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“The 47th Corcoran Biennial: Fantasy Underfoot”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art

to March 10

In terms of the issues it attempts to tackle, the 47th Corcoran Biennial is the most ambitious of these shows in recent memory. “Issues,” of course, have been bullying contemporary-art curators for years now, muscling around the work they gather and twisting their writing into horrible shapes. And issues naturally take precedence in cowing the unruly beast that is the museum-staged medium-size group show.

Such metaphors, however, are far too animated to suit “Fantasy Underfoot,” a congealed salad of art and ideas that has failed to gel. Swimming around in the slopping mess are notions about object-based conceptualism that has designs on a nonart public and so attempts a demotic approach, and others about the role of the public-pleasing megamuseum—of the sort the Corcoran happens to hope to become—in a cash-strapped age. But curator Jonathan P. Binstock and essayist Adam Lerner fail to understand that what they imagine to be museum-acceptable “entertainment” doesn’t automatically result from addressing oneself to subjects commonly chosen by pop culture—or to pop culture itself. And they expand the meaning of “fantasy” until it nearly disappears, having been stretched so thin that it encompasses virtually any kind of thought.

Sometimes concept and fantasy

do neatly dovetail, if only to pull

apart again, as in Bruce Nauman’s exhibition-opening Mapping the Studio II with color shift, flip, flop & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage) All Action Edit (2001). That mouthful of a title refers to an installation in which the room is lined with seven infrared video projections of the artist’s studio at night. The more sedate version shown last year at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York reportedly had its longueurs, but this edit preserves only those frames in which the camera’s contemplation of various haphazard still lifes is broken by the activity of moths, mice, and the family cat. It must be noted that Toonsis—whose name is apparently a Naumanian pun on that of Saturday Night Live’s accident-prone feline—is a total pussy of a mouser.

If Beatrix Potter is to be believed, that’s exactly as it should be. Had the cat in The Tailor of Gloucester done away with the mice released by the tale’s kind, incapacitated tailor, the grateful rodents wouldn’t have been able to do his sewing for him. Similarly, Nauman and Toonsis’ unwillingness to do anything about the infestation of the studio allows passing vermin to do the work of the artist, providing Mapping the Studio’s fundamental content. But just as Nauman’s early videos reduced studio practice to inscrutable essentials, this piece removes the questions of character and motivation from Potter’s fantasy, putting man and beast back on biological footing, in a natural world that has nothing to do with our apprehension of a moral universe. Indeed, if Nauman’s piece is any kind of fantasy at all, it’s one that barely requires the artist’s imagining it to exist.

Lesser artists in the show simply fail to learn from their kid-lit betters. As Chris Van Allsburg demonstrated almost two decades ago with The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, fantastical illustrations deprived of a well-developed narrative are less likely to inspire flights of fancy, not more. Yet Marcel Dzama still allows the story underpinning his Weimar-flavored surrealism to get away from him. The mere sketching of narrative crisis likewise underserves Kojo Griffin’s paintings of social-problem dramas. His all-inclusive solution of substituting an educated menagerie for human characters was used to far greater effect—not to mention greater popular appeal—by Richard Scarry, among others. And as for the cutting-edge social content demanded by today’s curatoriat, let’s just observe that Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom is now old enough to vote.

The sexy blimp that Nancy Davidson has moored in the Corcoran’s atrium is among the Biennial’s most successful works, but her museum talk several weeks ago pointed up a central failing of the show’s conception of fantasy. As she traced her sculptures’ lineage back to hot-air ballooning, feminist sculpture, and ’60s design, it became clear that, however big and bold, Double Exposure (2002) is the inevitable product of a studiously accretive process. To be compelling as fantasy, an artistic figment must break with the familiar and leap into the unexpected—it’s no good if we can track its steps like diligent bloodhounds.

Linda Besemer’s slow layering of acrylic paint into flexible sheets surfaced on each side with plaid, for example, aims more for technical novelty than for fantasy. Draped like giant towels on a Crate & Barrel display, her pieces serve mainly to provide Binstock hobbyhorse Sam Gilliam, the subject of a future Corcoran retrospective, with a legatee. And the inward journey of Jacob El Hanani, who labors for months over a single sheet of paper, filling it with nearly microscopic marks until the page reads as a misty monochrome, would be fascinating as a Borgesian footnote indicating one of the world’s forgotten marvels. But it is as dispiriting to imagine what sort of mind would dedicate itself so uncuriously to this single pursuit as it is to consider the dedication of those Buddhist monks who in their final years pursued a physical regimen directed toward mummifying themselves while still alive.

It should now have occurred to you that “underfoot,” at least as Binstock envisions that locale, is not a good place to put fantasy if you want it to thrive. Alas, his awareness of the oxymoron that is his title doesn’t make him any better an apologist for it. The show bottoms out when the curator becomes so distracted by two artists’ having taken their subject matter from true mass-cultural fantasies that he becomes blind to the fact that they have also slipped into trite critique.

Susan Smith-Pinelo made her name with Sometimes, a witty 1999 video that consists of a short loop of her breasts jiggling to Michael Jackson’s “Workin’ Day and Night.” But over the past few years, her work has grown increasingly clinical. If recent pieces have been about her on-again-off-again romance with hiphop, Asstronomical Proportions I and II (both 2002) make you wonder why she bothers going back. With each piece, a triple-screen close-up of a black woman’s pelvis, tightly wrapped in crotch-climbing shorts and grinding mechanically to an unheard soundtrack, the pleasure principle that joined with the critical impulse to give the artist’s earlier work its enticing back-and-forth seems altogether absent.

Bruce Yonemoto is also a specialist in making unentertaining art about entertainment. His loop of Vertigo’s famous 360-degree kiss plays out not against the original backdrop of stable and hotel room but in front of a number of tracking shots from other cinema classics. Whatever appeal the scene retains from Hitchcock and Herrmann’s original is augmented by strains of Wagner, whose Tristan and Isolde had influenced the picture’s score. But the arbitrary filmic quotes glimpsed over the shoulders of Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart fail to make a case of their own. Nearby, vintage Hollywood sci-fi plays on tiny monitors secreted inside globes, and models cavort with more globes in several C-prints that look as if they’d been plucked from a cut-rate stock-image catalog. And all this leads us to ask—oh damn, where was it—OK, right here in Lerner’s artist essay: “Does humanity today share only the ability to be immersed in a system of capitalist commodification?” Well, yeah, that and the ability to be appalled by lazy, rote art-critical handwringing that just arrived by reefer truck from 1987.

The closest thing “Fantasy Underfoot” has to a pop-culture saving grace is Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Paradise Institute (2001), a multimedia installation in which a handful of ticketed viewers settle into a minitheater, don headphones, and kick back for a little artfully interrupted pulp. The audio component of the piece is nothing short of stunning, creating a palpable sense of physical space. Indeed, I had to slip off the ear-cups to confirm that chatter from nearby seats was, in fact, on the soundtrack. Too bad the suspense short on the screen looks like yet another underdone spool of cheap digital video.

The three previous Corcoran Biennials have been, at best, transitional affairs. Whatever the thematic shortcomings this time out, the museum at least knows what kind of show it wants: one not prevented by restrictions of geography or medium from blending into the international -ennial parade. Now it’s the artists who are in transition, aware that different audiences are out there but unsure of how best to go after them while still making something identifiable as art.

In the September/October 1995 issue of the late pop-culture-friendly Left Coast mag Art Issues, David A. Greene and Gary Kornblau published an essay titled “The New Academy (and maybe some television),” in which they declared the academic style of the past couple of decades a miserable failure: schoolmarmish, backward-looking, its ideas rooted in abstruse French imports. Their suggested corrective was for artists to look to MTV, Sesame Street, and The Simpsons, all fantasies that start out safely underfoot, the better to send seismic waves throughout the greater culture:

To entertain is to put forward an argument with the foreknowledge that it may be rejected out of hand if not relevant or engaging enough to its audience. The best entertainments create a world of their own—a believable and comfortable landscape wherein viewers have room to move, with metaphorical and allegorical props ready at hand. And if the result is good enough, that world, its culture, and inhabitants have a chance at becoming real.

At the time, Greene and Kornblau took a lot of heat from artists who didn’t want to admit that the ground was shifting. Seven years later, it’s obvious that the piece was on target, and that the economics and demographics of museums have altered to the point of placing new requirements on those who would show in them. Just as some silent-film stars didn’t cross over into talkies, some artists will remain on the far side of the divide. And just as The Jazz Singer was in many ways a silent movie that had sound grafted onto it, much of the cuspy art in “Fantasy Underfoot” is art overlaid with

aspects of entertainment rather than hybridized with them.

Until curators gain confidence in assessing art-entertainment hybrids, some artists of questionable import will thrive on the exposure the new museum can offer those able to fill certain programming gaps. But if museums learn to balance the long view with the short, we needn’t necessarily be damned to what has been dubbed by New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl as “festivalism,” a “style of exhibition…that has long been developing on the planetary circuit of more than fifty biennials and triennials….mixing entertainment and soft-core politics….[and] favor[ing] works that don’t demand contemplation but invite, in passing, consumption of interesting—just not too interesting—spectacles.”

There is good news for artists who view this brave new art world with trepidation: The scarcity value of the physical artifact ensures that there will continue to be sites of refuge where one can survive by carving out a small-scale career based on appealing intensely to small coteries of cognoscenti. These places are called galleries—after all, you really need only one buyer, no matter how many people come through the door. CP