At S.V.A., a show about ‘Being American’ does little to test or challenge the predictable art-school bromides

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A piece by Reinier Gerritsen hangs in the Visual Arts Gallery. ()
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In the opening catalog essay for curator Francis di Tommaso’s exhibition, “Being American,” at the Visual Arts Galley, Brooklyn Rail art critic Phong Bui raises the question posed in the show’s title: What does it mean to be American?

His response falls somewhere between Horatio Alger and Walt Whitman, with a little artspeak thrown in. What makes an American is “the kind of alchemy that lends itself to a relentless re-invention of the self, adapting to and accommodating the permutations of American history.” In the context of what’s actually in the exhibit (on view through Dec. 21) it’s a somewhat ironic answer. While the show is certainly attuned to the permutations of American history—many of the works on display take their cue from current affairs—there’s little relentless reinvention here. Instead, we get a quiet and measured exhibit whose holistic vision of Americanness is more rooted in art-world multiculturalism and NPR liberalism than any radical American individualism. 

For “Being American,” di Tomasso selected 20 artists working across a variety of media—half of whom, it’s noted, are not American—and curated them more or less thematically.

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The show opens with Edward Byrtynsky’s large-format aerial photo of the Mississippi Delta—an image that’s striking both for its detail and echoes of American landscape painting, as well as for the ominous oil streak threading through the water—and progresses socioeconomically, through Reinier Gerritsen’s candid images of New York City subway riders (an American tradition that dates back to Walker Evan’s hidden camera photos); to Jessica Craig-Martin’s grotesque close-ups of Botoxed bodies sprawled out during Hamptons pool parties (images that bring to mind Martin Parr’s glazy shots of Dubai, with all its consumerism and excess).

The room reads like a melancholic coda to manifest destiny; and its centerpiece, which I only noticed while leaving the room, affirmed that impression. This was an imperial portrait by Kehinde Wiley of two young black men dressed in hip-hop gear, one holding a sign with Chinese characters, the other gesturing off in the distance. Both, the accompanying text explained, were representatives of a “street aristocracy.”

A political agenda of frustrated liberalism becomes more explicit in succeeding rooms. Alix Smith’s photographic portraits of happy, single-sex families hang like advertisements for blissful gay domesticity, while Martha Rosler’s nearby photomontages of middle-class living rooms overlaid with images of America at war play off her earlier feminist collages to mount a broader critique of American geopolitical hypocrisy. In the back of the second room, collective Type A’s menacing cutouts of shooting range targets (which are often images of the artists themselves) hang in front of a neon silhouette of a cartoon shooter. Adjacent to this are Robert Priseman’s realist paintings of the machinery of capital punishment. Finally, traversing the boundaries between art-world-art and highbrow media art, di Tommasi gives us Steve Brodner’s jaunty political caricatures, familiar to readers of the Atlantic or Harper’s; Christopher Niemann’s understated New Yorker covers—a recession-era one has three corpulent bankers sipping champagne from a life boat while the Titanic sinks in the distance—and more harrowingly, Alfredo Jaar and Claude Levi-Strauss’ censored New York Times op-ed page, which sets captions detailing American war atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq below blacked-out boxes where images should be.

Other highlights of the show are Charles Traub’s interactive photo map of the U.S., and Susan Anderson’s High Glitz, a hallucinatory portrait series of child beauty queens. With pink and blue pastel palates, Anderson frames the girls (ages 6, 7, and 9) as somewhere between professional porn stars and Barbie dolls still unopened in their boxes. The final room is given over mostly to the abstraction of language in American culture, from Aurora Robson’s loopy word clouds of terms found in corporate spam—‘genuine,’ ‘flexible,’ ‘love,’ etc.—to Sandow Birk’s American Qu’ran, a series of ceramic tiles depicting Qu’ranic chapters rimmed by graffiti-style English phrases.

So what’s the vision of America here? To take “Being American” at face value, it’s one of violence and class warfare, social inequality and runaway consumerism, with the odd references to natural beauty and congenital optimism thrown in for good measure. This is the fault of curation rather than art: while several of the artists in the show do offer what di Tommaso calls “exquisitely nuanced commentaries … on American culture,” when lumped together like this, the show takes on a checklist quality, making individual pieces seem, if not predictable, then at least unsurprising. For a show concerned with the shifting definitions of Americanness, ”Being American” could use more of one of America's characteristic qualities: dynamism.