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Six Views to an Exhumed Twinkie: Mel Bochner's "Strong Language," at the Jewish Museum, New York, May 2--September 21, 2014.

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As a child, I remember walking into a certain kind of shop with my father: devoid of customers, inexplicably barren of life, and replete with a stillness so profound that the intermittent buzz of fluorescent lights threatened to shatter eardrums. My father would survey the dust-encrusted shelves and, kneeling down to my diminutive height, whisper to me that he hadn't seen those brands and packaging since he was my age. I would trail behind his spindly form and call out, Twenty-five different varieties of generic soda! Nine brands of expired rice pudding! Seventy-eight identical knock-off Rice Krispies!

It's like a museum, he'd say loudly, hoping to lure a shopkeeper, or any sign of life, ffe'd give one last try to escalate the situation: A museum ... or a crypt ...

Despite my fathers and my best efforts at revivification, a shopkeeper would never emerge, and our fleeting fascination with the obsolescent scene would turn to frustration. A harangue on the self-indulgent superficiality of consumer capitalism. A grunt of disappointment and hunger. He would rattle a box on the shelf and shake a can or two and mutter, I here's nothing even in these old things anymore. It's not even food. They're just empty. Just sitting there. Just taking up space. What a shame.

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Drugs, my dad would conclude, they must actually be selling drugs.

Shortly after entering the Mel Bochner exhibition at the Jewish Museum, I began to miss my father's social protest vaudeville routine with an increasingly desperate intensity. I trailed past the endless, inane iterations of nearly identical sloppy, brightly colored megalith paintings and mourned how the work is fundamentally incapable of providing any sustenance whatsoever. How the exhibition suggested nothing so much as an emporium of expired goods long past their sell-by date. It's a showcase of antiquated, mercifully outmoded art world merchandise from days gone by.

And then I thought, Drugs. He must actually be selling drugs.

In 2003, my father called me: he was clearing brush from the hedgerow and exhumed an immaculate Twinkie carefully buried under the fence. In an instant I was transported to 1983, when my brother and I--alarmed at its artificial ingredients--buried one and vowed to dig it up again in 1993 to see if it survived. We promptly forgot all about it.

It's still there, said my father. It's still exactly the same as the day you buried it. Which is to say, its still just a piece of crap, and nothing magic has happened. As my mother took the phone from him, I could hear him mutter in the distance, decomposition would've been a blessing for that god-awful thing ...

Bochner's work has aged similarly to the Twinkie: both too well and not well at all. This is especially true in the paintings dated 2013 that are nearly indistinguishable from the paintings marked 1983. Early works in appropriated text with pencil and paper are intriguing due to their charms of scale and execution, but they give way to noisy, vapid paintings that scream and shout inanities with no purpose, cleverness, or skill. The fundamental concepts he is exploring--the banality of signifiers, the presumed hollowness at the core of human communication--are approached with such limited and insufficient insight that his obsessive replications of the same argument become depleting to the psyche.

The nested galleries of Bochner's work are exhausting in their vacuousness and superficiality--the work is distressingly lifeless, lethargic, and halfhearted. Blah blah blah, says one painting, and then blah blah blah answers another. Yawn, yawn, yawn, I answered back, but they weren't really paying attention to much of anything. just another boring day hanging around the gallery, they said to nobody in particular. Same old. Same old.

En masse, the paintings seem so incapable of insight in language, concept, craft, and aesthetics that they quickly join the art movement I like to call "consumer corporate expressionism"--non-threatening, innocuous, stultifyingly cheery, watercooler-friendly decor (depending upon one's taste in water). The lemon yellows, the Mediterranean azures, the lavenders and pinks and greens seem most at home behind a well-groomed reception desk, and I swear I saw Bochner's synonym lists on the Brainstorm Wall of an advertising agency in the suburbs of Indianapolis. The occasional titillating word could easily be hidden neatly behind a ficus tree during client visits. The tree could be removed during office holiday parties, when the staff is eager for a dose of irreverence.

Perhaps most painful is the insubstantiality of his text and language work. Although the curatorial context implied references to continental philosophy and the lexicon of critical theory, the closest Bochner comes to exploring language is with his index finger and thumb: he's gathered dollar-bin synonyms from the Merriam-Webster--a truly paralyzing, indifferent, uninspired, pedestrian, undistinguished, forgettable, lazy array of sloppy, lackluster, dull, mediocre, underactive, simplistic terms, phrases, and words. And all of the iterative bits, and all of the iterative bits of iterative bits of pre-and re-iterated bits are further iterated and then reiterated, which is to say duplicated, ad infinitum, forever and ever, eternally, tediously, without end, continually, interminably, in mimeographic insistency.

It's annoying. There are no charms here, just empty boxes that possibly once contained them.

Were Mel Bochner's pieces superficial, trite, and sloppy when they were painted in the height of the minimalist and conceptualist movements? Were they so lacking in nutritional value even at the time? Or did they simply fail to decompose into the fecund soil of the twenty-first century American cultural aesthetic?

And what happened a few years ago when he just started copying the work of others--for instance, when he duplicated three of Ed Ruscha's famous 1980s pastel ombre silk screens--is that the basis of a lawsuit, or just a crumb tossed between a couple of old salty dogs of the conceptualist sea?

The only conclusion I can draw is that time has been kind to Bochner's bank account, as this kind of retrospective will only increase the value of his paintings. But time has been no ally to his creative vision, which has taken forty years to reveal itself as banal fluff and empty calories.

A poor fellow's corner bodega is a rich fellow's uptown art market--to begin with, both truck in their bulk goods from climate-controlled storage spaces in New Jersey. And what's for sale here--banality? By the second gallery, I developed a lingering concern--irrational, I hope--that so much abject lifelessness and superficiality might possibly be addictive, like cocaine, or Diet Coke. So much noise and color, signifying nothing. Are these paintings supporting our superficial aesthetics, hooked as we are on the sound bite and the five-second device-swipe? Perhaps these paintings provide a cover story of meaning and substance, knowing that few consumers will linger long enough to realize the emptiness behind it all.

In reproduction, there is a certain graphic whimsy to the pieces that make them exceptionally well suited for tote bags, umbrellas, refrigerator magnets, and mouse pads.

And we need all that stuff. Really, we do.

By the third gallery, I wondered how such truly inconsequential work could have achieved a show of this stature. Here I was, deep in the guts of the show, and they were empty. I tried to place his work within that of his peers, and perhaps that's where the trouble truly started. Although the boys' club of the 1960s and '70s still maintains its insider status, secret handshakes, and lucrative connections, the actual artworks of some members like Bochner simply fail to withstand the test of time ... in many senses of that phrase.

Since the late 1960s, the white male minimalist/conceptualists established a canny capacity to harness the art world cash register. That capacity was--and presumably still is--only outmatched by their notorious capacity for exclusionary, thug-tactical bigotry and misogyny. Today, the art world's profit machinery depends upon the price-point manufacturing of a higher value for straight white male artists in its auctions, permanent collections, solo exhibitions, and career retrospectives.

Those of us alive today in the major cities of Europe and the United States have the singular misfortune of being forced to endure the attempted rehabilitation of the white male-dominated minimalists who are now approaching their twilight years: an important and dwindling timeframe in which they and their frenemies can profit from increased valuations of their work in the art market.

From the Carl Andre retrospective at Dia:Chelsea (a show that tidily sanitizes his involvement in the death of artist Ana Mendieta) to the various Mel Bochner shows doing the rounds, a waning generation of highly saleable but yawningly outdated artists are enjoying a last spasm of investment muscle from the one-per-center art world ... a world dying yet smiling from within the chokehold of hedge-fund managers with billion-dollar art storage crypts.

As we've learned from our own War on Drugs, addiction is a complicated machine, filled with more or less culpable moving parts that range from the vicious cartel juggernaut, to the desperate Afghan poppy farmer, to the alienated advertising exec hooking up in the hallway. When we stumble upon yet another exhibition of half-hearted, vapid artworks created by yet another elderly white male conceptual artist for the sole purpose of being digested in sixty seconds or less for the wholesale profit of Christie's and the tote bag industry, whom do we blame: ourselves? The marketing army? The museum? The collector? Tax shelters? Or the poor artist, scraping out a few measly million dollars a year with his army of robot drone assistants from within some drafty $80,000 per month SoHo garret?

Sometimes the only response left to the flummoxed bystander is to shake her head sadly, whisper, My God, what a waste, and get the hell out of the way. Unfortunately, of course, there are always a few folks who can't get out of the way, because theirs are the bodies that the crowd is trampling.

The minimalist-conceptualists have achieved a strong historical legacy and renown for their public and private cruelty toward female, African-American, Asian, and Latina interlopers in their field. These methods of exclusion remain an active topic of conversation in the fields of visual art, civil rights, and museum curatorial practice. Throughout recent months, anger is increasing around the entrenched bigotry and civil rights injustices in the fine-art marketplace. There have been a series of protests by Christen Clifford and the No Wave Performance Task Force held outside Dia:Chelsea, calling attention to the institution's erasure of Carl Andre's misogyny, his involvement in the artist Ana Mendieta s death, and the role of the other (white, male) conceptualist minimalists who sold work to bankroll his legal defense and the character assassination of Mendieta, a young Cuban feminist artist. This past spring, a trenchant and incisive protest was waged in national media by the Yams Collective around the 2014 Whitney Biennial's near-complete exclusion of women and people of color. In Los Angeles, Micol Hibron's staggeringly comprehensive "(en) Gendered (in)Equity" poster campaigns publicize the gender balance (or imbalance) in all of the top contemporary art galleries in Los Angeles.

As many have tirelessly pointed out, its also just plain boring art, a homogeneous, derivative duplication of the dominant paradigm. Bring those kids some Twinkies--its time for the moon landing. And make sure the maid gets home on time-this suburb has twilight laws for blacks.

These very contemporary present-day protests of antiquated aesthetics are an attempt to bring at the very least an honesty to the drug-front bodega of the art world. Because just like the drug-front bodega, the art world bodega thinks that even though they're charging ten dollars for that fifty cent box of crackers, you have to shop with them because there's no place else to go. I hope for an art world in which time is our friend, and not an enemy who forces us to continually revisit the inadequate, enervated artwork of antediluvian bigots whose price for attaining such behemoth status is their loss of nimble, agile, relevant creativity.

But there are still quite a few luminous, incisive artists whom the machinery has not yet anesthetized to the point of unconsciousness, atrophy, and irrelevance. When the thick glass doors of the Bochner show closed behind me, I returned to my studio and feasted my mind on a thriving, verdant hedgerow of text-and-painting artists--Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon, Sophie Calle, Mark Bradford, Barbara Kruger, Robert Colescott, Jean-Michel Basquiat, William Pope.L, Kara Walker, Renee Green, Jenny Holzer, and Lorna Simpson. Like Bochner, these are conceptualist artists working in text and painting, but unlike Bochner, the work they're creating has not passed its expiration date.

Quintan Ana Wikswo's projects integrate her original literature, visual art, and performance. Her works appear internationally, including three solo exhibitions at museums in New York and Berlin. Her book of short stories and photographs is forthcoming from Coffee House Press; other writing appears in Tin House, Guernica, Conjunctions, The Kenyon Review, and others. Her story "Strand" appeared in Confrontation 78/79 in 2002.
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Author:Wikswo, Quintan Ana
Publication:Confrontation
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 22, 2014
Words:2174
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