Gagosian is pleased to present American Pastoral…
So starts off the press release.
The exhibition at Gagosian, London, until March 14, 2020, borrows its title from the 1997 novel of the same name by Philip Roth, in which the idyllic life of the New Jersey protagonist, Seymour, comes posthumously to represent an unravelling of the American Dream, a dream we even now recognise as being dogged by political and familial turmoil.
Gagosian Inc. and its 18 international exhibition outlets represents a side of the art world that some find hard to stomach in terms of commercialisation and corporate brand, but actually one must recognise that it is a brand built on the stable of artists it represents and some of the very smart cookies that work on its behalf.
More cynical reviewers may perceive this show as a way of clearing some big name overstocks, and there is no doubt that the supposedly bucolic theme is a pretty loose interpretation of a genre which is so open as to be near-meaningless. Despite the non-curation though, some of the works stand up well to scrutiny, both visual and ideological. Ed Ruscha’s Hydraulic Empire (2019) is one of the few very contemporary works in the show, whilst Cindy Sherman’s Untitled (2010-2012) and Diane Arbus’ A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. (1968), are contributions remain unsullied. Violette Banks makes a characteristically good stab at it, whilst Thomas Cole, Theaster Gates and Thomas Moran are painfully juxtaposed in an attempt to persuade us of the exhibition title, but just end up looking like they are there to fill the walls and give a semblance or respectability. And so, amici miei, there ends the good news.
Koons’ Toy Cannon (2006-12) is quite telling and somewhat emblematic of the show, not only in terms of the production date(s) of the work, but also in terms of the works ‘datedness’. As if to parallel Roth’s narrative, the age of Koonsian self-parody seems to have reached a point of collapse here. After all, when faced with the inflated, but impossibly real, nobody does it better than Donald John Trump (1946-) - excepting perhaps for another former Gagosian stablemate, Duane Hanson – but seriously you couldn’t make it up?
I feel a tinge of sadness that the selectors have chosen to present some third-rate works by some first-rate artists: Helen Frankenthaler, Jeff Wall and Richard Prince deserve much, much better. There is a mutuality in the reputational risk that the gallery is entertaining here, especially in an art market which seems to be increasingly febrile and unstable; the logical premise of the issue for me is this: If the artist and gallery are synonymous signifiers that stand for each other as proxies for quality, when one is compromised, so is the other. Whilst I will cherish the best of Jeff Wall’s work until my dying breath, I regret the appearance of his work (and others) under this banner, this venue and in this company.
It’s not enough that the bucolic American Pastoral show peels away from the titular idyll like a poor quality window vinyl, but the fact is that seems to have mutated into a weirdly distorted version of itself. Despite the best efforts of some of main exhibitors and a glorious space, in the final analysis, the show cannot support its own weight. Like some bloated caricature of an art exhibition, the sun-bleached carcass of this white cube is become a sterile biosphere, incapable it seems, of supporting creative life.
It isn’t a bad show, it isn’t all bad art either, but that’s why it is so bad. To parody Twelfth Night: some exhibitions are born mediocre, some achieve mediocrity and some have mediocrity thrust upon them. I fear in this case it is what has been achieved.