When images fall out of circulation, it may be because they were never any good to begin with, or because they’ve become redundant. The two often look alike, silencing and supersaturation. This ambivalent image of negation may account for the hollowness of many ‘good’ but unexciting artists today, as well as for the art-historical keywords that no longer seem to mean anything. ‘Institutional Critique’, ‘site specificity’ and ‘appropriation’ are so ‘successful’ that their denotative utility falls apart; they self-negate.
Consider the Pictures Generation. Nearly 40 years after Douglas Crimp claimed it the ‘first significant shift in current art since the demise of conceptual art’, it has become hard to imagine any art that doesn’t appropriate. When Crimp saw in artists like Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman a ‘representation freed from the tyranny of the represented’, he was, after all, ‘representing’ those artists, too, thus setting them up for a new tyranny, like a smart painter putting a clear glaze onto a previous, appropriated composition. Still, Crimp’s observation that ‘our experience is governed by pictures’ still seems vital today, as we enter even newer simulacra. Even more so when mediation has eclipsed any understanding of the ‘real’, and when images are produced by devices, bodies and brands under a new regime of spectacle and disappearance.
Could one re-picture Crimp’s 'Pictures' today? Many young artists already do. The current tautologies of painting’s insider history, and the corporate-assimilation techniques of first-wave post-internet artists seem like conceptual legatees of Sherman and Barbara Kruger. Yet if one were to attempt to re-picture 'Pictures' as an exhibition – as Susanne Pfeffer has done here in 'Images' – it would be wrong to start with such very recent artists. To simply re-apply Crimp’s own concerns, as Pfeffer recognizes in this exhibition of works mostly from the 2000s, would be to repeat the past, not appropriate the present. Repetition would not be ruled out as such, but since the ‘pictures’ in question are super-added with history, they thus involve both image-making and image-cancellation (processes of canonization or decanonization). Here, overexposure and overcirculation are causes for glare or blankness, and where ‘success’ in representation veers close to cancellation.
Counter-intuitively, a reasonable contender for a ‘representative’ image for this structure today might be Wade Guyton’s untitled series of inkjet prints on canvas (2006–08), done in the accelerating swing of digitization processes in the late 2000s (but before the financial crisis), and during the heyday of conceptual-procedural painting (but before ‘zombie formalism’) – and, now, layered with the additional component of a newer sub-history of painting that has sought to distance itself from ‘image circulation’ art such as Guyton’s. In Guyton’s series, five of which are included in the present exhibition, white canvases are overprinted with graphic ‘X’’s using UltraChrome printing technology. In the 2000s, we learned how even each ‘unique’ painting is a reproducible commodity, and how the glitch that marks these unique reproductions primes and compromises even that automation. It is, now, a critical best practice to resist Guyton’s (now market-sanctioned) art for being a one-liner display of how painting contains its own circulation structure, and how even its automatic processes fall outside of authorial control. But an ‘X’ consists not of one but two ‘one-liners’, and the second, decisive strikethrough here – seen today – is Guyton’s own status, as commodity and as name, circulating with and around this series, conditioned here as its second-order interruption. These next-level glitches – in an unexpected and novel curatorial treatment – come about when we interrupt, historicize or repress (as he has re-pressed ‘X’’s) names like Guyton’s, along with those of his contemporaries from the 2000s who attempted to capture and represent the emergent shifts of image-production and circulation today. In a combination that is nuanced, charged and productively alienating Pfeffer shows how they all look very different today than they did then.
Interruption – a mostly démodé critical maneuver of the 2000s, associated with, for one, the ‘glitch’ art of that era – was then the forceful, and (conscious or not) highly interesting curatorial manoeuvre of Pfeffer in this group show of works including Guyton, Cory Arcangel, Trisha Donnelly, Pierre Huyghe, Mark Leckey, Michel Majerus, Philippe Parreno, Seth Price and Sturtevant. The works on view fell somewhere between the neither ‘new’ nor properly old, all good but nothing screaming it, affixing a parallax view between the contemporary and the very recent past, and Crimp’s initial re-glazing. The result is a carefully conceptualized interruption in steadily accelerating art history, which remarkably manages to – negatively – capture much that’s happened in the production and circulation of images since the previous decade.
Rather than ‘images’, the 2000s here became the exhibition’s protagonist and theme. Huyghe’s neon text I Do Not Own Snow White (2005) might be interpreted as an attempt to confound authorship (but more accurately served as a teaser, or crowd pleaser to the show); Parreno’s TV Channel (1998–2013), an LED panel screening Parreno’s videos from the 1990s through the 2000s on a loop, eerily collapses any distinction between automation and authenticity. But the exhibition began its real work of re-simulation and representation when it tackled more ambivalent figures whose doctrinaire processes might seem like passé attempts to mimetically grasp the incipient processes of total digitization, especially those American artists working during and in the wake of the Bush era: Price (represented by digital prints on plastic employing distorted hostage videos, Hostage Video Still With Time Stamp, 2005), Guyton, Arcangel (Super Mario Clouds, 2002 and Data Diaries, 2003). Majerus’s untitled series of Pop-appropriation canvases (1996–2002) and a large-scale installation formed the heart of the exhibition, including a huge US flag digitally manipulated with an early ‘smudge’ effect. Majerus’s attempt to capture the overflow of images in the late 1990s (he died in 2002) seemed pleasurably futile, like trying to catch water through a net.
As art that once tried to look ‘new’ now looks positively dated, it’s beginning to feel like the appearance of novelty is not the dominant category of aesthetic progress. This should not mean the present is unrepresentable, but that it is masked and contradictory, and might cull from various eras simultaneously – appropriation through historical parallax. Pfeffer managed to mine the very recent past, and a not-so-recent critical dispositive, for a relief onto our own age, bringing contour to a set of themes that are, themselves, rapidly changing: whether the relationship of authorship to making; the aesthetics of technological decay, or the simulacra of Sturtevant or Leckey. Many will see this exhibition as a retrograde reassertion of now canonical artists. It’s too soon to say whether 'Images' will be met with the silence of appreciation or the silence of misunderstanding. Majerus put it well in the title of a 1998 canvas: ‘yet sometimes what is read successfully, stops us with its meaning’.