15 September - 27 October 2007
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Willem de Kooning once suggested that he wanted his early paintings to look a little like copies of tabloid newspapers crumpled up in the city gutter. He wasn't being ironic: maybe he was saying something about the shattered planes of the post-Cubist space he employed, or maybe something about collage. Most importantly, though, he was signaling his wish that his pictures should capture something of the sassy, stylish and hard-boiled patina that the New York tabloids had been associated with ever since they first found their voice in the 1920s and 1930s. They epitomized the American street, the slang, the nation's shameless wholesome commerce.
Well, half a century on from de Kooning, the New York tabloids don't have the caché they once did. Now, they're merely organs of sport, sensation and gossip, much like most tabloids (though perhaps with less ferocity and punning panache than their British relatives). Nevertheless, Aleksandra Mir, a Swedish artist based in New York and Palermo in Sicily, has been put been under their spell and has begun a project which plays homage to them by reproducing a selection of their covers, by hand, in poster-sized tableau, all strident with black marker pen. It is a project which, her statement says, looks both forward and back: back, because it draw its sources from over fifteen years of New York front page news, prior to 9/11; and forward, since the gallery is conceived as a "news room" in which new pages will be produced each day to be hung in place of the old. One can expect different news on different days, and on the morning I arrived, it seemed to be "cop" day: three pages were arrayed on one wall, bearing the headlines, "Cop Shot", "2 Cops Shot" and "3 Cops Shot"; another wall held pages with the lines "Cop Lied", "Cop Bagged", "He Won't be a Cop Again".
A conceptual artist who has worked in all kinds of media, Mir has obviously sought to make something of the communication value of tabloid news. Yet she doesn't seem to clear as to what that might be. Certainly, the ambition she announces in her statement, to look forward and back, seems neither realized nor even all that sensible in its purpose. It is absurd to suggest, for instance, that "the news before 9/11/2001 makes this megalopolis look like a quaint town full of petty crooks" (weren't these precisely the years in which Mayor Guiliani battled to push down horrendous crime figures?) Would any comparison of news before and after 9/11 even reveal anything of interest, other than the usual shifting about of interests? And it hardly seems true that reproducing the news each day amounts to a look into the future - it merely creates an extended replay of the past.
Paradoxically, it is the graphic style of Mir's transcriptions that charm: headlines have been softened into soothing curves, and photographs have been replaced, either with swirling chains of hatched lines, or soft-edged black blocks. "Teen Tourist Vanishes Here" says one headline - and one almost imagines the teen has disappeared into the spooky black night of Mir's sketching. Indeed, the booming posters are rather covetable objects, particularly those that sit half finished on the desks: no-one was at work, but I wanted to pick up a pen and carry on myself, making up the news as I went. Maybe it's the tabloids fault, that they no longer have a style to inspire, but Mir has only created something warm and comic and appealing, which is hardly the essence of tabloid news.