The art world's preoccupation with authenticity seems to ebb and flow with the tides of the economy. In an uptick, artists can be cynical about whether their work connects; come the recession, soul-searching slides back into fashion. In 2007, when West Coast–based artist Ben Shaffer had his first solo show at Silverman Gallery, the art business was booming, and he filled the gallery with a collection of assemblage sculptures that included a life-size rainbow-striped woman riding a unicycle. The work could be read as commentary on a flush scene's love of spectacle.
Shaffer's current show at the Silverman, "This Is a Myth," explores instead art's connection to spirituality. The show is full of sloppy tantric paintings that share gallery space with obelisks made of concrete. Shaffer's color palette leans toward the garishly harlequin; shapewise, he favors spirals and triangles. He uses acrylic paint, sheets of wood, and spray paint. The apparent cheapness of the materials gives the work a found-object familiarity that's almost tribal (San Francisco being home to the tribe of D.I.Y.), and Shaffer's purposefully vague symbols evoke a mythology so nebulous it's universal. It's the kind of art that doesn't much impress when you're standing in front of it, but burns in the mind's eye with the power of iconography. It's humble art, and perhaps because of that it comes across as refreshingly authentic.
Because of its nebulous symbolism, Shaffer's work can be read as being about art in the way that the poem "Kubla Khan" is about poetry. It proves that if you create your own internal logic, viewers most often accept it, entranced by the means if not the meaning. Shaffer plays the part of mystic, handing out visual koans, and it's up to us to find their purpose.
In early 2009, it looks like we'll get a lot of art shows that play with myths and meaning. I'm looking forward to a few in particular.
At Frey Norris, San Francisco artist Joshua Hagler will poke at the mask of chastity with his first solo show, "72 Virgins to Die For," in clever paintings that juxtapose organized religion's preoccupation with purity, with its simultaneous love of political power.
Part two of the expansive "Paul McCarthy's Low Life Slow Life" at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts promises to tear down icons like Walt Disney and Santa Claus alike. McCarthy, who once told an interviewer, "My work is more about being a clown than a shaman," has turned his own life into a myth of sorts, gaining notoriety through bodily-fluid–filled performance art and his chocolate Santa Claus holding a butt plug. Here, he curates an extremely personal selection of work from the likes of Les Levine and Lil Picard, mixed with ephemera and his own art.
Fiber artist Nick Cave seems extremely comfortable in the role of shaman. In March, he'll display his jaw-dropping soundsuits at Yerba Buena. The full-body sculptures step straight out of dream-myths, mixing African ceremony with the Western circus. When Cave conducts performances in them, their materials produce eerie aural effects. Literally dancing around meaning, Cave evokes the pure joy of ceremony. It's powerful stuff. Artwork like Cave's can fill the role of communion and reflection usually reserved for religion — and, as with religion, these rituals are more engaging when they shed their connection to wealth.
In 2009, then, long live the art recession, and send in the clowns.