Seeing the Ryan Trecartin exhibit at PS1

Now that I have seen Ryan Trecartin’s exhibit “Any Ever” at PS1 for myself, I think it can be fairly said that, in time, Trecartin is more likely to be seen as the most inconsequential artist of his generation and not, as Peter Schjeldahl had it in his New Yorker review, the most consequential.  I mean this both as a neutral observation and a value judgment.

The videos are installed in seven adjoining rooms at the museum, each cluttered with furniture related to some of the sets in the videos but otherwise not contributing much to the experience in terms of context or atmosphere.  Though each room has a low-level, ambient audio playing, headsets are required to experience the full, screeching assault of the frantically-edited, squeaky-voiced narrative.  The first twenty minutes of this is quite excruciating but then the central nervous system capitulates and it becomes easier to bear.

Much is made, in reviews and the wall text, of the numerous “characters” to which the viewer is introduced but a single paragraph of the laughably inscrutable wall text offers greater character development than many hours of interlinked videos.  The characters don’t function as types so much as parodies of types and the work as a whole reads less as a distillation of youth culture than as a bastardization of it, intended to appeal to an aging generation of art critics who were young in the Sixties and learned from that era that the surest line to take is to celebrate whatever the kids are doing.  Today, the actual kids — or, anyway, the twenty-something hipsters at PS1 with me — responded to the work with no visible pleasure or evident identification.   If Schjeldahl or Roberta Smith (who called the exhibit “game-changing” in a mostly glowing review in the Times) were younger they might have realized that the best way to describe Trecartin’s work is that it’s like watching the static content of 4chan turned into a video stream and amped up to hyper speed.  If you’re many decades removed from youth culture, that description might sound laudably zeitgeisty but if you’ve spent much time on 4chan you realize just how trying a video stream of it would be.

Peter Schjeldahl’s review (my response to it can be read here) was the more hyperbolic in its claims and threadbare in its argument so is the more quickly dismissed.  I wrote at the time that Schjeldahl’s review read as a kind of duel-commencing glove slap to the face of former Times critic Michael Kimmelman, who in 1999 made a similarly chest-thumping and unpersuasive declaration that Matthew Barney was the most important artist of his generation.  Schjeldahl was specific in saying that Trecartin was the most consequential artist “since Jeff Koons,” which elides Barney’s entire career in one deft phrase.  But what I came to understand at the PS1 exhibit is just how similar his work is to Barney’s.  To be sure, there are aesthetic differences, but in both cases their narratives replicate like fractals in a surfeit of superficially distinct artistic choices — hundreds of characters, thousands of props, infinite obscure storylines and internal mythologies — that mistake the exercise of choice for the creation of meaning or sensation.  What is most remarkable about seeing Trecartin’s videos installed at PS1 is how utterly the same they all are and how impossible it is to imagine that Schjeldahl — or anyone, really — could actually sit through every minute of this work he trumpeted.

Roberta Smith may have called Trecartin’s show game-changing (click here to read my response to her review) but at least she took a stab at defending that claim.  The core of her argument was this:

[Trecartin’s] art could be said to combine the retinal extravagance of much 1980s art with the political awareness of the ’90s and the inclusiveness and technological savvy of the postmillennium. This exhibition shreds the false dichotomies and mutually demonizing oppositions that have plagued the art world for decades — between the political and the aesthetic, the conceptual and the formal, high and low, art and entertainment, outsider and insider, irony and sincerity, gay and straight. Queerness here is not a cause; it is a constant condition that has now permeated the culture at large.

To be sure, no one can deny that Trecartin indulges in a staggering amount of retinal extravagance but to anyone who remembers the sometimes strident but often forceful politics addressed in the art of the 1990s Trecartin’s videos seem about as political as the Gawker home page.  As for the “technological savvy of the postmillennium” this seems almost exactly wrong: his videos are undoubtedly murder to edit for reasons of sheer tedium but they are ostentatiously unsavvy and as much a throwback to the cheap graphics and early-video aesthetics of the 1980s as Cory Arcangel’s Atari hacks.

And so to the issue of the false dichotomies, which young Trecartin is credited with resolving in his work.  High versus low art?  Conceptual versus formal?  Can we still be discussing this?  These are indeed false dichotomies — not just in that they were never fully opposed but that their supposed opposition was resolved a decade or two ago, in some cases many decades ago.  Their insertion now into Smith’s review suggests an attempt to pad out the claims made on Trecartin’s behalf.  I mean, really: no kidding that queerness has permeated the culture at large — where would Lady Gaga be without it?


7 Responses to “Seeing the Ryan Trecartin exhibit at PS1”

  1. Vanessa says:

    Too right. I, too, have seen this work recently – it is,
    frankly, excruciating to watch in its entirety. Indeed, I did not see many at
    PS1 on that crowded Saturday with the staying power to. And if that was the
    point, then, bravo! I’m no art critic, but five years on, the banality and lack of progression in Trecartin’s work are beginning to show. More interesting than the work itself is the reaction of viewers. If the artist’s intent
    was to determine the threshold at which the human mind can be dulled into submission
    by–or is already desensitized to through multimedia overexposure–the frenetic,
    shrieking, lunatic onslaught, that for me would be the most relevant commentary
    today. I credit Trecartin with having tenacity to edit the
    four hour final product and the self-belief to sustain the ruse that this is
    consequential art. But I suppose that’s easy with so many supposedly
    consequential critics falling at your feet.

  2. R. Emora says:

    Glad I found your site. Completely agree with you. You don’t have to see his work to see his work. Just turn on the TV while you surf the internet while you talk on the phone. This is what drives me crazy about so much art and the art world. It’s not adding (or subtracting) anything. It’s just more noise but since the art world elevates it, it supposedly is more than what it is.

    Best line in your article btw — High versus low art?  Conceptual versus formal?  Can we still be discussing this? haha! so true

    • Sean Rocha says:

      Thanks for writing. Glad you liked my review, if not Trecartin’s work — I have to say, the exhibit was the kind of thing that depresses even a contemporary art lover.

      I hope you enjoyed the other posts on my site. Please considering subscribing: the link is in the upper right corner of my home page and requires no registration.



  3. Lennypierramos says:

    when an artist does something completely new and genius it’s never surprising to see negative responses such as yours, however, This exhibition has now travelled to the museum of modern art in Paris , the most conservative city in the art world in my opinion, so It seems fair to say that Trecartin has managed to really produce work that moves people and says something relevant about the times we live in. 
    It’s interesting to read with Critics wrote about , say ,Rothko  when his paintings first came to their attention, and how well they are understood now, and how relevant they were and continue to be…. 

    • Sean Rocha says:

      You’re right that some great work is received negatively at first and then becomes accepted (and revered) in time, though all negative reviews are not a sign of future greatness. Anyway, I cannot recall a young artist since Matthew Barney who has received such unreserved praise from such prominent art critics as Trecartin has. As I wrote in this piece, when Kimmelman lauded Barney he wrote so little to support the claim that it felt more like a coronation than art criticism and I felt the same about Peter Schjeldahl’s chest-thumping review of Trecartin — it read to me as an art critic trying to ‘make’ an artist. Roberta Smith did a more commendable job, I thought. But then I saw the exhibit myself and thought I understood — in a formulaic, by the numbers sort of way — what those aging art critics would celebrate in his work.

      But here is a question: what do you personally respond to in Trecartin’s work? What, for you, makes his work completely new and genius?


  4. Lenny pier ramos says:

    Dear Mr. Rocha,I am glad you asked how I personally respond to Trecartin’s work and very happy to answer your question, for I think it might help me translate an emotional reaction into  something, I hope, intelligible if not articulated. Because, you see, that is how I first responded to Trecartin”s work, in emotional terms.  I will not venture to discuss any of the plastic dimensions of his work because I do not think that would be relevant. Instead I’d rather try and make sense of the subject and the emotional dimension. 

    Since I already used Rothko as an example, I would like to take the comparison further because it seems to me, despite the obvious distance between their work, that they are after similar goals. Trecartin was quoted ( ) in the Times in 2009 saying he wished  for viewers to leave his work with a deep emotional response to a reflection of their culture .  I believe he is successful in doing that. When I first saw one of his videos (it was on the internet and not in the context of a museum) I thought this was just the work of some kids recording silly things in their parents’ basement.  But the more I watched, the more I started to feel uncomfortable; it was maybe a bit too precise to be strictly teenage self parody,  it made too much sense, between the cheap furniture we all feel strangely familiar with, whatever country we are from and the Jersey-shore/MTV/myself-after-too-many-drinks verbal diarrhea; there was clearly a point of view driving the madness of this video. 

    Rothko wrote the following  in 1943, in a manuscript draft of a letter to the editor of the New York Times, after his work had been subject of criticism:
    It is Strange altho’ no longer new that art should persist in evolving these chimeras, these unreasonable distortions, this outward savagery & apparent ugliness and brutality. But strange or not the gifted men of our time have all persisted in this barbarism & will continue to do so until the aspects of our civilization change, when I do not know. (…) I am therefor neither the first nor the last painter of our day who will continue to reveal new aspects of these timeless myths. And the critic and sociologist still continues to rail against that which by this time should have impressed itself upon him as inivitable: For it is just as ineffectual to rail against this as it is to rail against the excessive materialism of our every day life. 

    It is clear that Rothko was disgusted by a lot of aspects of society which he thought were barbares and that he wished to express some of this human tragedy in his work. He felt man despite his ” seemingly ascending reason” would continue to offer “potentiality for carnage” .  I do not think that Trecartin necessarily feels the same disgust for these aspects of society but he clearly  points out some of the ugliest and most brutal aspects of modern culture in his work.  At least that is the first thing I felt after a few minutes of watching his videos. 

    I personally would not use Jeff Koons as a comparison to Trecartin. For me Koons IS part of the problem ; he does not point it out.  Him and other contemporary artists which there is no pint in listing, have obviously manipulated the market and made themselves very rich men and women selling mass produced cheap tricks ; which Rothko famously refused to do.  Something tells me that this also isn’t the case for Trecartin.  I think his work is offering a vivid portrait of the modern monster, the cheap, the throw-away, the young-perverting-for-profit,  the sometimes hilarious but often terrifying modern chimeras.  Every generation, the artist has to solve the problem of how to represent the human drama in a way that is consequential to his time and for me, in that respect, Trecartin is doing just that. He succeeded in letting go from most past representations of it to create one that is reflecting a distorted yet very powerful and communicative image of the present. 

    Sincerly yours,

    Lenny Pier Ramos
    Paris, November 2011

    • Anonymous says:

      Thank you for taking the time to write. I must concede that I would not have thought of Rothko in this context. While art history is objective (or tries to be) the experience of art is highly personal: part of its enduring magic is that everyone responds differently to a work, bringing their own perspectives and references to it. Years ago at Gagosian I saw Douglas Gordon’s “Play Dead; Real Time” — a video in which a camera slowly circles an elephant — and was absolutely transfixed. So, really, you never know.

      I suspect that Trecartin would very much like to have the experiential power of Rothko’s work — and, really, which artist wouldn’t? — but I felt nothing like that myself at Trecartin’s exhibit. If his work did that for you then he has triumphed. In time, we can judge the full scope of his influence by whether other artists pursue and develop this path in unexpected ways.


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