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ART REVIEW

In the moment

‘Continuous Present’ examines the conflicts of time and perception

DIETER ROTH ESTATE Dieter Roth’s “6 Piccadillies’’ takes an image of Piccadilly Circus and subjects it to an arbitrary barrage of printmaking techniques.
DIETER ROTH ESTATE
Dieter Roth’s “6 Piccadillies’’ takes an image of Piccadilly Circus and subjects it to an arbitrary barrage of printmaking techniques. (Dieter Roth Estate
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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 31, 2009

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NEW HAVEN - Everything that is most endearing about the current state of contemporary art and much that niggles rises to the surface of “Continuous Present,’’ an ambitious show of 12 internationally acclaimed artists at Yale University Art Gallery. The two responses do not reflect incoherence: On the contrary, the show, which explores time and perception with a Zen-like emphasis on being-in-the-moment, is thematically crisp and limber, its various pieces gathering into an impressive, coordinated whole.

Those pieces reflect a double bind felt by intelligent artists today - a kind of conflict between modesty and ambition, heightened by an almost neurotic sensitivity to the dilemmas of being creative in the 21st century.

I’ll give an example. Off in a corner of the show is a work by Francis Alÿs, a Belgian based in Mexico City. I like Alÿs a lot. His work, like that of many of his peers, is not limited by medium: He makes videos, he draws, he performs, he documents, he displays. He fizzes with ideas.

A lot of his work involves walking the streets of cities. He has dragged a huge block of ice through Mexico City until it melted. He has walked the streets of Copenhagen each day under the influence of a different drug. He has filmed palace guards marching in arbitrary directions through the streets of London until they all met up in formation.

His work is not just witty, it’s political, for it is about the relationship between individual experience and social formation. It takes the experience of the “flâneur’’ - the stroller of city streets, observant, subjective, autonomous, alienated - and reinserts it into social and economic realities.

Alÿs’s piece here is a simple animated drawing, screened on a 12-second loop. It shows a woman pouring water from one glass into another and back again. The animation is accompanied by a gentle, soothing Latin song, and comfortable seating is provided, so we may feel lulled, as if in someone’s living room.

But we are of course in an art gallery, where we are expected to pay attention. And if we do pay attention, what is happening?

Nothing - or something; but it amounts, surely, to nothing.

I take much of Alÿs’s work to be asking: If subjective experience is to be valued (and the idea of art presupposes that it is), how should we measure this value? Does private experience accumulate, as angry citizens might accumulate into a crowd at a protest, or as money accumulates into capital? Does it melt away like ice? Or does it simply remain unchanged, like water poured back and forth between two glasses?

We go to galleries because we hope that private experience - intensified, sublimated, crystallized - might meaningfully coalesce into art. But what if art is really just another distraction, another way of marking time? What if there is no net gain?

It’s easy to see why this question presses in on artists in particular, because there’s a lot about the process of making art that really is a kind of marking time: all that sitting around in the studio, all those discarded attempts, all that failing “to contribute to society.’’ (Alÿs uses the Mexican phrase el hacerlo sin hacerlo, no hacerlo pero haciendolo - the doing without doing, the not doing but doing.)

The conundrum is reflected in the work of On Kawara, the Japanese, New York-based conceptual artist famous for his series of small-scale paintings which simply reproduce the date of their making. “June 30, 1967,’’ “Apr. 6, 1972’’ and “Oct. 13, 2000’’ are three of the five examples displayed here. Kawara, following rigid, self-imposed rules, has been making these works since 1966.

It’s interesting to compare Kawara with Thomas Nozkowski, an abstract painter who allowed the show’s curator, Jennifer Gross, to choose early works from his studio for this exhibition. Where Kawara’s work is impersonal and systematic to a fault, Nozkowski’s paintings are intuitive and without formula.

They come out of the tradition of Abstract Expressionism - a movement that placed extreme importance on the significance of personal experience. But they have a diaristic quality that feels surprisingly close to Kawara’s. Looking at their unpredictable, often beautiful formations of color and brushstroke, each one different from the last, one has the sense of the artist each day getting down to work, with no high purpose, no transcendent goal.

Nozkowski’s is the kind of painting we are left with when the rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism and other varieties of Romanticism have leaked away. It is very intelligent, excruciatingly sensitive work; but it is devoid of ostensible content. A big part of its quality, which I consider high, derives precisely from Nozkowski’s honesty: his refusal to make exaggerated claims, his disavowal of rhetoric.

Similar strains of modesty run all through the show. Consider Dieter Roth. In his 1970 work “6 Piccadillies,’’ displayed here, Roth takes a cliched postcard of Piccadilly Circus and subjects it to an arbitrary barrage of printmaking techniques, each one veiling some features from the original image and highlighting others. It’s all done with exquisite inventiveness but to no apparent purpose.

Enjoy, too, the wonderful video by the Swiss duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, called “The Way Things Go.’’ This piece is like an animated science experiment, a hilariously choreographed chain reaction which, for 30 minutes, connects oil drums, car tires, levers, pulleys, water bottles, and various forms of fire and fuel.

Artists often describe how things seem to happen of their own accord when creative juices are flowing and connections occur in the mind as if by magic. “The Way Things Go,’’ where materials perform wonders without any human interference, is so marvelous because we know it is actually underwritten by a huge amount of labor and calculation.

“The Way Things Go’’ dares to transplant art into the realm of pure science, ridding it of any last vestiges of poetic subjectivity. And yet it retains its own entrancing poetry - a poetry of success-against-the-odds, of work carried on in the face of futility.

This poetry is detectable elsewhere in the show - in the modesty of Gabriel Orozco’s drawings, which, by letting the rhythms of his breathing affect the pressure of pencil on paper, suggest the ephemerality - and the preciousness - of every creative act.

It’s also there in the ad-hoc massing of Franz West’s fabulous papier-mâché sculptures - large, richly colored blobs on metal stands mounted on dirty wooden plinths.

All of the work in “Continuous Present’’ embraces a kind of freedom from expectation, from having to produce anything that might be called a “net gain.’’ The blessing of this predicament is a license to dwell in the present tense (hence, presumably, the show’s title). There is genuine delight in the results.

But there is also a sense of being imprisoned under open skies. For rather than giving off a sense of necessity and conviction, much of today’s best art advertises the fact that it could just as well be otherwise.

The result can be gallows humor and a feeling of mental blur, both perfectly expressed in Roni Horn’s series of 27 photographs of the head of a clown. The clown’s face expresses despair but in each case it is blurred beyond recognition, as if Francis Bacon had set to work on a Cindy Sherman self-portrait-as-clown.

There’s clowning, too, in Rodney Graham’s short film, “City Self/Country Self,’’ where the artist takes on two personae - urban dandy and country bumpkin. The “city self’’ - all lordly hauteur - encounters the hapless “country self’’ in an old town and contemptuously kicks him in the backside.

The film, like Alÿs’s much simpler animation, plays on an endless loop. Thus, the story never ends, and there is no net gain.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com

CONTINUOUS PRESENT Is at the Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, through Jan. 10. Call 203-432-0600 or go to www.artgallery.yale.edu.

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