SWM (single white male), Lorraine O’Grady on Sean Landers
© Artforum International Magazine Inc. 1994*
By mutual consent, this was O’Grady’s last article for Artforum. It was also not included in the Sean Landers gallery press kit.
Ever since that bloody Monday in October 1987 when the stock market dampened Euro-American certainty, young white artists, like young, upwardly expectant whites in general, often seem not to know what’s hit them. It’s this confusion that gives their work expressive drive. The new crop of artists has a free-floating intensity, set harshly adrift from the confident subjectivities of that brief shining moment when it was possible to believe in an information-age millennium.
Julia Kristeva’s term “abjection” has been appropriated to describe these artists and their mood. But without a full theorizing of the differences between “abjection” and “subjection,” “abject art” can sound suspiciously like another last-ditch attempt to keep European subjectivity centered (self-abasement as the twisted obverse of self-glorification). And the need to take endemic mental states and extend their sphere through universalization seems out of synch with this art’s desperate particularities. The “Abject Art” exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art last summer, for example, dragged in the quite different work of
David Hammons and Adrian Piper to validate its nomenclature; the desire for the clean comfort of the universal not only illustrated the downside of multiculturalism, it deprived even the white artists of their messy, sadly deflated, but still vibrant beauty. Another epithet for this work, borrowed from the title of Richard Linklater’s movie Slacker, seems both more modest and more apt: this is “slack” art, art that has had the wind knocked out of its sails.
Slackers, as one commentator put it, “are beatniks without a beat–a lost generation minus a sustaining poetics of loss.” In a group that defines itself by its weakness, the conceptual artist Sean Landers seems one of the stronger: by putting words to the loss, he makes it clearly visible, if not necessarily bearable. Pictures alone won’t do here: they are too coded, and a more defined self-awareness is called for. No matter that the loss may be only one of unreasonable expectations (i.e., that the market would continue providing rewards without limit and that, as white artists, they would never have competition), it is a bafflingly real one, and is shared by an entire culture. ( … )