I don’t know if there’s a soul alive who thought back in the 1990’s that we’d be looking at those years as history so quickly. But those are the words of someone who just turned 40. Time flies. And so does our understanding of art and what it means in society.
However old you were in the decade of Rodney King, NAFTA and the world wide web, you’ll appreciate a new exhibit at the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts. The show, “Come as You Are,” named for the Nirvana song, takes a broad view of the decade’s art trends, often with the quirky and edgy tone that characterized the 1990’s.
Organized by New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum, it’s the first major American museum survey to examine the art of this pivotal decade in its historical context. The exhibit’s curator, Alexandra Schwartz, talks about those trends in this podcast. She connects the dots between what we all experienced and what was going on artistically.
Were you paying attention? Well, unless you followed art somehow, you might have missed the work of important American artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Julie Mehretu, Gabriel Orozco and Diana Thater. And if those names sound multicultural to you, that’s on purpose, says Schwartz.
“The most prominent American artists of the 1990’s were actually born elsewhere,” she says. “It was the time when the global art world as we know it today really started to come together.”
Globalization was a major trend of the decade. Just think about the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound” and the rise of developing nations like China.
“I like to think of artists being on the frontlines of society,” Schwartz says. “Often, artists are looking at what’s happening around us and the first to try to process these and to try to make sense of what’s happening.”
Artists moved between Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Tehran and Mexico City, just like the rest of society. And museums took notice. “Identity art” began to rise in artistic circles.
Photographer Nikki Lee is one of the artists who represents this trend here. A Korean-American, she nonetheless took photos of herself dressing, alternatively, in the styles of African-Americans, Hispanics and other groups.
“It’s another interesting project in which an artist is taking on different identities, fooling around with her own identity, using costume, using fashion, make-up, dress, to think about these concepts,” Schwartz says.
Daniel Martinez and Kara Walker explore issues of race. Janine Antoni explores issues of gender. And several artists explore sexuality.
For instance, there’s a print work by the duo of Anthony Aziz and Sammy Kutcher. It shows a masculine, Greek god-like man, his genitals removed, pointing optimistically toward the future, carrying an early laptop.
“They’re doing a very obvious critique of the straight white man being the privileged character in American society,” says Schwartz. “Then you have the idea of technology represented by the laptop which was still a very new thing.”
And no, it wouldn’t be a show about the 1990’s if it didn’t address the bogeyman in the room, the Internet. Back then, we were still saying “W W W dot.”
“The affects if it are so wide-reaching in every sense,” Schwartz says.
The “information superhighway” brought us banner ads, pornography and free music that killed off records. But it also opened our eyes and connected us more than ever. We’re still trying to figure out how to live with it. Some of the exhibit’s “Internet art” is online. But some only can be shown in prints because the technology has changed so fast, the original is obsolete.
Above all, the exhibit invites you to “come as you are” with all these ideas – technology, identity and globalization. You might not “get” some of it, Schwartz says. And that’s okay! (I still don’t understand what happened to me between the ages of 15 and 25!)
“Bring your personal experience of the period to the work,” she says. “Think about the work within the context of the time and what was happening in your own life.”
Like all of us, the exhibit is both contemporary and historical at the same time. You might ride down to see it with some Pearl Jam, Ace of Base and Coolio on your iPod.