Bizarre review in today’s New York Times by Ken Johnson of Emily Jacir’s exhibition at the Guggenheim. When Johnson decides he is against something, it sometimes seems to cloud his ability to actually see the art; as a result his reviews can be downright curmudgeonly.
Jacir seems to be constantly surrounded by controversy. This in no small part has to do with the geopolitical concerns surrounding her work, which generally takes the experience of living in Palestine as its jumping off point. (For an overview check out her Wikipedia page). A recent installation at SFMoMA made headlines around the blogosphere for its unusual wall text. And two weeks ago the Times published an interview with Jacir in which she refuses to answer questions and emits evident tension between interviewer and interviewee.
I have not seen the exhibition so I cannot really comment on the content or quality of Jacir’s work. But reading the review, I don’t get the sense that Ken Johnson really engaged the conceptual strategies Jacir puts in play. He alludes to their familiarity, but doesn’t throw out any references (some of Sophie Calle’s projects seem relevant), other than a strange plug for a John le Carré novel. Instead, Johnson gets caught up in the politics of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, questioning Jacir’s motives and truth claims. Whatever “truthiness” emerges, I’m guessing that where Jacir’s work may succeed is in how she organizes materials and information. Johnson alludes to “conventional devices of conceptualism and performance art” but doesn’t take the idea any farther.
The New York Times reviews more exhibitions than any other daily publication, so an “off” review on somewhat controversial subject matter is somewhat par for the course; they simply don’t get it right all the time. Where things get really screwy is when you view the accompanying slideshow. (Again, I haven’t seen the print version for comparison.) The first slide is a striking black and white portrait of Jacir in close-up. To put it bluntly, she is beautiful; it’s hard to imagine the Times leading a slide show of Richard Prince’s works the same way, especially in a multimedia piece acompanying a review, not a feature. So the slides begin by highlighting her status as an attractive (exotic) woman–hardly the best lead-in for an objective viewing of her work. This same slide is captioned by an excerpt from Johnson’s review, which is the standard way of captioning these slide shows. But by the third slide, the images no longer correspond to works on view at the Guggenheim, and by the fifth slide, the captions come not from Johnson’s review, but rather from a 2005 review by Roberta Smith of Jacir’s exhibition at Alexander and Bonin. Contrast the caption on the first slide, from Johnson’s review, with the caption on the sixth and last slide, by Smith:
Emily Jacir employs conventional devices of conceptualism and performance art to call attention to the plight of the Palestinian people. (Johnson)
Ms. Jacir’s deft extrapolation of the issues of identity from the specifics of experience, like her renewal and extension of what might be called classic Conceptual Art, is enormously impressive. (Smith)
As much as this highlights the differences in Smith’s and Johnson’s criticism, it also gives an interesting lens on this disconnect between the editors and the writers. The editors, designers, and photo editors probably decide on the visuals and multimedia features long before the critics submit their copy. Does it make sense to give a lot of visual space to an exhibition that receives a negative review? The entire slide show is apparently cobbled together from previously published material, but with no continuity. What we are left with is a strange amalgam that obscures rather than clarifies, and at worst misrepresents Jacir and her artwork.