New Pictures of Common Objects

MoMA PS1, New York

New Pictures of Common Objects, recently on view at MoMA PS1 [October 21, 2012–April 14, 2013] examined the nature of images today—their creation, manipulation, and overpopulation. The show, its title evoking Walter Hopps’ 1962 exhibition New Paintings of Common Objects, highlighted newer work from five emerging artists: Lucas Blalock, Trisha Baga, Josh Kline, Margaret Lee, and Helen Marten.

Resembling a foyer in a model home, Margaret Lee’s installation of sculptures and photographs concealed layers of conceptual puns. Vegetables were meticulously modeled in plaster and painted to appear lifelike. The produce(d) sculptures functioned as both object and image, as the plaster vegetables neatly transformed the sculptural practice of nature into into a representational exercise in plaster. The camera-ready eggplant was merged with a telephone and placed on an end table for Eggplant (phone) (2012)—reappearing nearby in a photograph framed and hung on the wall behind it in Eggplant (hello) (2012). Brazenly cheerful in its total artifice, the room was like a Christopher Williams photograph in three dimensions.

Lucas Blalock’s works plainly borrow from conventions of commercial photography, stock photos, and advertising, elevating a humble, deflated beach ball, precariously constructed white shingled house, and a collection of rubber bands hanging from pegs into tragic, stoic subjects through the stylistic tropes of portrait photography. His constructions of a fashion magazine spread and stock photos might best be described as bizarre pastiche. His photos encapsulated the exhibition’s aim of showing the elasticity of images created or in use today—works or ideas stretched to new, often unexpected purposes, revived, recycled, and reinterpreted as meme.

Helen Marten’s work is a reminder of the extent to which humor and revitalization—refreshing—function online. Images and once obscure references float freely, and popular culture, once the dictate of advertising and marketing firms, is now heavily crowd-sourced and user-generated. Dust and Piranhas (2011) is a film with two unusual characters: a Doric column and an Ionic column. Animating these figures of status and style in CGI, Marten has the cartoon columns rap onscreen, subtly implicating status symbols to blame for class consciousness. Trisha Baga’s “environment” was composed of fragments of what appeared to be other installations. A combination of her own filmed footage and popular memes was projected onto the piles of stuff, and a projection of a quivering three-dimensional white cube dominated the space. Her dismissal and proposal of once sought-after objects became her cool reminder to us that we all simply have too much; new possessions quickly lose their status and value.

Josh Kline made synecdochal portraits of a handful of his peers: molds of hands and feet of members of the creative class—feet in shoes from the “right” brands, hands holding name-brand sports drinks. For Flattery Bath 2 (2012), tastemakers were invited to take a bath in their choice of brands of bottled water in a suite at the Standard Hotel while Kline and his accomplices “bathed” them in compliments. Imitating quickly produced MTV shows, the graphics-heavy introductions for each “contestant” and straightforward production style made no distinction between program and commercial, perhaps operating as both. A slick graphic of a drop of crystal-blue water falling seamlessly into a pool moved between content and advertisement in this fictional program, leaving us feeling that we were watching something utterly of the moment—we were being simultaneously sold to and entertained. No guest in Flattery Bath 2 hesitated to accept and internalize the constant flow of compliments washing over them; watching the show through several participants’ baths, it became increasingly difficult to see the self-absorption as unintentional performance.

Social media is an inevitable part of connecting and reconnecting today, leaving participants no real option to disconnect from what is most immediate without feeling exiled. The work selected for this show seemed to not only accept but also embrace and endorse this artificial reality. Sometimes, as in Flattery Bath 2, the work packaged itself to benefit from its redistribution through online networks. Playing by the rules of media engagement, considered jaded opportunism a few years ago, is now savvy foresight—communication of one’s personal brand as never-ending performance.

I was the last person in the show as the museum closed for the day. As I walked down the hallways past the darkening rooms where New Pictures of Common Objects was installed, an uneasy feeling lingered. Leaving, I felt as though I was almost under surveillance, not just by the museum, but by the show itself: the vacant characters, both those created in Marten’s video and the participants in Kline’s, seemingly lingered after the screens went dark—perhaps, like our computers, always in sleep mode, but never fully turned off. We’re always signed in somewhere.

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