Can Formalism Be Political?

by Whitney Kimball on November 21, 2013 · 2 comments Reviews

"Snail Salon" at Regina Rex

“Snail Salon” at Regina Rex

Painting may have never reflected the life and culture of New York City more closely than it does now in the sense that both have the feel of an epicurean walking tour. Whereas you can go through the Lower East Side sampling dim sum, chicken and waffles, and Bavarian pastries, lately the art world’s been offering its own form of culture-sampling: a handful of karaoke-themed shows, “Painting and Flowers,” “PIZZA TIME!,” “Bathers,” “Jew York,” “Hair Show,” and “Snail Salon”. They’re not the same, but they tend to share an uninhibited mood, freedom not to be confined by a feeling but to float around from one to the next. This also makes it inherently apolitical.

“Snail Salon”, for example, is all about ambiance. Curator Adrianne Rubenstein describes the premise of nail salon as “a photographic unreality, in a dream, in a fairytale, in a place where vision is free of emotion.” It’s filled with cool, facile painting which blends its color and marks like expert mixology: Heidi Jahnke’s beautiful, but Dana Schutzian, pastiche; Peyton Cosell Turner’s faux eyelash wallpaper; Elizabeth Jaeger’s ceramic hands used as the centerpiece of a working fishtank; a dash of Helen Frankenthaler and Jutta Koether. Most noticeably, the show transforms a small concrete box into a nail salon dreamspace. Between Barb Choit’s splashy Nagel poster and the economically electric neon paintings of Mira Dancy on the opposite wall, you can fully immerse in the fantasy with none of the illusion-breaking art questions. It’s like experiencing Claes Oldenburg’s pastry case for the frosting, the beauty of skill without labor.

It’s like nothing I’ve seen in the real world; for some, that’s the problem. Last year, artist Christopher Ho attributed this to “The Clinton Crew” generation, children of the nineties whose work reflects that easy decade. Ho sees the direct activism of the eighties and nineties—Suzanne Lacy, Barbara Kruger, David Wojnarowicz—being replaced by a formalist wave of the late 2000s—Joshua Abelow, Dana Frankfort, Roger White. Ho believes that the generation born of “liberal, educated parents and baby boomer wealth” make work defined by a bubble “between AIDS and 9/11.”  The death of painting was meant to be the birth of a new art, which could be brought to bear on the real and terrifying problems of an imperfect world. Instead, formalism took over where politics disappeared.

This may not be a generational problem so much as knotty times, as Jerry Saltz put it. Political artists like Lacy and Wojnarowicz were emerging at a time when rents were cheap, jobs were plentiful, and there was room to define one’s career on a smaller budget and outside the gallery circuit, where formalism seems to thrive. Also likely (and also probably symptomatic of a bad economy) formalism’s thriving because the art world is full of formalists.

That’s fine; like jazz musicians or chefs, some artists didn’t choose art out of a political will. You can’t force a revolution on people who don’t want to have one.

But if art wants to bear a relationship to the world outside, eventually, this has to end. If it’s anything like art, it’s going to, and a few recent shows make me hope that it will.

Michael Assiff’s “Bali Ha’i”, for one, looks like it would fit in with the fantasy narrative of nearby “Snail Salon”; it’s like walking into a Nintendo-themed Happy Meal, with bright green plastic islands poured into tropical-patterned molds. But the further you go into Assiff’s fantasy, the more you’ll find sadness. His patterns are extinct species, whose death year is tallied by Monster energy claw marks. The title, and the overall motif, comes from a Las Vegas “tropical”  golf course, a nod to what Assiff calls the “happy forest” narrative we enjoy when we consume. It’s still a little fun for paintings about mass extinction (the show comes with mango lassi and other edibles) but it’s still hard to leave without thinking about it.

Darren Goins's "Flexible Sculptures", 40th Street and Queens Boulvard

Darren Goins’s “Flexible Sculptures”, 40th Street and Queens Boulvard

It’s a fantasy that embraces the world, as awkward and ugly as it is. It made me think of another painter Darren Goins– his latest series of  cool, shimmering exercise bars (“flexible sculptures“) look like they would fit a perfect world. But instead they’re made for New Yorkers. Goins constructed the models in collaboration with kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Astoria, then installed them under the 7 train in Queens, and hired three performers off the Internet to free-pose on them during rush hour. The result was weird. Three people in sweatsuits did some push-ups, hoisted legs in the air, swung around a pole with one arm. Goins’ use of the gym-theme felt less like a fantasy than an invitation to participate. Commuters didn’t seem to know what to do, except meditatively stand around and smoke cigarettes together. The goals seem similar to KnowMoreGames’ current transformation into an Air BnB, where a show is made only for the random guests who sleep in the gallery. By career standards, these works do everything wrong. That’s a good sign.

Scott Reeder's  "Alternate Titles for Recent Exhibitions I've Seen", from "People Call Me Scott" at Lisa Cooley

Scott Reeder’s
“Alternate Titles for Recent Exhibitions I’ve Seen”, from “People Call Me Scott” at Lisa Cooley

And nobody sums up the painting dilemma better than Scott Reeder’s list painting  “Alternative Titles for Recent Exhibitions I’ve Seen at Lisa Cooley, like “Good Job! (100% Like Everything Else)” and “Painting Is Dead, But These Paintings Are Still Available”. Reeder could add his own art-world-eyeroll to his list of tropes (he’s been at this for a while). But rather than blaming money, per the norm, or art history, as he has in the past, Reeder blames the polite tedium on the complacence of his peers. It’s not nice, and I hope it stays.

Why Go Out?

by Sheila Heti

This lecture was one of three lectures delivered at Trampoline Hall in New York on March 22, 2006. (The event doubled as a launch event for Sheila Heti’s novel, Ticknor.) The speech was later reprinted in Brick magazine.


I wonder why I am up here on this stage when I’d rather be at home, when being at home would be so much more comforting. And I wonder why all of you are sitting there in the audience, when so many of you would also be happier at home.

At home, you can wear your pyjamas. No one is going to snub you or disappoint you. At Trampoline Hall, you could be snubbed, or disappointed. The scotch is not cheap. It is less depressing to think the same thoughts you thought yesterday, than to have the same conversation you had last week. Few of us will get laid. Why did we go out? My father never goes out. His emotional life is absolutely even keel. He is a deeply rational person. He doesn’t see the advantages.

For many years I have asked myself, Why do you spend time with other people?but I never really attempted to come up with an answer. I always believed I was asking myself a rhetorical question, but this week I thought I would try and find an answer, because a question you ask yourself a thousand times eventually deserves to be answered.

And I figure if I know why I go out, I might feel less suspicious of myself for going out. I might criticize myself less. I might be able to look around a party without thinking, What a fool – why did you come – you should have stayed at home.


The first thing I did in my search for an answer to “why go out” was write down a list of every single reason I could think of to go out – there were about twelve – and then I noticed, after staring at the paper, that those smaller reasons could be divided up into four major reasons for leaving the house:

1. Desire (for sex, love, companionship, whatever).

2. Sociological curiosity / aesthetic appreciation.

3. To test ourselves.

4. Someone else wants to hang out.


A couple of years ago I quit smoking, and to help myself along, I read a book called Alan Carr’s Easyway To Quit Smoking. (‘Easyway’ is written as one word and has a little R beside it, meaning it’s a registered trademark. Despite those two details, it is a really excellent book, and I highly recommend it.)

Now, Alan Carr’s basic premise is twofold:

First: you have to accept that smoking is not a habit, it is a drugaddiction; and

Second: the only way to quit smoking is to never have a cigarette again.

He goes on to explain that every smoker has brainwashed themselves into believing that smoking helps them in some way – calms them down, allows them to focus, makes an event feel more celebratory – when the truth is, all smoking a cigarette does is temporarily satisfy the craving for a cigarette, while reintroducing into your body the very substance you will once again crave.

What the smoker needs to do to quit, is undo the brainwashing that cigarettes help them in any way, then suffer several weeks of physical withdrawal – a feeling he likens to a physical longing, but not unbearable – and then never have another cigarette again. Oh, and a positive frame of mind is essential. When you experience a craving, you’re to take this as a sign your body is transforming into the body of a non-smoker, and you should cheer, “Yippee! I’m free!”

Well, I followed his advice, and it worked.

The other day, I was sitting alone in a Mexican restaurant and wondering whether it is possible to quit people, and good old Alan Carr came to mind. It’s maybe because I recently ended a relationship, and also have not been spending much time in my city, and my body has been experiencing very similar sensations as it did when I gave up cigarettes two years ago; it’s a physical ache that comes and goes, that’s almost painful, a sort of gaping emptiness, a void that needs to be filled. It often seems like the only way to cure myself of this craving is to give in – to return to him, to sleep with someone new… Not until you tear yourself from everyone you love does it appear that you are actually physically addicted to people. The longing for a person is almost identical to the longing for a smoke. It’s weird.

Anyway, I am not a stoic. My response to withdrawal – which has been to flee into semi-soothing rebound relationships – has prevented me from being able to stand before you today and declare with confidence that it is possible to renounce people, to bear the weeks of physical withdrawl symptoms, and thereafter attain the qualities that Alan Carr claims the non-smoker is in possession of: “health, energy, wealth, peace of mind, confidence, courage, self-respect, happiness and freedom.”

But though it wasn’t recent, I have spent time alone in the past, and in my memories of these times – the happiest times of my life – I really did seem possessed of substantially more courage, confidence, self-respect, freedom, energy, and peace of mind, than those times when I’ve surrounded myself with people.

And if that’s the truth, and my memory’s not lying – why go out?

Alan Carr advises smokers who are considering quitting to put the following three questions to themselves, and I think we can also ponder them as we consider whether it is worthwhile to try and be cured of our addiction to people. As the smoker considers smoking, we ask of socializing:

1. What is it doing for me?

2. Do I actually enjoy it?

3. Do I really need to go through life paying through the nose just to stick these things in my mouth and suffocate myself?

1. What is it actually doing for me?

As I suggested earlier, we get together with people to satisfy desires – the desire to love and be loved, the desire for sex, talk, companionship, good times, all those things. To which Alan Carr might retort: “We talk about smoking being relaxing or giving satisfaction. But how can you be satisfied unless you were dissatisfied in the first place?

And truly, who has ever been satisfied by people?

A few weeks ago, for instance, I was deeply insulted by a conceptual poet who lives in your town, who had come to my town to do a reading. I admire his work, so I went – knowing as I left my apartment that I was risking my admiration for him – “What if he is an asshole?” I asked myself, closing the door. “Never mind,” I replied, turning the key, for my curiosity surpassed my fear.

Arriving at the bar that night, I spotted a small man of nearly forty years old, wearing an ostentatious suit and hat, walking about the room like he had a cock the size of Kansas. “He must be the conceptual poet,” I said to myself, and I was right. I begged not to be introduced, but my friend introduced us anyway, calling me, as she did so, a “novelist.” I told him how much I admired a particular book of his, and when I was done, he sort of looked me over and said, “You’re a novelist? Really? What interest could you possibly have in my work?”

… … … In case you missed it, that was the terrible insult.

Of course, telling someone your insult is like telling someone your dream; the specific emotional core of it cannot be communicated; all that comes across are disconnected and meaningless symbols. But let me assure you, this conceptual poet was digging his nails into my heart – he knew it, and, five minutes later, I suddenly felt it, too – which led to a week and a half of fuming in bed, unable to sleep, me declaring this man my enemy, the reconceiving of a magazine article I was writing in such a way as to include a subtextual layer that would annihilate conceptual poetics, a week and a half of going out every night and talking through the insult with each of my friends – what am I even saying? It took leaving the continent for the insult to finally recede into the background of my days, and for me to regain my equilibrium.

But anyway, it is pretty be far-fetched to claim that people provide satisfaction and relaxation. Or at least, if they sometimes do, they as often do not.

Alan Carr’s second question: “Do I actually enjoy it?”

Does anyone actually enjoy more than one party in six? Does sex lead to satisfaction, or merely make us want more sex, better sex, different sex, even as we’re having it? The same goes for conversation, companionship, everything.

No, other people don’t satisfy us, but rather, like cigarettes, give us the temporary illusion of satisfaction, while prolonging our dependence. And if we weren’t dependent on other people?

Alan Carr’s Easyway lists the following psychological gains from quitting:

1. The return of your confidence and courage;

2. Freedom from the slavery; 

3. Not having to go through life suffering the awful black shadows at the back of your mind, knowing you are being despised by half of the population, and worst of all, despising yourself.

And so, let us for the moment renounce people! Not in the doomed-to-failure way – renouncing while imagining we are depriving ourselves, forever plagued by doubts –

“how long will the craving last?”

“will I ever be happy again?

“will I ever enjoy a meal again?”

“how will I cope with stress in the future?”

“will I ever want to get up in the morning?

– but rather joyfully and willingly let us renounce people… and bring on self-confidence, courage, energy, peace of mind, and self-respect.


I have a friend who has made it his sort of art project to set up nights at which people amuse themselves in various ways. He has taught charades classes, he has invited the city into a bar to play board games, he has organized a roomful of people to play Torx, which is a child’s toy, a robot stick that issues instructions on how to bend it. He has been profiled in a local newspaper as someone who is providing fun alternatives to concerts and bars and house parties, which, of course, are old-fashioned and worn-out. But I know him well enough to know that he doesn’t much care whether Nadia or Jim are getting enough fun in their lives. What my friend is up to, I believe, is something more sinister.

First, a few details to paint the scene:

1. His calls his games night ‘Room 101.” The event is held in a bar and people eat cheesies from bowls and play Scrabble and Pictionary and other games at small tables, and every twenty minutes or so he get up at the front of the room on a little stage and rings a bell and forces only those people who seem to be enjoying their game overly muchto terminate the game and disperse and play something else. If he had peoples’ fun in mind, I contend that he would not force those who are having the most fun to abandon their game.

2. His promotional poster for these nights show a boy playing Monopoly with two rats. Also, if you look closely, you can see there are little bars on the window. He took the name ‘Room 101’ from the book 1984; it refers to the room in which they torture people, and it turns out his secret motto for these games nights is: “We torture you with fun!” Which might be the motto of every partyever.

Finally: His charades class was not called “How to play charades” or “How to have fun playing charades,” but rather: “How to begood atplaying charades.” And his introductory talk to the event only cursorily involved which hand signals to use when; mostly he talked about what he called “charades skills” – like, how being good at charades is about being a good communicator, and a good listener, and requires imagination, and sympathy, and understanding – all of which are, more truly than charades skills, life skills.

And so his students or audience or whatever you’d call them – if they’re no good at playing charades – can only assume one thing. Since the terms for “goodness” were laid out very clearly at the beginning of class, if you’re not good at playing charades, you are forced to conclude that it’s not because you don’t know the hand gestures, it’s not because you’re not a good actor, but rather it’s because you can’t listen, or you’re not sympathetic, or you don’t have sufficient (as he put it at the beginning of class) “intellectual-analytical skills, motor-expressive skills, creative skills, and emotional-inter-personal skills.”

The secret lesson of his charades class is: if you’re not good at being a charades player, maybe it’s actually because you’re not an entirely good at being a person. This is called being tortured with fun.

Yes. I’ve come to the conclusion that what my friend is trying to do is organize events that capture and crystallize and reproduce the effects of ordinary socializing – which is not quite about fun, or about learning how to be good at having fun, but, more distinctly, about learning how to be good at being a person, and, the unfortunate corollary of this, seeing how far from good at being a person you are.

Why go out? Because if what we want more than anything is to attain self-confidence, health, energy, and peace of mind, we should stay in. We could be like little Buddhas, meditating and masturbating and watching TV. And we could imagine ourselves to be brilliant, and kind, and good lecturers, and good listeners, and utterly loving – and there’d be no way to prove it otherwise.

One final story: For the first six months of 2005 I lived alone in Montreal; I went because I was overwhelmed and I picked Montreal because I had no friends there, and for the first few weeks all I experienced were pangs of withdrawal for everyone I loved. It was awful and all-consuming… and then it passed. And once it passed, I was in heaven. There I sat in my lovely, cheap apartment – no distractions, no email, surrounded by books. There was a grocery store across the street. The mountain was two blocks away, and I could climb it whenever I wanted. Self-confidence, health, happiness, the equanimity of the non-smoker – all were mine.

And then… I destroyed it. I met someone and then another person and before I knew it, all of the chaos of life came back, along with all my self-doubt and anxiety and fear.

But perhaps that’s what it’s for – self-confidence and courage and energy and peace – perhaps it’s to be used in the world. Perhaps there’s only one thing to do with it: spend it.

I’m always super-conscious of how whenever I go out into the world, whenever I get involved in a relationship, my idea of who I think I am utterly collides with the reality of who I actually am. And I continue to go out even though who I am always comes up short. I always prove myself to be less generous, less charming, less considerate, not as bold or energetic or intelligent or courageous as I imagined in my solitude. And I’m always being insulted, or snubbed, or disappointed. And I’m never in my pyjamas.

And yet, in some way, maybe this is better. Each of us in this room could suffer the pangs of withdrawal and gain the serenity of the non-smoker. We could be demi-gods in our little castles, all alone, but perhaps, at heart, none of us here wants that. Maybe the only cure for self-confidence and courage is humility. Maybe we go outin ordertofall short… because we want to learn how to be good at being people… and moreover, because we want to bepeople.

And so, to return to Alan Carr’s final question to the would-be quitter: “Do I really need to go through life paying through the nose, just to stick these things in my mouth and suffocate myself?”

Yes, Mr. Carr, yes.