PROVIDENCE — Can an exhibition be a shambles, yet still absolutely worth seeing?
Short answer: yes. If you’re rushing out the door, have a nice day, and please accept at face value this hard-boiled critical appraisal of “What Nerve!,” the new show at the RISD Museum in Providence. It may sound like fence-sitting, but it’s not.
“What Nerve!” (the show’s subtitle is “Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present”) tries, in two rooms, to tell the story of four different artist collectives in four different cities. The four are: The Hairy Who, from Chicago; Funk, from the Bay Area; Destroy All Monsters, from Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Forcefield, from Providence.
Unhelpfully, each one of these so-called “collectives” bristled with anti-collectivist individuals working in a variety of inventive, energetic, and occasionally malodorous idioms.
Heaping difficulty upon difficulty, the show also ropes in six extra artists, each of whom had some sort of affiliation with the aforementioned collectives. They are: H.C. Westermann, William Copley, Jack Kirby, Christina Ramberg, Gary Panter, and Elizabeth Murray.
Ramberg’s small, shiver-inducing paintings, Kirby’s cartoon-derived masterpiece, “Dream Machine,” and Westermann’s series of prints, “See America First,” are among the show’s high points. And yet none of these six is quite adequately represented, let alone explained in the context of the show.
The guest curator, Dan Nadel, with assistance from RISD’s Judith Tannenbaum, wishfully calls them “spoke” artists — as in the spokes of a wheel. But they’re not so easily conscripted. I think of them rather as toothless fairy godmothers, wayward uncles, stray spawn.
It might be messy, but “What Nerve!” takes on a subject the country’s major museums have mostly ignored. And for that Nadel and RISD Museum deserve great credit.
What’s disappointing is that the execution is so poor. The show is confusingly laid out. Some groups are given considerably more attention than others (the “Forcefield” section, for instance, is hopelessly sketchy). And it’s difficult to know where each section begins and ends, and which works are by “spoke” artists and which by group members.
Despite all this, I found “What Nerve!” hugely stimulating. Not only because it’s filled with brilliant and original work, but because it’s also sprinkled liberally with clunkers — truly groan-inducing, deeply ordinary art. As a result, the show gives your critical criteria a really good workout.
Better yet, it raises such interesting questions. Does art thrive in collectivist settings? Is the energy of groups more productive — or just more viable in the worldly sense — than the heat given off by solitary creators? Is the collective, as an expression of youthful idealism, an end in itself? Or is it, at best, a kind of shell protecting creative individuals in their embryonic stages, best broken out of?
Expect questions like these, as much as the natural appeal of a show that purports to present an alternative art history, to galvanize interest among art students, both at RISD and beyond.
The show begins auspiciously, with a lively display of work by artists who participated in “Funk” — originally the title of an exhibition held at the art museum at the University of California, Berkeley, in the spring of 1967. That show was assembled by Peter Selz, who defined “funk art” as “hot rather than cool”; “committed rather than disengaged”; “bizarre rather than formal”; “sensuous”; and frequently “quite ugly and ungainly.”
The show was as much about asserting the glories and satisfactions of making crazy stuff as conjuring togetherness. Robert Arneson was among the artists who participated. His glazed ceramic typewriter, with its phalanx of painted fingernails in lieu of keys, and his ceramic binoculars with human eyeballs conjure a strange meeting of Rodin and Luis Buñuel, effortlessly transposed to an American thrift store aesthetic. But are they any good?
Peter Saul, as protean and dynamic an artist as any in the show, defined “funk art” as “art that is not supposed to be any good, at least theoretically, but is obviously very good anyway.”
That hits the nail on the head. It certainly can’t be gainsaid in front of Saul’s “Man in Electric Chair.” No description could possibly do this work justice, although its constituent parts do cry out simply to be named. So: It’s a sculpture, made from Styrofoam coated with brightly colored plastic and enamel. It shows a yellow man in a green chair being electrocuted. His tongue lolls from his mouth down onto his “DIRTY GUY” singlet. His yellow, triple- and quadruple-jointed limbs, traversed by meandering red veins, convulse spastically. A clock tells the time. A blue cop props up, or is squashed by, the victim’s raised chair.
The whole thing is incomparably vile — a resplendent, open-eyed swan dive into the radioactive murk of the mind. I love it.
The “Funk” section also includes sculptures by Ken Price, Jeremy Anderson, William T. Wiley, and Peter Voulkos, whose work holds up well; and Robert Hudson, Roy de Forest, and Joan Brown, whose work does not.
On a questionnaire presented to all the artists who exhibited in “Funk” and reproduced in the catalog, Anderson noted that his work was “funky” because it “uses the idea that more is more, not the puritanical, bloodless, inhibiting notion that less is more.”
At a time when minimalism, conceptualism, and advanced abstraction were all edging art toward emptiness, these were fighting words. They underpin the whole show, which — putting it mildly — is anything but minimal.
You will learn more, unfortunately, from the catalog than from the show itself about “Forcefield,” the influential Providence group whose members performed on stage and made videos dressed in brilliantly patterned, head-to-toe, knitted “shrouds” (a form later adopted by Nick Cave), and who gave themselves names like Meerk Puffy, P Lobe, Gorgon Radeo, and Le Geef.
Forcefield was based in Fort Thunder, a sprawling warehouse in the Olneyville section of Providence. They were active between 1996 and 2003. They were invited to participate in the Whitney Biennial in 2002, a worldly breakthrough which seems to have triggered their unraveling.
“Forcefield has to do with how it’s not this or that,” according to Ara Peterson, a founding member. “It’s constantly failing at being one thing or another.”
That may explain why they barely feel part of this show. Their best contribution to it, a brilliant video combining mysterious footage of Forcefield members wearing costumes and carrying torches with an extended period of rippling, abstract graphics, is screening not in the exhibition proper but in another part of the museum.
For the most part, we must take it on faith that Forcefield was “both beautiful and frightening” (Nadel), that it “invented its own language, a closed system that requires repeated viewings and experiences if you are to unlock it” (Nadel again), and that, during Forcefield’s early days, “people were running up and down the fire escapes and dropping foam spaghetti from the rooftop” (Peterson).
Less compromised by this desultory and passive-aggressive “you had to be there” vibe is the “Hairy Who” section, which salutes a group of artists who were affiliated with the school of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late ’60s.
The group’s bona fide stars, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, and Karl Wirsum, have truly wonderful works sharing space with less riveting work by Jim Falconer, Suellen Rocca, and Art Green. Certain threads hold them together, including a pervasive interest in cartooning, in pulsating, patterned lines and popping color, in the macabre, the preposterous, and the dissonant. But in the end, you are left with some artists whose work you want to see more of, and other artists whose work you don’t.
As much as outside events, this internal dynamic between individual excellence and group mediocrity has always both defined and destroyed artist collectives. The dynamic plays out again in the section devoted to Destroy All Monsters, a cadre of artists and musicians who joined together in Ann Arbor in the 1970s.
Swimming in a subterranean soup of album art, party photography, comics, soft toys, and thrift shop trinkets, these artists made madly proliferating work that had its own distinctive spit and fizz. It could be self-flagellating and nihilistic one moment, delirious and euphoric the next.
Its two best artists — Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw — went on to be art luminaries in Los Angeles and beyond. Were they just lucky?
I don’t think so. Shaw, a voracious imbiber and regurgitator of abject imagery, had a real feeling (like the other best artists in this show) for what Philip Roth called the “indigenous American berserk.” Kelley, who died in 2012, was as driven and talented an artist as our millennial era has so far tossed up. His drawings — deft but fidgety imaginings combining African statuary with cartoon hounds and Bosch-like bizarrerie — are among the best things in the show.
“I remember Mike’s starkly dismal room in the basement, but he liked it down there,” remembered Marju Nemvalts, a model and graphic artist who acted as Sharon Tate in “The Blood of God.” “It was private and it was cool that there was a toilet (which was just sitting out in the open).”
That sentence — with its nostalgia for “authentic,” anarchic living conditions, and for a strain of creativity that has value precisely because it cannot be communicated with the mainstream (“it was private”) — captures the spirit of this show, and the true romance of alternative artist collectives.
It also hints at why museums — who answer to a wider public — have tended to ignore stories like the one told here. I, for one, am glad that Nadel and the folks at RISD didn’t.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.