England's Edge

"Brilliant!" shows brilliantly what's happening across the Atlantic

One thing that fails miserably in "Brilliant!" is the show's fashionable attempts at self-critique. At the museum's entrance, visitors are supposed to hear Closing Down Sale, an audio tape in which artist Michael Landy announces "Everything must go!" However, the tape is played at whisper level, making it impossible to hear over nearby traffic. Adam Chodzko's Secretors, which look like oversized, glossy drips of blood, are another jokey critique inspired by horror films in which breathing walls or sweating roof beams are often the first hint that disaster is afoot. The Secretors come as a kit and can be placed to suggest that something sinister is leaking in from behind institutional walls. These portents of doom work great when they appear, as they once did on the BBC's News at 10, behind some unsuspecting politician's head. But in "Brilliant!" they're smugly sanctioned, positioned in predictably "unexpected" places throughout the museum.

Part of what's interesting about "Brilliant!" is what you don't see. According to CAM curator Dana Friis-Hansen, concerns about the climate for contemporary art in the U.S. led the Walker Art Center to reject pieces that were on the very edge of the new British aesthetic. For example, the most famous artist represented, Damien Hirst, is well known for preserving a 14-foot shark in formaldehyde. But "Brilliant!" studiously avoids scandal, instead introducing Hirst's trademark vitrines with The Acquired Inability to Escape, a glass case containing a large metal table and an ergonomic chair. Suspended upside down, the stereotypic office tableau suggests that a new perspective is not enough to extract oneself from daily drudgery.

Two artists who benefit from institutional discretion, though, are Jake and Dinos Chapman. The brothers are best known for their physiologically incorrect child mannequins whose titles, such as Two-Faced Cunt, say more than enough. Asked to create a sculpture sans genitalia for "Brilliant!", they made a Disney World-style fiberglass sculpture of wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking poised at the top of a rock promontory, simultaneously monumentalizing him for his mind, sympathizing with his physical predicament -- and proving that the artists can go beyond the infantile. In its brutal depiction of Hawking's infirmities, the work becomes both perverse and wonderful, as if someone put Dr. Kevorkian's face on a postage stamp.

Sarah Lucas' tough self-portraits and sculptures confront the representation of women in art and the media. Lucas is often referred to as "androgynous," but perhaps that's because she's a woman and her work is aggressive. Again, as with the Chapmans, we have a case of missing genitalia, but this time the artist suffers. Lucas' smart assemblages, which often use vegetables as stand-ins for sexual parts, were overlooked in favor of a sculpture of the artist's boots, which carry us nowhere. We also see We Score Every Night, a giant reproduction of a sports tabloid featuring scantily clad women and tales of willing Scandinavian gals, and Get Hold of This, three color-saturated casts of the artist's arms making the classic "up yours" gesture. The arms function as a dry response to the sports tabloid.

If Lucas is tough, Sam Taylor-Wood is sly. Her photograph Slut shows the artist greatly enjoying hickeys she received the night before. Rather than preach, both Lucas and Taylor-Wood use images of themselves to normalize female aggression, power and sexuality.

It takes moxie to call a show "Brilliant!" The catalog makes much of the word's ironic connotations and dilutive overuse in Britain, all but disavowing its literal claims. Such mincing is unnecessary -- most of these artists cry out for a closer look, even if not all the work is, in fact, brilliant. It seems fitting to advertise "New Art from London" the way you would a major motion picture: "Four Stars!" "Two Thumbs Up!" "Great Family Fun!"

Why not? After all, by virtue of their attitude, these artists protest the overdignification of art. And in their effort to broaden its appeal, they don't skimp on quality or depth.

" 'Brilliant!' New Art from London" will show through April 14 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, 526-3129.

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