by Robert C. Morgan
A Gathering of The Tribes: January 10 – February 1, 2009
After six years of an escalating art market following the invasion of Iraq, where prices for mediocre spectacles rose beyond the fringes of obscenity, artists and their investors find themselves in a different state of mind. Then, a new paradigm was introduced into the revisionist world order by the previous administration—a government without governance—translated by the art market as investment folly based on name-droppings that turn a fortune. But now, alas, these fortunes appear to have gone amiss. We are circling—or perhaps spiraling—backwards or downwards or both. At any rate, Baudelaire’s scene and Baudrillard’s “screen” are both changing registers on a routine basis. The kinds of socially devout promotional images that once tied art objects to the market no longer appear credible. Auction mania has (temporally) left the sacred chancel of divine speculation. The ecstatic chorus that chanted audaciously as millions of dollars were exchanged for phantasmagorical trivia has finally come to rest. Artists too are resting at the water’s edge, leaving the reflections of Narcissus and Echo behind them. The art world is no longer a real world. Rather it has become a maelstrom of imitations and a haunting scenario of affectation. This is the demise of all that at one time appeared the right stuff. I mentioned this to reassure some of readers that we must differentiate—as I insisted more than a decade ago in The End of the Art World—that there are two distinct issues at stake in today’s global transcultural environment: there is art and there is the art world. And while there may appear to be an intersection or introjection between the two, they are finally quite different from one another, depending on the time of day or the season. For now, the season is changing faster than many investors would have dreamed six months ago. We are finally seeing that false financial marketing in the cause of art cannot persist as it once did. Those days are over and so is the spendthrift mentality that accompanied them. Now is the time to regenerate one’s sources and to look again at the aesthetic structure of art—not in terms of Koonsian economics—but closer to the point of transmission where art enters into our history as a syntagmatic signifier offering, instead of investment anxiety, a kind of solace where the syntactical transformation of material, wrought by hand, eye, and mind, again becomes a significant force in balancing the virtual chaos of the present.
For years I have considered the possibility that significant art is less driven by the market than by those on the fringes who move beyond the reach of what is actually known to us—beyond mindless excess and beyond any form of calculation or accountability. In this context, Grace Rim’s remarkable body of work is a clear example. Over the decades since Rim’s arrival in New York, she has produced a series of small drawings, torn and sewn paintings, and wall installations that include rugged calligraphic marks accompanied by written Hangul (Korean language), veils, and other pieces of cloth. The work appears to some as naïve, or even eccentric, which I would argue in positive terms. In her recent exhibition, shown at Steve Cannon’s neo-Bohemian East Village gallery known as the Tribes (a shortened version of what was originally A Gathering of the Tribes), Rim installed a modest but exemplary exhibition of paintings and drawings titled “Yes Love, Yes Life.” The centerpiece is a painting, simply titled “Love,” in which a dominant abstract shape resembling a twisted heart, saturated in deep fingernail-polish-red acrylic, is sewn onto a white field. While the sewing took hours to complete, the directness of this gesture is unmistakable, and the result has the character of a rough-hewn log bench carved by Brancusi with a hand-axe. The embedding of this dominant shape has an unexpected, vibrant, and pulsating effect—an absoluteness that defies any challenge. The shapes signify a commitment to love and to the energy of life—the desire to be happy and fulfilled. Another work, called “Wings of Love III,” includes “Acrylic, Thread, Pencil, Egg Yoke [sic], and a Bridal Veil on Canvas.” The appearance of a sexualized, horned figure covered with a veil suggests the shamanistic tradition of ancient Korean culture and a mysterious aura where forces are unaccountable, yet nevertheless present.
During the Biennale di Venezia in 2003, I remember visiting the Italian Pavilion with Rim (in the interests of full disclosure, we had a personal relationship at this time, which ended in 2005) and seeing the work of a lesser-known, elderly Italian woman, Carol Rama, who had just received the Golden Lion (Leone d’oro) award. I was struck by Rama’s eccentric style and variations on a theme, using personal objects within the context of assemblage. Rim was completely taken by this work as she recognized in Rama a sensory force and embedded pleasure that held some kind of special transmission—a force that was undeniable. How glorious it was that the jury of the Biennale had elected to give Rama this special award, and how unlikely it would be that an American jury would see the value of such work without the pressure of a major gallery behind it.
At that moment, I felt Rim understood that to be a good artist functioning outside the mainstream would be an uphill battle, yet one that she would continue to confront. Although the Tribes exhibition was a relatively humble presentation, the personal content of the work implied an emancipation from the false expectations proscribed by the New York art world and the kind of surrogate marketing this world chose to pursue. At any rate, the challenge to such a Behemoth is in the particulars, which often hold romance at the core. Finally, it is difficult to deny that the point of view evident in the art of Grace Rim has a special place in the conversation about art today: a tactile sensation through material, an antidote to the self-conscious neo-conceptualism produced in so many post-MFA studios from the onset the Iraqi War through the recent collapse of all those discretionary funds—many of which were based on pure speculation.
This essay was originally written in 2001-2003, and distributed in an unpublished format to various friends and curators interested in the affinities between Eastern thought and contemporary art. It was partially revised in 2008 for publication coincident with the current Guggenheim exhibition, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989.