Contemporary artists are involved in an imaginative dialogue with mass culture. They flirt with television and tabloid images and mimic the photo-op effects of mainstream magazines. Sculptors and installation artists shop in the aisles of the big box stores and then come home and make art from what got stuffed in the shopping cart. The results of these activities are wildly different from their original inspiration. Fueled by a passion for making, combined with a creative impulse, artists are processing mass culture materials with vibrant imagination. Studio practice seems charged with enthusiastic energy these days, and an eclectic approach to materials is matched by an equally heterodox attitude. Hardware and day-glo, organics and plastics - the detritus and objects of every aspect of everyday life - are being combined with all the strategic tactics of no-holds-barred anything goes, if you can make it work within a conceptual sensibility. Current work vibrates with the pulse of consumerism and media, but it also sets itself apart. How?
Artists have to struggle against the tsunami of visual culture, swimming upstream against the impossible odds of competing for attention against the big screen, box office, and home entertainment center streaming sources of simulacral and spectacular experience. Fine art occupies a very small niche in this cultural ecology. It serves some highly specific purposes in some very particular ways. Contemporary artists are fully and totally aware that they don't live outside of the world of mass culture. Art doesn't get us out of anything; it doesn't offer transcendence or escape. And it isn't made from a safe, pure place immune from the ideology of contemporary life.
The artists in this exhibition all acknowledge their complicity in the system in which they are produced and become producers. They realize that their aspirations and work are caught in a web of contradictions. As artists, they are caught up in myths of originality, individual voice, alternative culture, independent thought, the idea of un-alienated labor and the rarified object. But they know that these are myths that serve the mainstream culture. Celebrity success is one of the siren calls of the mainstream to which complicit artists admittedly respond, even while they trumpet the values of art.
But what does that mean? What can art do and be in such a corrupt world? Very simply, it creates awareness. Artists make objects that stimulate perception and offer the possibility of thinking differently about the world and its values. No particular agenda underlies such an approach. The task of fine art in an over-administered world such as our own is not to preach or proselytize as if from a stance of moral superiority. The role of art - and more importantly, the work of artists - can't be circumscribed in advance by adherence to a critical or moral agenda any more than to a political one. It serves an aesthetic purpose. It awakens us to the limits of what we know, feel, experience, to what and how we process perception, to the categories and limitations of habitual thought, to the blind spots of cultural and historical circumstance.
Nothing calls us to attention in the same way or to the same extent as fine art. Aesthetic experience shifts us out of alignment, momentarily disturbing our habits of thought. It makes a space apart. It brackets, selects, and focuses our attention. It reworks a subset of forms from among the superfluities of mass-mediated life. That space apart is a space for awareness, the space from which to think reflectively or reactively about the symbolic media in which we swim, unwitting fish in an ideological stream.
This exhibition presents a cross-section of artists who are all actively in dialogue with American mass material culture. All are committed to the task of using studio practice to make works that provoke us to see that culture differently. And they are working with seductive, engaging, visual forms as a way to shape perception. Ambiguities and tensions abound. Some mimic the production values of the culture industry while trying to preserve the formal signs of originality. Many admit their distance from the artists of the early avant-garde, knowing they can no longer pretend to operate outside of the culture they inhabit. Autonomy is completely gone, vanished with other forms of modern innocence. Today's artists are fully, painfully, grimly aware that they are already seduced and enmeshed in cultural machinations, but they cling to the belief that aesthetic discourse is one of the few forms of independent, alternative expression in our age.
We've stated the themes of the exhibition in a hybrid and synthetic critical vocabulary. The language is supposed to imitate the style of the works on display with their sense that that stuff is made out of other stuff. The images refer to other images. And the sculpture is made of familiar things that are the elements for creating another form. But the conviction that fresh ideas arise is also very present. And unlike the pieces that showed up in 1980s postmodern galleries, they have a sense of humor, play, and optimism about invention. Many of these works offer themselves for immediate and direct appreciation. The need for heavy duty, critical gloss is gone. The associations are legible, tangible, materially encoded. These are richly resonant works, and many also rhyme with the work of past masters or mass culture icons. Postmodern contingency - the response to the modern assumptions of autonomy and formal self-sufficiency - have now been shifted another notch. Everywhere we look in the world of fine art there's an active rhetoric of visual seduction and play. This work borrows shamelessly from pop culture and media landscapes, even as it signals its distance from those domains by the peculiar strangeness of its re-combinations and transformations. This work rushes into the gap between de-familiarization and re-integration with all its richly material, associative, provocative existence.
What is it, then, that makes art different from the products of mass culture? Artist-driven work continues the romantic tradition of re-imagining the world, opening the doors of perception, and maintains the avant-garde belief in "making-strange" as a way to renew a mind dulled by habits of thought. Contemporary artists remain committed to the project of imaginative work. But instead of working from a false premise of autonomy, as if they were somehow different from or outside the world in which they work, these artists acknowledge the contradictions and complexities of operating in a culture with which they are, whatever their reservations and objections, complicit.