Come As You Are

Text by K. Cecchini

Come As You Are: Art of the 1990’s
Montclair Art Museum (MAM): Now-May 17, 2015

Montclair, NJ

MAM at Member Preview, Photo by K. Cecchini
MAM Member Preview, Photo by K. Cecchini

If Pearl Jam, Wu Tang and, of course, Nirvana, are now considered classics, then I suppose the nineties is now ripe for retrospect. Alexandra Schwartz takes on the decade through art created between the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and 9/11 (2001). As Montclair Art Museum’s first contemporary art curator, Schwartz brings the prestige of debuting an exhibit to the New Jersey suburb that is not only ambitious in its scope but is also hailed as the “first major historical survey of art of the 1990’s”.

Come as You Are

Graduating from high school in 1997, the nineties was my coming-of-age period. I was seeking out my identity while steeped in the decade’s “sense of melancholy and loss” as described on the placard for Elizabeth Peyton’s elegy painting of Nirvana’s Kirk Cobain.

Now, steeped in nostalgia as a thirty-something, I was excited to examine the art of my era at MAM Member’s Preview on Saturday night. Having confronted the culture through other media at the time, it felt as if it was rounding out my own appreciation for the decade Schwartz refers to as “watershed” while perusing the pieces.

Borrowing its name from the Nirvana’s 1991 hit, Come as You Are is divided chronologically into 3 sections that each wrestle with love and angst on three fronts; the politics of identify, globalization and the digital revolution. Ultimately, the exhibit provides insight into how artists were reflecting and reacting to the social, political and economic upheavals at the wrap of the millennium.

Identity Politik

Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be…

Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach, as I want you to be

As a trend, as a friend as an old memoria, memoria, memoria…”

-Nirvana

Partly because I was a teenager seeking out my own identify during the nineties and partly because I was hyperaware of friends and other contemporaries struggling with identities inherently outside the mainstream, I was particularly fascinated by this thread in the exhibit.

For instance, Catherine Opie’s early nineties’ photographs documented figures who asserted their countercultural identity through body piercings and tattoos before body art became more ubiquitous and less “alternative”.

Catherine Opie, Richard and Skeeter, 1994
Catherine Opie, Richard and Skeeter, 1994

Although, “alternative” was a cultural notion that was prized in lifestyle and music and represented in style, it became commercially popularized and repackaged. Whether focused on the alternative styles of the era or other stereotypes, some of the curated artwork provokes typecasts.

Sharon Lockhart, Untitled, 1996
Sharon Lockhart, Untitled, 1996

A dominating piece, Lockhart’s large-scale chromogenic print features a young man standing before a window that reflects his high-rise hotel room and overlooks an urban landscape that lacks any indication of place; his generic surroundings appear to simultaneously echo and contrast his ‘alternative’ grunge style.

MAM Member Preview with Lockhart's Untitled, Photo by K. Cecchini
MAM Member Preview with Lockhart’s Untitled, Photo by K. Cecchini

Appropriately, in this photo from the opening, the bean bag sitting area in front of Alex Bag’s video is layered in a reflection on the photo frame’s glass. In it, the artist assumes various typified roles reflective of her recent experience in art school that with a nod to the “‘head and shoulders, confessional shots'” that was infused into the emerging reality television genre.

Alex Bag, Untitled, Fall, 1995
Alex Bag, Untitled, Fall, 1995

Furtheirng the push back on conventions, Nikki S. Lee not only defied perceptions based on physical appearance but extended the conversation to more hardened stereotypes. In her late nineties self-portraits, the Korean-American artist costumed herself to match a variety of American typecasts including a pierced and dyed punk, a bikini-topped Latina and a white trash women under a Dixie flag. “By morphing through these disparate identities, Lee examines issues of gender, race, and class, while demonstrating the arbitrariness of these stereotypes.”

MAM Member Preview, Niki S. Lee's Punk Project (1), Hispanic Project (25) & Ohio Project (7), Photo by K. Cecchini
MAM Member Preview, Niki S. Lee’s Punk Project (1), Hispanic Project (25) & Ohio Project (7), Photo by K. Cecchini

Given the dialogue and smart phone photographs around it, was Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “Blackness for Sale”, may have been the most popular piece of the night. Among one of the first viral phenomenon on the internet, Obadike infused a provocative conversation starter on racism into Ebay’s digital, global marketplace. Within the “Products Description,” the seller guarantees a Certificate of Authenticity and provides pointed “Benefits”: i.e.

7. This Blackness may be used for securing the right to use the terms ‘sista’, ‘brotha’, or ‘nigga’ in reference to black people. (Be sure to have certificate of authenticity on hand when using option 7).” and “Warnings” such as “1. The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used during legal proceedings of any sort.”

 

 

MAM Member Preview, Photo by K. Cecchini
MAM Member Preview, Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “Blackness for Sale,” Photo by K. Cecchini

Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy
Take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours, don’t be late…

 

Of course, I may be biased, but this is a fascinating retrospective. Come for the art, come for the history or come for the bean bags chairs…

MAM Member Preview, Photo by K. Cecchini
MAM Member Preview, Patron Photographing Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “Blackness for Sale,” Photo by K. Cecchini

 

MAM Member Preview, Photo by K. Cecchini
MAM Member Preview, Photo by K. Cecchini
MAM Member Preview, Photo by K. Cecchini
MAM Member Preview, Mariko Mori’s Pratibimba, Photo by K. Cecchini

 

MAM Member Preview, Photo by K. Cecchini
MAM Opening Reception, Photo by K. Cecchini

 

 

Saya Woolfalk, Former MAM Artist, at MAM Member Preview, Photo by K. Cecchini
Saya Woolfalk, Former MAM Artist, at MAM Member Preview, Photo by K. Cecchini

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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