd commitment to an idea—a truly exhaustive analysis of the bewildering quantity of mass-produced stuff one comes into contact with on a daily basis and in a single place. More compellingly, it’s about vast, untapped reservoirs of memory, and about the construction of place. Sutton claims that the more he wrote, the less sure he was that any of it referred to his particular neighborhood CVS, which underscores how his work occupies the space between perception and cognition, between reality and representation. A General Inventory’s great trick is that it’s much more searching and significant than it initially seems: In those lowly pages, there’s a lofty examination of how and why we make art. They remind us that looking at things is both a serious business and an everyday activity.

So’s selling sunglasses and greeting cards, of course, at least in this day and age. But here’s where Sutton’s piece differs from most of “Whippersnappers”: It takes consumer culture as a starting point, not as an end unto itself. CP