When Osama bin Laden was killed in May and young people, “the Millennials,” gathered at the White House, Lafayette Park and Ground Zero in a surprising burst of euphoria, their optimism was unnerving. Did they really imagine a post-Osama world markedly different from this one? One college student, interviewed on This American Life, said of her kid sister, “she doesn't know about any of this, and maybe now she won't have to.”
The artists in OHWOW Gallery's current exhibition “Post 9/11” were in their late teens and twenties and living mostly in New York ten years ago, when the towers fell. They were already jaded, and some had built reputations as well-groomed derelicts, rebels who brought a high art sensibility to a street art lifestyle.
If their art is a fair gauge, they held out little hope for the world at large, but they had unwavering faith in their own ability to persist and bend their worlds to their will. Right after 9/11, street phenom turned gallery artist Dash Snow took what may be the most dickish Ground Zero photo: his friends, shirtless, with boxers bunched up above their low-slung jeans, wearing makeshift face masks and leaning up against an ash-covered cab.
That photo by Snow, who died too young of a heroin overdose in 2009, is part of “Post 9/11.” But the rest of the art, largely made over the past few years, takes a more streamlined, sober approach to apathy and rebellion. Dan Colen's big, grossly brown tar and feather-covered canvas feels weirdly polished, like he's shaming cultural decadence while expertly participating in it. Ryan McGinley, the photographer responsible for Levi's youth-worshiping “Go Forth” campaign, has two genuinely pretty photographs in the show, the best of which is the more violent Taylor (Rushing River). In it, a young boy who looks a lot like a teen version of McGinley gasps for air above exquisite, gold-colored rapids.
Adam McEwan's large-scale, fake obituaries clinically report the deaths of Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose speed led to cruel questioning of her gender, and Bret Easton Ellis, “whose depiction of consumerism and violence defined an era.” Neither have died, but the idea of their deaths, however crass, puts 21st century bigotry and cultural indulgences into stark relief. Then there are Agathe Snow's boxes of empty white egg shells, padded with straw and resealed with packing tape, in a way that makes fragility seem sustainable.
The work in this show, made by artists who have learned to navigate the cultural market and package anti-institutional energy in a way that allows it to persist in a world run by institutions, feels as honest as it does conflicted. That's what this generation has done: learned to coexist with indefinite, constant global unrest that affects everything and nothing at the same time.
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