Strap-ons, samurai, and permission to draw on the walls with crayons—all of these are things that are featured at “United Against Speculation,” the new exhibition at the LeRoy Neiman Gallery.
The exhibit, which runs through April 10, is the third in a series of exhibitions organized by School of the Arts professors Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tomas Vu and features a collaborative installation of paintings, drawings, and mixed-media pieces made by current and past Columbia MFA students. For some, this was the first time working directly on the walls—clearly, because the whole gallery looks like a revenge on their parents and the police who forbade them from doing so for years.
I’ve been to see this exhibition three times already since its opening, trying to wrap my head around it, and I have to admit something. It’s something I wanted to keep a secret, something I’ve never told my friends during gallery visits: I don’t get contemporary art. That’s it. I said it. I just don’t get it.
Don’t get me wrong, tiny black and white taxis graffitied onto the wall with an invitation to color them are absolutely amazing. My mum never allowed me to draw on walls, so being invited to do so at 21 is a huge “take that mum” kind of moment. But without the context, that’s about all it provides. And I’m not talking about a piece of paper with the artist’s thoughts on it—though that could probably help shed some light. Artists such as Banksy, Victor Ash, or Blek le Rat don’t need any words of explanation; their art does the talking. And the taxis are not saying much for now.
Another fragment of the wall featured female fighters with strap-ons and gas masks dressed like anime characters in front of fighting samurai. What am I supped to feel, to experience? These elements—females with fake penises, humans in gas masks, humans dressed like cartoon characters—were once thought-provoking when inserted into the artistic realm, but now they are just cliché tools in the toolbox of an artist looking to shock.
“What is the message that the artist was trying to convey?” I ask a student sitting behind a desk in the gallery, but she just smiles uncomfortably. I assume that there is a message of some sort because neither the technique nor the idea could stand alone without it.
I won’t be visiting the Neiman Gallery again, at least until mid-April, when there’s a new exhibition, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t visit. Stravinsky once said, when asked if he composes for an audience, “I use the language of music, and my statement in my grammar will be clear to the musician who has followed music up to where my contemporaries and I have brought it.” I clearly do not understand the grammar of Columbia’s MFA students. I need a translation from artsy to English. It’s a shame that the curators and artists did not provide it, so we could all participate in the conversation on equal terms.
“United Against Speculation” runs through April 10 at the LeRoy Neiman Gallery, 310 Dodge.