Art In The Fast Lane

Cutting-edge artists come along all the time. But only once in a while do more than a couple seem like real contenders, and rarely do you see a half dozen who benchmark a new sensibility. That's happening right now in two big New York museum shows. The Whitney Biennial exhibition (which runs through June 4) and a show called "Greater New York" (through May 16 at PS 1 in Queens) are lively without being angry, and inventive without being esoteric. Among their more than 230 artists, we've found six--whose work ranges from traditional painting to digital video--to keep an eye on in the future. And perhaps it's only a coincidence, but just as their work went on view, peace returned to the New York art world. Mayor Rudy Giuliani dropped his effort to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which he had threatened to withhold after the "Sensation" exhibition. So it's springtime in New York--and the artists are once again in bloom.

This much is indisputable: Essenhigh can draw like a bandit and color superbly. Her painting at PS 1, "The Adoration," is a big, shiny enamel cartoon on canvas, done with all the pop precision of a giant animation cell. (She continually sands away unwanted imagery and repaints to simplify.) The subject is an old-master Madonna morphed with the cool know-how of a horror-movie director. Why would a nice young woman from Pennsylvania want to do that? "Well, I'm half Protestant, half Catholic," says Essenhigh, "so I'm right in between minimalism and spectacle." She elaborates: "Even if there are bits in the painting you don't get, there's nothing really antagonistic in it. There's nothing that screams at a viewer, 'This is more about art than it is about you'.'' Essenhigh's paintings are easy on the eyes as decoration, but there's still something weird--even a little nasty--about those vaguely humanoid forms flitting about the surface. But the artist is confident viewers will "get" the surrealism, just as they'll get the influences of Japanimation and movies like Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" on her work.

Because Essenhigh is petite, striking and now represented by the powerful dealer Mary Boone, she's often lumped with new glam-girl painters like Cecily Brown and Elizabeth Peyton. But she still lives in a noisy, rent-stabilized apartment and shares a smallish studio on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with her artist boyfriend and two others. All four went to the same New York art school and have been a sort of crew since 1994. "I like the atmosphere in that studio," says Essenhigh. "I don't want to be alone." If she keeps painting like this, she probably never will be.

Sometimes it's important for an artist to just hang tough. Huerta was raised in the L.A. projects, but he kept his nose to his drawing board. He made it to a community college, then to Art Center College of Design. Nevertheless, says the Los Angeles painter, "I'd have to go through a parking lot with drug dealers to get to my car to drive to Art Center. Sometimes the cops would be doing a raid, so I'd have to walk through them, too. Then, one day on the road up the hill to the school, I almost hit a deer. The difference between the projects and art school was extreme." But the last thing he wants is for viewers at the Whitney Biennial to see his crisply colorful small paintings of houses as souvenirs of the barrio.

"I was looking for a generic house," Huerta says, "the kind of home you can afford to have if you have a decent job in L.A. They're all over, from San Bernardino to East L.A." Huerta alters them, taking away a window or adding a garage, and renders the homes in a perfumey palette he gets from music videos and fashion magazines. "Viewers can relate to the color," he says. "It draws them in." Huerta's paintings are connected to a tradition in modern California painting: Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park" pictures, Wayne Thiebaud's still lifes and particularly Ed Ruscha's famous L.A. apartment-house pictures of the 1960s. But Huerta's work is a lot more suffused with the hope of working-class people who manage to hang tough, too.

Beecroft started studying art--lots of rigorous figure drawing in Genoa and Milan--at 14. When the time for her thesis show rolled around in 1993, she decided that her drawings didn't hold up to old-master paintings or say anything as contemporary art. So she exhibited her classmates as living sculpture. "People were horrified," she says. "They said it was hostile and insulting."

Beecroft persevered and, in 1998, made a splash in the New York art world with a kind of half performance, half sculpture of gorgeous professional female models standing around rather elegantly in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum. Most were dressed in underwear, because the museum would allow only five to be nude. Beecroft would have liked them all to be naked. "All clothes are a social statement, a uniform," she says with a charming Italian accent. "Since I have no clue as to the women's uniform, I would like the women to be nude as if they were dressed." Whatever. Beecroft's pieces simply look great: cool, ordered and actually more designy than erotic. Which is probably why she regards the large-format photographs she takes of her work as mere documentation, or advertising for the next piece.

Beecroft, a peppy beach-party kind of person, has now detoured into military uniforms. Her most recent piece involved a formation of Navy SEALs (yes, Navy SEALs!) standing at attention and at ease in dress whites. On the evening of April 21, she'll stage something similar--with Navy submariners--on the deck of the USS Intrepid Museum. So, art world: ten-hutt!

Pfeiffer wears a tan sports jacket over a black T shirt and hikes the sleeves up on his forearms. Very "Miami Vice." He smokes cigarettes. (Hardly any artists smoke these days.) And he practices Thai kickboxing for fun. But the hipster allure is misleading. Pfeiffer is also a bit shy. He considers each question in silence for a few seconds before answering, taking care not to misspeak. Which is the same way he makes his art.

Pfeiffer's painstakingly digitalized manipulated film loops, seductively displayed on small, sculptural monitors, made the cut both at PS 1 and at the Whitney Biennial. At first glance, they seem to be about either sex (a famous couch-rubbing sequence from the 1980s classic "Risky Business") or sports (a 5,000-frame sequence of basketball action in which the ball remains more or less still in the center of the screen while the periphery flashes like a solar flare). But Pfeiffer's agenda veers, like his personality, away from the obvious. He says, "A critic asked me, 'Don't you think sports is essentially about human drama?' I thought what I wanted to do was to move precisely away from that. The first thing I see [in the basketball video] is the ball almost pasted on the monitor. It brings you back from the narrative to the surface of the picture, almost like a Cézanne."

So the work is simply about perception--things like background/foreground, moving and standing still? "That's the way I think people should appreciate the piece," he says. It's a gentle request, not an order. Still, Pfeiffer has set a large task for his art. The reach from hoops (or a hunky actor in white briefs) to the spatial vagaries of post-impressionism is certainly a long one. But consider that Pfeiffer is a Hawaiian of Philippine extraction who studied printmaking in San Francisco, came to New York for graduate study, now teaches digital design in a Manhattan art school and is represented by a cutting-edge new gallery in Harlem. He's obviously one of the new breed of artists with very, very long esthetic arms.

Laverdiere's "First Attempted Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable Crossing" is the sensation of the PS 1 show. And this time the buzz is for all the right reasons. The piece is an ode to a ship that sank in an attempt to start wiring the world--for the telegraph--way back in the 1850s. The art work's centerpiece is an incredibly detailed, nine-foot-long model of the barnacled ship encased in a glass tube.

The tube lies atop the base of a 20-foot-tall edifice that looks like an ominous allusion to an early building by Albert Speer, Hitler's personal architect. And from speakers under the temple floor rises some specially commissioned spooky music. You can feel the subwoofer in your feet.

The ship model was originally made by Laverdiere for a television commercial. The Yale-educated artist runs a production-design company--out of a Chelsea studio that looks like a science lab--that works on commercials and fashion-magazine layouts. And that's what finances his capital-intensive art. But "Cable Crossing" has an emotional resonance--a sort of sci-fi nostalgia--that transcends its technical virtuosity. It could be that Laverdiere, whose dad is an old-fashioned ceramic sculptor in upstate New York, is trying to honor the past while moving beyond it at the same time. And it could be that we recognize we're in much the same predicament ourselves.

Lopez, who came to the United States from the Philippines as baby, went to Barnard College. "I had wanted to go to art school," she says, "but I realized it was more important to get a literary foundation. I was really grateful I didn't go to an art school." Pause. "Actually, I was forbidden to go by my parents." So she wrote a thesis on William Faulkner and graduated with a degree in literature. Eventually the soft-spoken Lopez did go to art school--as a graduate student--and quickly found success in the art world: a first New York solo show in 1996, and another with the ultracool Deitch Projects gallery in 1998. But instead of making Lopez giddy, sudden cachet has made her wary: "It's easy for emerging artists to be hot for a year or two. Then the art world grows tired of them. I would rather just tend to my work, develop it slowly and carefully."

Slowly and carefully--and intensely and inexhaustibly--is how Lopez made "Boy," her leather-covered compact car at the current PS 1 show. She softened vegetable-tanned leather until it was practically butter, then draped and massaged it--"continual masking and unveiling," Lopez calls it--over the a derelict auto's steel shell, and over every nook and cranny of its interior. She often slept in the car: "It became a kind of ritual for me just to be in it." The result is an impressive, unsettling cross between one of Marcel Duchamp's dada objects, such as the famous bicycle wheel attached to a stool, and the sort of overpriced and pointless "leathercraft" found in suburban mall galleries near major Southwestern cities. Lopez likes that tension, insisting on being a hard-core contemporary sculptor while flirting with the tackiness of the tourist trade. And the title--does it mean that the sex of the leather car is male? Nope. Lopez says, "The word has an oval sound. It describes the shape of the car." Just because she has a degree in literature doesn't mean that Lopez takes everything literally.

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