On Second Thought, Are They Still Worth a Rave?

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

I'm quite certain that the works of Irish artist John Gerrard and Canadian Brian Jungen are about as good as it gets in contemporary art. Or at least, I'm pretty sure that's right. It certainly could be right, more or less. I guess.

I've raved about both artists before, Gerrard in his installation this past spring at the Venice Biennale, and Jungen four years ago, when a traveling survey of his work turned up in New York.

On Nov. 5, much of Gerrard's Venice work is coming to the Hirshhorn. That work included a digital projection that re-creates a feeding station used in the mechanized, industrialized production of our dinner-table pork, as well as another that simulates a dust storm in Texas. If my review is to be trusted, Gerrard's art, made using video-game software, "comes close to being a full duplicate -- or at least an impressive surrogate -- for the real world, as it unfolds in time and space." Apparently, "computer simulation allows Gerrard's works to plunge into the world as no standard image ever could," so as to achieve a depiction of environmental hazards that is "powerfully felt and effectively told."

Jungen, an artist from British Columbia who is half native, will get a retrospective at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian starting Oct. 17. In New York, his most compelling project involved a season's worth of white, black and red Air Jordan running shoes, refashioned to look amazingly like Indian masks from the Pacific Northwest. (Which, incidentally, is not the native culture he's descended from.) Trust what that Gopnik guy said back when, and you'll learn that this involves "a kind of re-imagining of what native culture might be if it took account of all the forces acting on it, from spirit dances to the NBA." Jungen, it seems, "is stuck with other people's weirdly artificial notions of his identity -- as perhaps most of us are -- and tries to live up to those notions, using the materials that come to hand in the mixed-up urban culture that is truly his." The results let Jungen probe issues of culture and identity "with an irresistible mix of caustic humor and flawless visual appeal."

I don't take any of that back. I'm sure I must have been right. My memory and instincts tell me I was.

But what if I wasn't? What if I see the two new shows, which shouldn't be that much different from what I saw before, and reach whole other conclusions? What if it was the splendors of Venice that led me to see great art wherever I looked -- even in some fool's video-game animation? What if, the day that I saw Jungen in New York, I was feeling homesick for Canada, and was willing to give extra credit to anything that came from the land of my youth?

Not that I think any of that's true. But the critical challenge, when revisiting something you've already weighed in on, is to believe you've got the force of character to change your mind. You have to hope you do. Because the worst thing would be to stick with your party line, when deep inside you know you no longer believe it.

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