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How the Hedonists Seduced the Art World

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Bjarne Melgaard at Gavin Brown's Enterprise
Bjarne Melgaard at Gavin Brown's Enterprise
Chris Burden's "Porsche With Meteorite" at the New Museum
Chris Burden's "Porsche With Meteorite" at the New Museum
Ashley Bickerton (detail) at Lehmann Maupin
Ashley Bickerton (detail) at Lehmann Maupin

My wife haunts the thrift shops, and brings home vintage fashions of great style and low price. So when she gave up her Brooklyn Heights studio, her collection had to be thinned out, no easy task. 

I thought of my better half at Bjarne Melgaard's new show at Gavin Brown's Enterprise, "Ignorant Transparencies," which includes several mural-sized paintings, their surfaces almost incomprehensibly dense with paint, papers, and rummage, and each with a single dress hung on it. This is a good way to get rid of old clothes, I thought. Use them in art. It's not the first time I've seen it.
 
With his oceans of wackadoodle crap—and I mean that in the most complimentary way—Melgaard is the reigning prince of  "bad-boy art," as Jerry Saltz pointed out last week in New York mag. Or maybe he's not so bad, since his avatar is the Pink Panther, suggesting perhaps that our outlaw may be an animal, but a cuddly one, and something of a bumbler. Last time around, in November 2012, in an equally wonderful, similarly obsessive-compulsive installation at the Luxembourg & Dayan townhouse, Melgaard's presiding gremlin was rather scarier: an S&M zombie biker with a penchant for fisting.
 
It's funny how much the art world loves its bad boys. I don't really buy this routine, being a nice guy myself (if sometimes a cranky one), but I like Melgaard. His stuff is so demented that even when he goes for the ugly—and nobody makes paint look worse—it's full of imaginative energy, full of messy life. He's Dionysian. A pleasure-seeker. A hedonist. 
 
So too is Ashley Bickerton, whose new paintings, and a couple of ceramic busts, up at Lehmann Maupin on Chrystie Street, are devoted to the deliriously feminine. Bickerton has always given us crazily ornamental objects, but here, basically all we get are seven portraits of teeming jungle goddesses, fertile with tactile painterly invention. More over-the-top than Miley Cyrus, these gals are overloaded with jewelry and rasta-braids, and seduce the viewer with big glass eyes and lolling tongues licking their lips. The outstretched tongue, it turns out, signals something atavistic after all—blood hunger. From his studio in Bali, Bickerton channels the faint shade of Paul Gauguin, that good-for-nothing who abandoned his French family for an Arcadian fantasy in the South Seas. Of course things didn't go that well for him, but we can look to Gauguin and Bickerton today for evidence that artists can flourish outside our increasingly impossible metropolitan centers.
 
OK, right, but don't get the idea that it's nothing but good cheer on the New York art scene. "Embrace life," after all, is a slogan for a wear-your-seat-belt campaign, and there's hardly anything avant-garde about that. Anti-art is what has sex appeal now, and you can measure it in dollars, at least to the extent that the star lot at Christie's contemporary art auction in November (one of them, anyway), is Christopher Wool's Apocalypse Now (1988). This commanding black-and-white picture reads in his signature stenciled capitals, "sell the house sell the car sell the kids," and is estimated at $20 million. 
 
That's a lot of encouragement for a bad attitude. Unsurprisingly then, when it comes to cutting-edge art, most of it is pretty glum, even unhealthy. The MoMA PS1 retrospective of Mike Kelley, some 280 works spread through three floors, arrives with something of an elegiac air, thanks to the sad circumstances of the artist's recent death. People love Kelley for being so pathetic, for personifying the suffocations of basement rec rooms and attic hideaways that so many of us remember from our minority. Look at his Ahh... Youth (1991), the suite of eight color photo-portraits that puts his own uncomfortable, pimply visage alongside a collection of pictures of well-used stuffed animals, an ode to desperate childish love. "Mommies always come back," says a small girl of my acquaintance, voicing the phrase several times like a mantra, after finishing her first few days at nursery school. The same kind of pathos animates the good parts of Jonathan Franzen's 2001 bestseller The Corrections.
 

A small surprise also comes this fall from Chris Burden, whose retrospective, "Extreme Measures," is at the New Museum. As the show's title suggests, Burden once was a real badass, with his suicidal daredevil antics, having himself shot and risking electrocution, suffocation, immolation, crucifixion, and god knows what else. He did it all with such coldness, an emotional inertia inherited from generations of prior art, almost everything since Abstract-Expressionism. These days, as with Kelley, Burden has taken up artistic residence in a permanent adolescence, with his motorcycle and yellow Porsche, his giant toy battle scenes and huge erector-set structures. He turned out to be a bit of a nerd, though I'm a little scared to say it, since traces of the artist's formidable machismo are still evident. The ten-foot-tall Beehive Bunker (2006) structure made from sacks of concrete, the embodiment of survivalist paranoia, is too ominous for me, as is the vertiginous Twin Quasi Legal Skyscrapers (2013) up on the museum roof, which I gather is only to be looked at, not climbed upon. It's a relief. Somehow it makes me feel wise when my visceral aesthetic response is, "I'll take your word for it," and I like that.

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