Brooklyn is home today to a scene that includes mostly modest experimental galleries (I help run one), topnotch artists and all the accouterments: bars, restaurants, bookstores and art supply shops, in descending order of importance. Developed far enough away from the art world's crippling speculation and vapid star-system (like Soho in the 60s, when such pressures did not exist), art produced today by artists in Brooklyn threatens to turn itself into something, dare one say it, terribly important.
But aside from a few modest national and international exhibitions, only one major art institution has woken up to Brooklyn's solid potential as ground zero for pensive, hype-free, substantive art: the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Since 1985, the borough's flagship art institution has hosted "Working In Brooklyn," an ongoing exhibition series that "acknowledges Brooklyn's ever-growing importance in the contemporary art world" through frequent shows of nominally Brooklyn artists. "Working In Brooklyn" has presented solo shows of the work of Glenn Ligon, Joan Snyder and, more significantly, exhibitions of younger Brooklyn-based artists who have rapidly garnered stellar reputations across the U.S. and Europe.
In 1997, for example, the Brooklyn Museum put together "Current, Undercurrent," a large group show of work from artist-run galleries in Brooklyn. This year, the Brooklyn Museum presented "Domestic Transformations," a group exhibition of home objects gone wild, and the museum's latest Brooklyn-based vehicle, "Beyond Technology," an up-to-date exploration of present-day crossings between contemporary art and technological innovation, featuring the work of artists Rico Gatson, Perry Hoberman, Roxy Paine, Fatimah Tuggar and Janet Zweig.
Organized by Charlotta Kotik, the Brooklyn Museum's curator of contemporary art, "Beyond Technology" is underpinned by a well-respected if still underexposed cast of contemporary artists. Tuggar, recently of the New Museum, is a Nigerian artist who explores African culture as seen through Western eyes. Hoberman, an artist showing with Postmasters Gallery in Manhattan, works with a range of technologies, from obsolete to the state-of-the-art. Gatson, who last spring exhibited at Pierogi 2000, arguably Brooklyn's best gallery, toys with eerily humorous representations of Klansmen and American racial cliches. Paine, after last year's knockout solo show at Soho's Ronald Feldman, continues his exploration of computer-controlled assembly line art, while Zweig uses computers to create and activate texts that become integral to her kinetic sculptural works. Put directly, these Brooklyn artists are among the most well-known, versatile and sophisticated art practitioners working today. They are also to traditional Brooklyn what the Miami ice hockey team is to residents of Little Havana: despite their continued presence, still bizarre additions to the familiar neighborhood of blue-collar workers, stoops and corner coffee shops.
"Beyond Technology" begins with a simple premise. Artists, from the time of Leonardo da Vinci's dalliances with helicopter design, have always been drawn to technological change, a fact evident today in the proliferation of digital photography, video and Web design in contemporary art. The invention of the photographic camera?an event we now recall as if staring at a family album?revolutionized art practice, leaving nothing the same. The computer, the paradigm-shifting invention of our own age, in turn also redefined the parameters of artmaking, encouraging innovations from digitally plotted painting to complex multimedia installations. Yet it is always surprising to see contemporary artists use today's virtual-minded technology to fashion works that invariably uphold the role of the traditional art object. In a final reproof to hordes of postmodernists who took (and still take) Walter Benjamin at his dreamy word, artists continue to employ, then as now, the most advanced means of mechanical reproduction available to create original works of unmistakable, still inviolable, physical reality.
Witness "Beyond Technology," an exhibition in which every artist conjoins digital processes and man-made craft to present artwork within a stolid museum setting. In a small, nearly cramped gallery space, the exhibition arrays the works of these five Brooklyn artists with a view to letting the passing public trace out the connections between the art displayed. There's Perry Hoberman's Sorry, We're Open, a modular office cubicle from temp-worker's hell, outfitted with rolodexes, pencil sharpeners, desk lights and a battery of fans activated by the passersby's keyboard manipulation; Roxy Paine's Silly Putty-colored SCU-MAK sculptures, previously extruded onto an assembly line through a device that could be Frankenstein's soft-serve ice cream dispenser; Rico Gatson's Picket Cage, a "compound" suggesting Waco and Ruby Ridge, made of white picket fencing and containing a video of a flowery Klansman and an audiotape of crackling flames; Fatimah Tuggar's People Watching, a photomontage not unlike John Heartfield's except the images are juxtaposed by means of scanning and Photoshop instead of via scissors and the hand; and finally, Janet Zweig's Everything In the World, the exhibition's strongest piece, a slowly unspooling roll of paper with a pastel Dutch landscape drawn on its face, which is steadily printed with a baffling code of 1s and 0s until the pictured world, all of it, disappears from view.
All of the works in "Beyond Technology" take us beyond the everyday, utilitarian applications of technology while growing the traditional, expected encounter with art toward an inventive, well-considered, ultimately cant-free experience of art. If the works in the Brooklyn Museum's latest installment of art made in the borough are any indication, and I think they are, the world will soon be paying a great deal more attention to artists working and living in Brooklyn.
"Beyond Technology," through Sept. 12, Brooklyn Museum of Art (200 Eastern Pkwy., B'klyn), 718-638-5000.