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Hoo Doo doo doo: Another blah blah blog rant
I saw the Hoo Doo show yesterday at the Menil, finally. Best to see it without the social diversion of the opening. (Why mix all this art with chatter and wine anyway? Why not for once just have an opening for its own sake as an “event?” Oops. That would be just a party. )
I hate shows like this, even if some of the work is good (some really good) and worth the effort of a look. But I goddamn guarantee you that audiences will love this because people love sanctimonious, holier-than-thou art.  It’s like these holy artists with their sacred work who belong to a special, secret club where only they understand the meaning of what’s right before your eyes and you couldn’t possibly know – without a label – or feel as they do because you’re not enigmatic enough and you’re not a part of the secret Masonic Art Lodge and don’t know anything about Vodun, ibeji twins or gelede masks. All that stuff is in the other part of the collection anyhow.
First, let’s make a list of the crap so we can get that out of the way. It can all be lumped in together anyway and it won’t take long to see why it’s a lot to do about not much. Here’s the crap:
All of it. All of it except for John Cage, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Marcos Reis Peixoto, David Hammons, and Brian Jungen (more on these later). It’s all derivative guilt art and so mediocre that it hardly needs explanation as to why. Here’s the formula: Make a little alter-esque symmetrical form, sprinkle it (“infuse” it) with supposed precious materials (don’t forget the gold leaf), use an overabundance of rusty nails and things in bottles, try to confuse the issue with plastic, then give it some historical/political title referencing slavery and Christianity. Jesus Christ. Let’s have some new clichés! 
If you haven’t been to Mass in a while you’ll love this show but you’ll have to do without the good incense smells. In the overtly Catholic vein, Ernesto Pujol staged priest photos are insipid, but then anyone who has a degree from a seminary and still claims to is a lost cause. Rebecca Belmore’s bleeding scar is not shocking. And when watching the Michael Joo video, I kept thinking about the cameraman instead.
For me, however, there are two all-time kings of crap in this show and their work needs to be called out for what it is and for its especially insulting nature. The work I refer to is that of Michael Tracy and Dario Robleto. I can barely tolerate it. As far as Tracy goes, this stuff is phony. There’s no way I believe that he believes. And if he doesn’t, who does he think he’s fooling?  How many cultural icons – remote, dead and dusty – can one steal and pretend it’s yours? He’s a goddamn cultural colonist in the worst way. The only thing that needs so many knives in it is swiped religious pseudo intellectual schtick like this. That would be a worthwhile sacrifice to the gods of sugar.
The last place trophy, however, must be awarded to the work of Dario Robleto and not because he’s not clever. He is. And he’s a nice guy to boot. But he forgot somewhere along the way that maybe some of us aren’t believers. What in the hell does “infused with dust” mean? How does one “infuse” something with something? Oh, I see, it’s a vague descriptor which suggests a secret process and we wouldn’t get it anyway, right? Wrong. Everything is infused with dust regardless of what the dust is. (Hold on a second, let me check inside my shoe. Yup. There it is.) There’s no need to add any more dust to anything and no pile of dust is more special or sacred than the next. Hell, if someone had some sort of special Geiger counter for rock and roll radio-isotopes (pun intended), one could probably detect a little bit of ground up Crazy Horse in everyone’s fabric, although I’d hope I’d have an overabundance of Sex Pistols. Does one really think that 500 years from now someone, without any understanding of the supposed context of the materials Robleto uses, will think that it’s interesting? I really wish that someday it will be revealed that the precious things he makes was all really just cut up craft paper and white glue he got from the dollar store and he didn’t go through all the trouble of finding weird stuff on eBay and chewing on it for three days and he really just threw it in the wash to soften it up and this whole time he was just kidding with those tedious titles with endless media lists. Now that would be funny. And interesting. Forget it though. There’s not one bit of irony or paradox, let alone surprise in Robleto’s work. Even with all the disparate, supposedly esoteric materials used, it’s just so damn narrow and didactic. And it’s boring to look at. And if I can’t get it with just seeing it myself, how am I supposed to understand it? Are we to be infused somehow? And because you can’t get it all by yourself, Robleto has to explain it to you in titles that are paragraphs long. It would be nice for once to read “mixed media.” With or without the trumped-up titles, Robleto’s work is not worth a glance.
Oh hell. Really, I don’t care what Tracy or Robleto do. There’s plenty of room for everyone in this world and they’re free to do as they please. But don’t for a second make me think it’s holy or sacred or mysterious and therefore important. Not for a nanosecond.
The real sin committed here is curatorial, and it’s a mortal one, and it’s most clearly reflected in the inclusion of the work of John Cage in this show and theme. To include his work in anything remotely related to religion is to grossly misunderstand Cage. Just because these pieces look all abstract expressiony doesn’t mean they are or are even close. Including the work of John Cage in this show is sloppy fucking thinking if you ask me. Which is worse than no thinking at all. The reason it’s so bad is that some people will believe this curatorial nonsense blindly and accept the idea that there’s some religion in all art. And since when did art become a stand-in for religion? No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Just as one should not believe everything one reads, one should not believe everything one sees in a museum, even if it is the Menil Collection. Cage has nothing to do with religion or spirituality and everything to do with what simply is, which people often mistake for religion.
As far as the actual pieces of John Cage in this show, they are nothing to write home about. I never was a big fan of Cage’s visual stuff and these pieces are, like the rest of his drawings or prints, nothing exceptional. When I listen to Williams Mix, for example, what I see are not images like the ones presented here, not that I’m supposed to. It’s just that I think a lot of Cage’s music is actually interesting to listen to, independently from the ideas behind them, and his visual work is not actually interesting to look at. But, Cage being Cage, anything he does deserves some consideration.
I don’t understand, however it’s explained, why Brian Jungen’s work is here but I’m glad to see it. Someone who gets all of his art material at WalMart or Foot Locker can’t be all bad. His stuff is funny and beautifully, formally interesting at the same time. As a comparison (forgive the nick-pickiness) I find it more formal and less funny than the work of Tom Sachs, a kindred spirit (forgive the term), but I do like it.
Also funny is the stage by Felix Gonzales-Torres. I know that in this show it’s not supposed to be that funny and it’s supposed to be about “absence” or longing or “that which is not there,” but just the same I miss the gay guy in silver Speedo’s wearing headphones. Simply put, the piece is better with him. I’m sure someone could explain how this piece evokes a religious “oh God” experience but then I could counter that all sex does that. And if you throw in a little absurdity, as Gonzales-Torres does here with context, you’ve really got something. That said, this is one of the few Gonzales-Torres pieces I do like, many of the others not having enough “there” there.
David Hammons’ Thunderbird bottle wheel is beautiful in a “Negritude, nothing fits but everything works”  wabi-sabi way. Done just a few years after his snowball selling piece, it’s another confirmation that you don’t have to have or spend money to make good art, an antithetical approach these days. Hammons’ work is not about the spiritual transformation of trash into art and I don’t give a shit what anyone says. It’s about being radically and quintessentially inventive and American and to make something out of nothing then to successfully transform it into a commodity. Now that is miraculous.
I think my favorite piece in this show, the image of which rests nicely on the cover of the exhibition catalog, is the fluorescent light bulb piece of Marcos Reis Peixoto. Very handsome, simple and formally succinct. I suppose one could see halos or the eternal now through the overt use of the circular motif, but I just see a light sculpture with fluorescent lights from Home Depot arranged casually and somehow logically on the floor. And for me, there’s enough beauty in that alone.
The curator, Franklin Sirmans would wish us to believe, as he somehow must, that the kind of “Colonization, oppression, slavery and the resulting diverse population” he refers to is specific to our culture and therefore this art. It is not. Nor is it peculiar to this hemisphere or this time. While the cast of characters is different, that stuff is everywhere. What people find exotic or mysterious is just that stuff that is not familiar to them, that’s out of their intellectual locale, that stuff that’s over there and not here. And that begins to get at the core of my problem with this show, or rather, the theme of this show.
Once and for all let me say this. You’ve heard it before, you’ve seen it before, you’ve read it before, but somehow it’s been forgotten it even though the Enlightenment was way back when. Let me remind you. It either all is or it all ain’t. By “it,” I mean everything. The sacred, holy, funny, blissful, wonderous, miraculous, grotesque, dull, simple – everything. By “all” I mean all. Again, and for the last time, it either all is or it all ain’t. Once you get past the Tooth Fairy and Santa and religion, the real choice, as if we really had any to begin with, is not one between good and evil, the sacred and profane. It’s way, way, way more than that. And it’s difficult, and you need to think, and you need to not adopt some set of aesthetic commandments and think that now the thinking and the work is over. It’s not “some of it is and some of it’s not and only some of us know and only some of us can tell you because we’re the enigmatic high priests of art.” If you fall for this ruse, I’ve got some real estate I’d like to show you. Recognizing that it either all is or it all ain’t is the issue. This is the only choice we have and the crux of the matter. Once you figure out which is which (and only you can do that) you can get on with things. Superstition ain’t the way. 
Okay. So I said it. Now, go over there.
1 See “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art,” 1970, Tom Marioni, Oakland Museum. http://www.tommarioni.com/
2 “…we require art with the patina of disinterested, institutional solemnity that will ennoble our ennui with the bronze haze of pedagogy – to make our experience less selfish and more saintly.” – Dave Hickey
3 Samuel Goldwyn.
4 “Fool me once…shame on… shame on you. Fool me… can’t get fooled again.” – George W. Bush
5 David Hammons [http://www.heyokamagazine.com/HEYOKA.2.ARTVIEWS.HAMMONS.htm]
6 Stevie Wonder
also by Peter Williams
- Two and ‘fro - October 26th, 2008