Anthea Hamilton

Above: Anthea Hamilton mixed media installation work at Tate, 2018. Credit: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock.

Esotericism

The art practices of such artists as Darren Bader (Sadie Coles), Michael Dean (Herald Street), Anthea Hamilton (Ibid Gallery), Helen Marten (Sadie Coles), Nicole Wermers (Herald Street), and Cathy Wilkes (The Modern Institute), are wilfully obscure--the work leaves many onlookers unmoved and scratching-their-heads as to what it all means. It could be deep or it could be nonsense nobody seems to know for sure; most agree that such work can be characterized as "ad hoc" and/or "gloriously playful" etc. Adrian Searle: "I don't know how to read half of Wilkes's installations. Unless, that is, I'm thinking too hard."

For these artists, obscurantism and the esoteric has become a fetish: incomprehensibleness has become a thrilling and perverse satisfaction. (Art as an indulgent, contrary parlour-game.)

The risk with this approach (if it becomes pervasive) is that art appreciation itself suffers: contemporary art appreciation will likely become ever more niche and marginal--as happened already to free jazz, poetry and opera. The only remaining audience existing as a hardcore of super-fans (who are perceived as slightly loopy, and blinkered eccentrics).

By striking contrast, the purpose and meaning of the work of the towering visual artists of today is absolutely clear and comprehensible. Their practices build out from, and are a reaction against, centuries of oppression, genocide, and murder. I am thinking of such essential figures as Glenn Ligon, Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Rashid Johnson, Theaster Gates, and Kerry James Marshall, for example.

(22 March 2018)