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Emily Nathan: The Engineer of Sunrays and the Pop-obsessed Provacateur

September 23, 2013

What the work of James Turrell and Paul McCarthy mean in the contemporary art world.

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Image from Flickr via admkrm

By Emily Nathan

“When humans go outside in the noonday sun, we squint, our pupils almost completely closed, and we put on sunglasses,” says James Turrell, the art world’s preeminent engineer of sunrays. “We weren’t made for that light—we were made for twilight, for the light of the cave.”

Now in his 70th year, this cultural supernova wears his beard full and white, a modern-day Monet. His hooded eyes are set beneath thick brows, and his features are long, as though stretched in an eternal yawn. There is something sly about him, and mischievous—and, though spoken slowly, his words vibrate with the curious, contained enthusiasm of a scientist on the brink of discovery.

His audience, on a scorching day this June, is a passel of New York City’s art press, gathered in the basement auditorium of the Guggenheim to preview his first solo museum exhibition since 1980. “Twilight is where you see color in its most precious form,” he continues, as editors from New York Magazine and Artforum fan themselves with press releases. “Because when you reduce light, the pupil opens, and feeling comes out of the eye as touch. And when you can really connect to light through touch, I think, is when you’re closest to it.”

Passed down through generations, postmodern disillusionment has been denuded, diluted by time, and disconnected from the source of its discontent, shedding its activist spirit and topicality like layers of skin.

The crowd sighs, held in the rapturous glow of the artist’s simple, primitive declarations; writers drag fingers across iPhones, click pens and jot notes on notepads. Despite his decades of experience—opening the roofs of international establishments to reveal the sky; orchestrating room-sized expanses of buzzing LED lights; transforming an ancient crater in the Arizona desert into a naked-eye observatory—Turrell is far from smug. He speaks earnestly, and describes his work in terms that are physical and sensory.

This marks, I think, a noteworthy shift in the zeitgeist. Since I entered the “contemporary art world” six years ago (as it is embodied micro- or macro-cosmically by New York City), I’ve been disheartened by my experience. The creative voices struggle to find something to say or invest in; they lack a cause, however quotidian it may be, to fight for or against. Passed down through generations, postmodern disillusionment has been denuded, diluted by time, and disconnected from the source of its discontent, shedding its activist spirit and topicality like layers of skin.

We find ourselves in a cultural climate that is regulated by institutions like Vice, which eschews the sincere in favor of the sardonic, prefers tossed-off to intentional, and dismisses the passionate with a roll of the eyes. Jeffrey Deitch, champion of the disaffected, invites Dan Colen and Dash Snow to fill his gallery with hundreds of shredded phone books like bedding for a hamster cage, performing as an “artwork” the destructive overnight pillage they usually reserve for exasperated hotel personnel. Nate Lowman parks O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco on the Brandt Foundation’s lawn as a cryptic finale to his exhibition, “I Wanted to be an Artist but All I Got Was This Lousy Career”—the crowd Tweets, Instagrams, and nods approvingly. Irony is the communicative mode of choice; apathy and excess rule.

The maw of this emotional and psychological void is opened wider still by the practical conditions of art making. Throughout history, the landscape of art has been shaped by concentrated moments of communal energy—often generated in the space between students and teachers and carried to gestation by those young artists as they developed. The pioneers of the Bauhaus brought Black Mountain College into existence, and nourished an entire generation of would-be Abstract Expressionists. Cal Arts in the 1970s practically bubbled over, as the likes of Tony Oursler, Barbara Bloom, Mike Kelley, and David Salle labored under the tutelage of John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Artschwagger. But in today’s info-maniacal age, it’s every man for himself—and without the spark of collective inquiry, revolution no longer originates in the classroom. The industry of art, and the motor behind the market, have become alienated from what is taking place on the ground, in studios and schools. In place of innovation, we have a parade of indistinguishable exhibitions featuring sloppy compilations of random YouTube footage or arbitrary arrangements of pizza boxes and Home Depot lawn furniture. It is clear that many young artists have no idea what they’re doing, let alone what they mean.

Enter Turrell. His fixation on light as a material, a method, and a mantra—developed during his undergraduate studies of psychology and mathematics, and honed at graduate school—amounts to a life-long gesamtkunstwerk, a “total work of art” that implicates his body and mind and renders his existence indistinguishable from his vocation. He has been an art-world fixture for decades: the rugged, eccentric go-to for sleek international museums in need of a crowd-pleasing spatial enhancement; a regular inclusion in group shows of California Light and Space Artists. Only now, though, is his star surging across the sky, his name flashing on the marquee. His abrupt omnipresence in big, important institutions (the Guggenheim, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and LACMA, to name three) indicates that something profound has changed in what we, as critics, curators, and viewers, want to see and to think about. Turrell is not hip or edgy, but he is a paragon of focus, commanding attention and demanding the engagement of every human sense. And it would appear that we are ready to enlist.

Turrell offers an antidote to the chaos of modern life; McCarthy seethes with and soaks in that chaos.

Take the concurrent reign of another venerated art force: Paul McCarthy, patron of the filthy and festering, senator of the scatalogical. McCarthy was born to an oppressive Mormon father in Utah, and although the architecture of his artistic journey is straightforward—creativity as a child, a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, a MFA from USC—its fruits are not. As a student in Los Angeles, McCarthy began using his body to explore the relationship between skin and space, dragging himself along the ground, face down in a wet strip of white paint, wrapping his head in tape, or smearing it with butter. Always the class clown, he donned masks and adopted personas, satirizing social roles and conventions. Infamously raunchy, scathing, personal and political, his installations, performances, and sculptures are full of repressed desires, violent allegories that rail against the serene and institutional, and bodily fluids.

The two artists might appear to have nothing in common. Turrell’s work encourages meditation; McCarthy is a “demented imagineer,” a “ribald, pop-culture obsessed provocateur” who divides critics and commandeers the press. In the specifics, they are indeed antipodal—and yet, McCarthy’s production represents another, different form of gesamtkunstwerk. At once seductive and repulsive, his nightmarish meta-vignettes feature actors playing actors, fathers shaming sons, and porn stars having sex for money in Brechtian parodies of performance, walking the line between fantasy and reality, allegory and autobiography.

Speaking to his own audience of journalists this summer, McCarthy described himself as “abnormally sensitized to the idea of the Patriarch,” forever deriving his energy from his relationship to his father. His work allows him both to sublimate and explore that obsession, satirizing idol worship and paternal power in a sort of ongoing catharsis. Turrell says that as he ages, his fascination with light evolves to match the color of his hair—and recently, it’s illumination of the ivory cast that has captured his attention.

Each in his own way, these men persevere as vestiges of the old fighting spirit that so many young artists lack, the devotion to contend with, understand, and live the world through their work. The form of their art practice is synonymous with its content; its medium, subject, and message are the fibers of their very beings. Turrell offers an antidote to the chaos of modern life; McCarthy seethes with and soaks in that chaos.

“I do believe we can make work outside of the system that’s critical,” says McCarthy, “but I will also try to make work within the system that changes something, that pushes against normality—cause normality is fucked up.”

Their parallel ascensions give me hope that we, as a cultural community, are waking up. The horrors of Vietnam have passed; the march toward Civil Rights echoes faintly—but there are always wars to wage. Whether it’s the properties of a light beam, cast against a desert stone, that gets your blood pumping, or a commitment to resist the insipid “condition of culture” with all its hypocrisies and theatrics, the world offers much to revolt, gratify, and ignite the imagination.

Emily Nathan is a New York-based art critic and associate editor at ARTnews Magazine.

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