England's Edge

You're not to think of proper manners, the Thames, Alistair Cooke or even Hugh Grant. You're to think, rather, of the Sex Pistols, royalty-mobbing tabloid reporters and How to Get Ahead in Advertising. If you've got the notion of a nation where a sunny day is license for misbehavior and dastardly fun, you're about ready for "'Brilliant!' New Art from London," currently on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum.

The '90s have proven to be one long sunny day for British art. A pack of English youngsters have been led into the international spotlight by artists such as Damien Hirst, who organized a groundbreaking exhibit of new British art in 1988, and Rachel Whiteread, who in 1993 won both the coveted $30,000 Turner prize for a British artist under 30 and a $60,000 award for Britain's worst artist. "Brilliant!" -- conceived of and curated by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis -- is the first exhibit to bring the pack together stateside. The exhibit is predicated on the liveliness of the London art scene, and as a result, the 22 artists in the show are connected by loose affinity rather than a particular style. In fact, the way the exhibition's materials salivate over "today's hottest, hippest art center!" may leave you more predisposed to move to London and be an artist than to look at the art. But if you did so, you'd miss the CAM's most interesting exhibit in a long while.

Actually, treating these artists as arbiters of hipness does them a disservice. Overall, the show is engagingly vernacular without bowing down to popular culture. Though the strategies employed are far from unique, "Brilliant!" seems not so much derivative as a successful take on the art world Zeitgeist. The show is a smorgasbord of painting, sculpture, photographs, videos, animations and, yes, a CD-ROM. It includes both sophomoric work and examples of virtuosic craft. The CAM, gamely trying to sample a bit of everything, ends up with a choppy installation where some artists suffer for lack of space and others are given too much. Nonetheless, there is a great deal to delve into -- it takes a good three hours to explore the show thoroughly.

One of the exhibit's standouts is Gillian Wearing. For her photographic series Signs that say what you want them to say, not signs that say what someone else wants you to say, Wearing ventured onto the streets of London, gave passersby blank cards and markers, and invited them to write down their thoughts and display them for her camera. The results range from bumper-sticker pat ("We are the hardcore," two angelic teens try to convince you) to street poetry (a homeless man holds a sign reading "Come back Mary love you get back Mary") to the ridiculously sweet (a chipper elderly lady beams over "I really love Regent's Park"). Even when the participants' appearances belie what they have written, the photographs have an empathy-provoking air of sincerity.

Artists such as Wearing, Adam Chodzko and Georgina Starr work against the rarefication of the contemporary art world by validating the preferences, aesthetic and otherwise, of the non-artist. For The God Look-a-Like Contest, Chodzko advertised in a London paper (a popular strategy among these artists) asking for folks who think they look like God. Respondents sent in photos or cards, and Chodzko mounted and framed the first 12 he received. In Georgina Starr's installation The Nine Collections of the Seventh Museum, she collected the minutiae of her brief artist's residency in The Hague, making her boardinghouse room into a personal "museum" and then photographing the room for later display. On the interactive CD-ROM "tour" that accompanies the photos, Starr divides the items into nine "collections." The most interesting is The Storyteller Collection, in which Starr, to combat loneliness, advertised for dinner partners and later recorded their philosophies and tales. Starr's loneliness in The Hague is, in a larger sense, the loneliness of the contemporary artist, who seeks increasingly inventive ways to meet the public and exchange information.

Painter Chris Ofili's choice of materials was inspired by a trip to Africa, where, he says, his usual mode of painting suddenly "seemed abstract to the point of being silly." Ofili's luxuriously decorative paintings, with hallucinatory lace patterns drowning in layers of clear resin, are studded with balls of elephant dung, some of which are decorated with colored pins reminiscent of African beadwork or voodoo. As a result, the paintings seem to have two surfaces engaged in a dispute: one intricate and seductive, the other uncooperative and repulsive. The canvases, literally grounded, rest on dung patties instead of hanging on the wall. The crass effect is calculated, a multilevel comment on painting's lofty position in the West, on the lulling effect of "decorative" art and on expectations of ethno-specific behavior (i.e., Africans are "primitive"). Just as film director Quentin Tarantino gives people an overload of what they seem to want from Hollywood -- gratuitous violence, true sexpot romance and a good soundtrack -- so Ofili delights in dishing out the exotic black magic he thinks people expect from a black artist, making his point by overkill.

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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