1998: The Year in Art

Each of Long's pieces was unique, each with its own integrity. If anyone ever instructed Long to labor toward a consistent vision or unified style -- the kind of good manners art students are taught -- he didn't listen.

There's a giddy incivility to Long's work. Although much of contemporary art is viewed with dismay by the silent majority, the looks on the faces those who were under-appreciative of the Long exhibition revealed an expression of distressed uncertainty. There seemed to be a total lack of recognition in their eyes, as if they didn't know what they were seeing.

Yet Long's work is very much a part of the everyday. He creates assemblages with "tasteful" end tables and coffee grounds (the grounds constructed into shapes akin to alien life forms). Just as Gus Van Sant contemporizes Psycho by giving the Vera Miles character a Walkman, Long gives the art exhibition its own music with Stereolab for anyone to listen to on headphones.

The juxtaposition of the artwork of central Africa and the sculpture of Charles Long at the Art Museum inadvertently reveals the tension between artist and community that is necessary for great art to happen. Long is as much on the periphery of mainstream contemporary America as is the artist in the Congo in relation to his village. Both live at the threshold between wildness and community, then return from beyond that threshold with strange figures that inspire wonder, horror, excitement, dismay. They create disturbances in the civil life.

As I consider the year in review, I'm mindful of the artist's status as outsider. It's not just a modern convention (as the Central Africa show proves), and despite communitarian claims, it is a status worth preserving -- so long as the distance between art and community does not become too great. Again, it's the tension that's important, which means the cord is not severed but the tether is continually tested.

The art that remains with me from this year (as Ezra Pound wrote, "What thou lovest well remains") had a subversive aspect. There's a risk artists take as they become better citizens -- a blandness that results at the expense of the exceptional, which is why good civic events such as the City Series exhibition and In/Form 5 are memorable in the way public-works projects are. As much as "partnership" has become a buzzword in the arts, there's a contrarian's comfort in a title from an old collection of short stories by the Montana writer William Kittredge: We Are Not in This Together.

So under the aesthetic of subversion as defined by the Central Africa exhibit and Charles Long, add Kara Walker to the list of the year's most memorable art. At the Forum for Contemporary Art, her installation of silhouettes depicted banal, although luscious, representations of antebellum gentility on the surface but on closer viewing showed scenes of violence and oppression of the most gruesome nature. Walker, who is African-American, has caused a storm of controversy among some African-American artists for reproducing stereotypical racist imagery.

This sets her apart as yet another artist who has brought visions from the spirit world that the village is uncertain how to own.

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