The Dream of the ’90s is Alive at the Blanton


“Call me,” the blonde phone sex operator purrs, looking straight into the camera. “We can talk about politics or Melrose Place.” This is Alex Bag, or, more accurately, art student Alex Bag playing one of eight hyperbolic versions of herself. Instead of sultry pillow talk, the lingerie-clad coquette—a hypersexualized component of her imagination—speaks to an unheard corporate drone, eventually berating him. Half Real World confessional and half proto-YouTube superstar video, Bag morphs identities every few minutes. In one scene she’s a Lisa Loeb clone, smoking cigarettes and satirizing art school. In another she’s wearing black lipstick and a dark pixie cut, holding a tulip and silently weeping as Morrissey’s “Suedehead” plays.

“It predates reality TV,” says Evan Garza, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton Museum. “Untitled, Fall ’95” is, according to Garza, one of the most important pieces in Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s. A confluence of pop culture, identity politics, and commentary on contemporary art, the hourlong, continually looping video piece encompasses much of the focus of the exhibit, open from February 21-May 15 after originating at the Montclair Art Museum early last year.

Framed by art created between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, the exhibit is split into three sections, according to date. The first, 1989-1993, contains a few pieces not included in the original exhibit, specifically those focusing on the AIDS crisis, works from LGBTQ artists, and those focusing on identity politics. Aside from the larger gallery space afforded to this exhibit in its current home at the Blanton, Garza felt that this time period was a hotbed for underrepresented artists focusing on these themes.

OPIE---Jo---2003.9.2“Untitled (Placebo)” was created by Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres in 1991 shortly after his partner, Ross Laycock, succumbed to the disease. Consisting of thousands of identical pieces of silver-wrapped candy placed directly on the gallery floor, it represents the early clinical trials of drugs like AZT, used to combat HIV/AIDS. Viewers are allowed to take one piece, a metaphor for loss and the disintegration of the body.

Other works, like Donald Moffett’s rainbow-colored lightbox installation bearing the words “Call The White House” above a working number for a phone at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and “Tell Bush we’re not all dead yet,” reference the federal government’s slow response to the epidemic, for which Ronald Reagan publicly apologized that same year. Photographs by Catherine Opie of her LGBTQ friends purposefully obscure the gender of each subject, and agitprop collective Gran Fury’s “RIOT” painting—a subversion of the famous “LOVE” pop-art piece and an AIDS poster cropping up all over NYC subways at this time—recalls New York City’s Stonewall riots of 1969 and the violence and death facing the LGBTQ community. Beverly Semmes’ Famous Twins encompass an entire corner of one room, two comically oversized dresses with arms draping to the floor, meant as a comment on the often skewed perception of feminine identity.

1993 is a particularly interesting year in the context of the exhibit, especially because that year’s Whitney Biennial was a benchmark of inclusivity in the history of the exhibition. Garza says the number of normally marginalized artists showing work was controversial for the time.

“So many women, artists of color, and queer artists were part of a radical shift,” Garza says. “It became a global industry.”

One such piece is Gary Simmons’ “Black Chalkboards (Two Grinning Faces with Cookie Bag),” depicting racist caricatures of African Americans, the chalkboard symbolizing how stereotypes are instilled in Americans from childhood.

As I reach the mid-’90s, the focus slightly shifts away from the AIDS crisis. On the floor in front of me is another piece Garza added to the existing exhibit, perhaps the most quintessentially ’90s piece in the gallery. Two large tube televisions face outward, each playing a lo-fi videotape from artist Cheryl Donegan: “Make Dream” and “Head,” both from 1993. The latter, soundtracked by alternative band Sugar, is a DIY meditation on objectification as Donegan sips from a milk container and spits the liquid back into the top.


“No conversation about the 1990s is complete without Nikki Lee,” Garza says, as we approach three photographs from the artist taken during her cultural immersion project. Each photograph is different, with Lee as one of the subjects subsumed into an American cultural stereotype: as a punk on St. Mark’s Place in New York City, a Latina in Spanish Harlem, and a redneck in rural Ohio, Lee pictured in front of a giant Confederate flag.

The final rooms in the gallery shift more toward digital art as the composition dates approach Y2K. Some of the “Internet art” displayed there are examples of what Garza says is relegated to the ’90s, never to be duplicated because of ever-evolving technology and mediums. One such piece is Mark Napier’s visually cocophanous “Riot,” a series of jumbled, manic internet browser screencap prints, each one a collage of archaic-looking images from websites previously visited by the artist.

Glenn Kaino’s “The Siege Perilous” is a black Herman Miller Aeron chair—ubiquitous in Silicon Valley during the late-’90s start-up era—under glass, with a motor underneath. The chair spins wildly out of control, before slowing down to a crawl and winding back up again, signifying the dizzying times in that region predating the dot-com bubble bursting.

Then there’s “Blackness for Sale,” a 2001 screen capture from eBay in which Mendi + Keith Obadike put up for sale Obadike’s “blackness” was one of the first things to ever go viral on the Internet, though its presence died down quickly with the events of September 11 just a few weeks later.

One overarching theme I can’t shake from my brain is the relative closeness I still feel to the 1990s—like it was yesterday. The music, the fashion, even some of the same art hanging on these walls are pieces I’ve seen before. Why is it time to revisit a decade that it feels like, at least to me, we’ve just departed?

“It feels like from a cultural perspective we are approaching a similar period,” Garza tells me. “We are recognizing some bad habits and the effects of some political policies that are designed to be helpful.” He’s right, and, after all, 1989 was almost 30 years ago at this point. A visitor at an art gallery in 1976 viewing a retrospective on the 1950s might feel like they are viewing life on an alien planet. The same goes for someone in 1996 looking at artwork created during the Vietnam War. Back in 1989, in 1996, even in 2001, says Garza, the ideas tied to race, gender, sexuality, and other identities explored in these pieces were revolutionary.

“The conversations on race and identity as a whole were so important,” Garza says, of the 1990s art scene, Kaino’s Aeron chair still spinning behind him. “It’s not done with the same teeth today.”

From top: Alice Bag’s “Untitled Fall ’95”; Catherine Opie’s “Jo”; and Nikki S. Lee’s “Hispanic Project.”


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