REVIEW | NEW YORK GALLERIES
Trail to the Spirit of the Times
By ROBERTA SMITH
Connecting the dots formed by New
York gallery exhibitions is a perpetual art world pastime.
The process involves matching little details or broad
stylistic trends, recognizing recurring themes and common
materials, or sometimes just finding the shared thread
in one's own seemingly unrelated reactions. And everybody
comes up with a different diagram.
Right now there are interesting connections
to be drawn from a handful of exhibitions spread around
Manhattan, including some impressive solo debuts and
a remarkable group show. Visiting them takes one through
a progression of neighborhoods, architectural settings
and ways of making and presenting art - to arrive, at
least by my lights, at the suspicion that there is something
new and exciting percolating beneath the surface of
the art world of New York.
For one thing, there's something
of a youthquake going on, with a rash of young artists
interested, as most young people are, in the thrills
and dilemmas of being young. For another, New York art
is having a hands-on moment. While artists have always
worked with their hands, right now those hands seem
to be especially busy. Knitting, sewing and quilting
have a raised profile; so do quirky, even craftlike
ways of drawing and painting, and approaches to video
that make the medium feel thoroughly worked over - touched,
so to speak.
And the underground is everywhere.
It is no longer the pride or bane of a few gentrification-ready
neighborhoods. You can find new art on the Upper as
well as the Lower East Side; in Chelsea, which is much
less the homogenized blue-chip zone it is often thought
to be, as well as in Harlem.
Of course, these developments are
not entirely unrelated. They are, to stretch observation
into metaphor, all signs of people taking things into
their own hands, of a healthy autonomy. They have, for
me, the atmosphere of 1970's pluralism and laissez-faire,
but this time more fleshed out and purposeful. It is
less a pervasive condition than a question of personal
style, if not a philosophy. It may be perpetuated by
artists' collectives or by individuals working in so
many mediums that each artist could appear to be a one-person
These artists are confidant, free
of ideology and, despite being camera savvy and computer
adept, transfixed by the physical possibilities of art-making.
Using Photoshop doesn't mean you can't also knit. Taking
up a video camera doesn't mean you can't wield it like
a paintbrush, or edit with the precision of a jeweler.
Several of these shows may remind you that the children
of the original flower children are becoming artists.
After all, boiled down to its essence,
craft is simply concentration and care made manifest.
It is materialized love, which partly explains the sincerity
found in much of the new art that's around today.
Craft is also an effective way for
young artists to reclaim pop culture: a direct grass-roots
effort to subvert and reshape the stuff they have been
force-fed from an early age.
Kenny Schachter Contemporary
The place to begin this tour, because
it provides the most undiluted glimpse of youth-crazed
craft and love, is "Air Show," the tour-de-force debut
of Misaki Kawai at Kenny Schachter Contemporary, a gallery
on an old alley in the West Village that is straight
out of "Gangs of New York."
Ms. Kawai, who is 24 and lives in
Tokyo, gives new meaning to the word aircraft with a
fleet of elaborately handmade airplanes, accompanied
by puffy cotton jet trails and blue felt clouds. The
latter are sewn to the angled steel-mesh walls of the
gallery, whose intimist (read: tiny) industrial interior
was designed by the Acconci Studio.
Suspended in midair, Ms. Kawai's
fleet ranges from a large airliner to fighter jets and
biplanes, all stitched together from assorted fabrics
- underwear, baby blankets, flannel pajamas - that remind
you that patchwork is among the oldest forms of appropriation.
Ms. Kawai has the funky exquisiteness of the classic
dollhouse vernacular down cold, from tiny pillows and
emergency instructions to busy flight attendants and
imaginatively attired, werewolf-wigged passengers (their
faces are all photographs of Beatles) who are reading,
tending computers and, in one case, drawing.
She may be indebted to that master
of miniaturization Charles LeDray, but she could also
be the 21st century's version of Ettie Stettheimer,
the dollhouse-building sister of the self-taught painter
Florine Stettheimer, who was also one of the great art
salonistes of 1920's New York.
While in the vicinity, some
side excursions can provide further evidence of craft's
current prominence and recent history in art: "Cheap,"
a group show at White Columns; Tom Sachs's miniature
city at the Bohen Foundation; and, at Elizabeth Dee
in lower Chelsea, Kevin Landers's latest excursion into
handmade social commentary, which includes a plastic-putty-and-fabric
re-creation of the wall of
Nike sneakers made famous by Andreas Gursky's