Nick Hackworth

The Americans: New Art, Barbican Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Unfortunate timing, perhaps. Conceived well before 11 September, this is the first major international exhibition of the most recent wave of American contemporary art. As some have pointed out, this show presents a perfect opportunity for critics to mount broadsides against the frivolous and decadent nature of contemporary art. In the light of the mass-murder of thousands of people and the spectre of anthrax, the esoteric musings of contemporary artists are bound to look even flakier than usual.

Disappointingly, the art on show is neither bad enough to entirely justify such criticisms nor good enough to entirely quash them either. Instead, it floats in a no-man’s land of adequacy. Collectively the art carries the imprint of the culture that spawned it. It is described as “post ironic”, steering clear of the heavy-handed use of irony that characterised young British art. It is individual, there are certainly no art movements identifiable here, and a vast range of styles, materials, mediums and methods are represented. It is engaged with the world, but avoids the perceived crassness of actually being political. It is also, at times, very dull.

Paul Sietsema’s excruciatingly boring 19-minute silent film investigates, with “forensic detail”, a bunch of plants.

Wilcox’s Midnite Movie, which records an amateur performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show that was evidently staged in a mad house, emerges as a paradigm of a certain strand of video-art being at once aesthetically displeasing, conceptually castrated and emotionally retarded.

Meanwhile, Piotr Uklanski exhibits a puddle of water, a piece that should be avoided by those with porous, lightly soled footwear.

There are, however, a few highlights. Keith Edmier presents a work entitled Beverly Edmier 1967. It is a life-sized pink resin cast of a woman got up in quintessentially Sixties suburban American garb. She is heavily pregnant, sitting with her head tilted downwards and her eyes focused on her stomach. She is pulling up her top and visible through the transparent resin skin of her belly are the familiar features of a fully formed human baby. As sharper readers will have noticed, artist and subject share a surname and the piece is a brilliant self-portrait, a small note of pink joy in a darkling world.

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