Julie Becker, a Los Angeles-based artist who died before turning forty-five in 2016, has a show up at MoMA PS1 of architectural photos, models of buildings and individual room installations meant to echo, underscore, and critique the increasing gentrification of the American city–in particular, East Los Angeles, where the artist was living. More and more, fine art is being directed toward social commentary rather than the display of esthetics or technical skill. Usually, the critique of social circumstances is roundabout–nothing tangibly applicable to an ideology is presented; rather, we find more and more that the insight, usually provocative and even confrontational, is indirectly presented, in a way that proves hard for the general public to understand. As a result, the contemporary art world has become a community of specialists–this has happened despite the public wish of many artists to communicate beyond the environs of persons educated in art school or art history. The result is a serious disconnect between the often radical nature of contemporary art’s insights into current social processes, in Becker’s case in particular the increased cost of simple living, and the inability of uneducated people to make any sense of the work presented to them. The problem’s cause cannot be easily assigned; instead, it is the tragic result of artists determined to move beyond the visual tenets of modernism toward a politically committed art and the populist public’s reliance on popular culture. Visual art, unlike literature, has become respectable as a vocation across class in contemporary culture, but this means that new work must take into consideration the idea that an overly conceptual approach will become a place for specialized discussion.
What does this mean? It means that fine art has backed itself into a corner, in which social sympathies are made oblique by a distanced reporting of empathy for social conditions affecting not only the poor but even the artists who make the work. Think of British sculptor Rachel Whiteread’s cast of a mattress of an old person who had died on it but whose death was not discovered for several days due to his social isolation–it is a statement of sympathy, albeit one we do not recognize except from a distance, with the necessary help of background information clarifying the piece. A similar problem occurs with Becker’s highly demanding presentation of the visuals of an architecture that is doomed to be ephemeral in light of a housing market mercenary beyond words. It can hardly be said that this show is determined by strong technical skill, but that has very little to do with Becker’s goal, namely, the presentation of increasingly strained living circumstances that do in fact affect the artist herself. For those of us who know the story–and to fully appreciate this installation, the viewer must be aware of her circumstances and those of the time–the installation possesses depth and is moving. But for most of those unwilling to address the complexities surrounding the informal, more or less chaotic circumstances of Becker’s art, the environments and photos will seem arbitrary and sterile. There is little to be done about such a reading if it does occur; we can only remark on the gap in communication between the overly technical representation of a social realism that is so abstract as to distance itself from almost all of us, with the exception of those adept in visually abstruse reasoning.
The point I am trying to make is that Becker strains our interest and belief, if not our social sympathies, by producing a body of work so profoundly based on the intimation of a realism that affects most city dwellers in America’s major cities. What can be done to assuage the deep-seated problems that face artists’ communities in downtown neighborhoods all over the country? There is quite literally nowhere to go except to neighborhoods characterized by poverty, far away from the neighborhoods that supported esthetic interactions by virtue of being cheap, But, as troubling as the situation may be, is it a useful topic for art? Again and again, especially in America, we see politics establishing a rigid–and abstract–conception of what is useful (not necessarily visual!) in fine art expressiveness. In the beginning of the show’s installation at PS1, visitors come up against a series of tall, narrow photos of corners of rooms, usually with one wall, of a single color, meeting another wall covered with patterned wallpaper. The images may be that of an actual corner or one of a corner made in one of Becker’s models. The imagery is in fact beyond judgment, in the sense that it is entirely nondescript as a visual statement. So its meaningfulness to the visitor must derive from our knowledge of the social imagination of the artist. There is nothing wrong with this, but even those fully sympathetic toward Becker’s vision will inevitably feel some disappointment with the relentlessly casual–indeed, deliberately deskilled–nature of an art entirely reliant on social process.
Even an art born of a visionary critique of circumstances that surround us as a civic (but not imagistic) reality must be judged as art–not as political science! One can be highly sympathetic to the implications of Becker’s work, which turns out to be decidedly personal, while looking askance at its decidedly non-formal presentation. Becker’s methods are in fact rather anti-visual, an orientation that reveals a certain impatience with traditional image methodologies, as well as being a triumph of content over form. The latter indication may be a bit of a false dichotomy, but we are forced into that position by the situational implications of the show, which provide us with a warning much more than a visual statement. It is fair to ask the question, on seeing the exhibition, Where do we go from here? It is certainly true enough that Becker is extremely accurate in her implied assessment of the slow creep of gentrification into neighborhoods historically the source of artist housing. In New York, the problem has become greater than our ability to handle or evade what has become a crisis–condominiums, priced way beyond the artist’s ability to pay for, are taking over downtown. But this is a living situation and is not necessarily the basis of art. We are much too quick today to jettison the visual in favor of a political stance that crowds out the imagistic properties usually associated with fine art. This is in part a reaction to a dead end–it looks like our art strategies are moribund, having been exhausted by extensive experimentation over time. But it is also a favoring, and perhaps an overestimation, of politics in regard to art’s comparatively limited ability to generate social sympathies.
But Becker’s living situation in the early to mid-1990s, when she constructed the body of work on show (seen last year at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London), is more than poignant–and socially charged–than we would assume without knowing her details. Living in a house in Echo Park at that time, the California Federal Bank rented the home to Becker cheaply, on the condition that she clean up the place, which had previously been lived in by a tenant who had died of AIDS, which was of epidemic proportions at the time. And Becker, as a very young artist, clearly had very little funds to subsist on–the title of the exhibition in London was “I must create a Master Piece to Pay the Rent.” The intersection of poverty, social marginalization, and unrequited artistic effort is central to this show, which is more a documentary film made with objects than a fine arts statement. In one smallish architectural model, the artist creates a warren of small offices decorated with miniature furniture that may be seen from above because the maquette has no roofs. The work is not notable for its technical achievement, being instead a moderate revolt against the impersonality of the spaces of the sort that controlled Becker’s living situation. This was a time when any personal contact with someone with AIDS stigmatized that person, with others wondering if somehow magically a person had contracted HIV simply by being in contact with someone who was ill. Yet the pathos is not easily found in the work itself, even if knowing the situation invests Becker’s project with a tragic aura.
In one of the installations in the show’s small connected group of spaces, Becker recreated a decrepit office, complete with a small desk and chair; a cheap aquarium with a single fish; a plaque announcing this was the “Waiting Room” on the desk; a small, cheap red rug; a single plant on a shelf high up on the wall facing the desk; a leatherette couch and wooden end table beneath the plant. Becker established the essentially interchangeable nature of this sordid space by placing other plaques on the rug, which announced the following titles: Concierge, Entertainment Agency, Real Estate Agent; Psychiatrist. It doesn’t seem to matter what the room’s usage might be, but the grimly nondescript nature of a low-level commercialization of the room is depressing, even if Becker’s viewers stay in the space for less than ten minutes. One isn’t sure where the interpretation of the environment is supposed to lead–are we meant to mourn the circumstances surrounding the artist, who illustrates her predicament in highly distressed terms? If we are, it looks like we are also being asked to meditate on the economics of housing in America’s large cities, where high rents follow closely upon the pioneering homesteading of the artist. There is nothing wrong with this (if one accepts the machinations of capital!), but the pattern is deeply established, and eventually the artists themselves are driven out of the very spaces they helped to improve. Generally, speaking the rooms and models and photos lead in the direction of hopeless acknowledgement of forces beyond Becker’s control. Her show does not celebrate architecture so much as expose the monies and controls behind it. And once we know the specifics of her circumstances, an aura of victimization sets in–not only for the person previously occupying the premises of the artist, but for Becker herself, who tells us she needs to make a major work of art so she can pay the rent.
At the same time, the death of her house’s previous inhabitant from AIDS hangs like a pall over the atmosphere we are exposed to. Still, without knowing the specifics of Becker’s situation, we can only intimate the tragedy, for it is not spelled out. The oblique circumstances arising from the suggestion of distress rather than its direct portrayal puts the show–and its audience–in a double bind: How can the work induce us to sympathize with events that are not directly alluded to? The point should not be belabored, but it it does cut into the show’s efficacy. The kind of sophistication required to appreciate this work is necessarily extreme. In one of the small rooms in the model described above, the details consist only of colorful striped wallpaper, with a sheet of paper attached, and some sheets of paper attached to the floor. It is a rather dismal scene of an interior damaged by the ravages of time. It cannot be said that this non-actual space is truly squalid, but the ambience of a disgruntled, disenfranchised occupancy remains. But one is hard put to make complete sense of the problematic, diffuse emotional suggestion the model is communicating. There is something elegaic about Becker’s procedures, which encourage a melancholic mood without offering a reason why the mood is dominant. But, knowing the background of the show, we can easily commiserate with its depressive aspect.
This exhibition makes it hard for Becker’s audience to puzzle out the whys and wherefores of an imagination that asks us to make sense of influences that are so metaphysical as not to be visibly present. Yet we know such perceptions as we may have of the objects and imageries often are deriving from histories that put us in odd circumstances, in which the fine art cannot stand without the support of the social criticism it implies. Not all art is as socially driven as the works in this show, which are of paramount importance in documenting housing shortages, the stigmas associated with AIDS at the time, and the artist’s marginality–likely not Becker’s choice! But it is also true that much of the art she makes is inchoate, leading us to a no man’s land that can only be approximate in both its visual efficacy and its social vision. Did Becker take on more than she could handle? Did she assume that her concerns could be conveyed without a thorough understanding of their background? Is her art in fact representative of a generation of artists that wanted to invest their visual statement with political immediacy but found this difficult, indeed almost impossible, in a mercantile democracy, controlled by capital, in which no actual violence can be discerned? These are questions that won’t go away for Becker’s audience, but maybe that is a good thing. Her truthfulness in regard to her theme–and truthfulness is the correct word here–echoes in the sight and mind of her viewers, who may not fully comprehend what they are seeing but more than appreciate the intensity of its emotional expression, as well as its accurate judgment of living situations made impossible by greed.