Group shows are usually failures, at least conceptually.
Group shows can be a delight, at least aesthetically.
Group shows are what are up over the summer when everyone’s out of town.
Group shows are like speed dating, an effective way to meet new people.


In talking about her novel “The Group” Mary McCarthy supposedly once said “I’m putting real plums into an imaginary cake.” For our purposes the real plums are interesting works of art, the imaginary cake is the conceptual structure of the “group show” that has some clever title, some theme, some PR reasoning but we honestly all know that is almost never anything but spun sugar.



Jill Magid, Bayonet Range, 2013.  book page, one way neon, transformer. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery, NY.

Jill Magid, Bayonet Range, 2013. book page, one way neon, transformer. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery, NY.


“Junkie’s Promises” at Paul Kasmin is by no means a stand out among the slew of groups shows up at the moment. The only reason I’m writing about it is because there is a real plum of a work of art in it…


First, to present the imaginary cake: “Junkie Promises” is a group show curated by a Kasmin gallery artist, of artists who show with other galleries. The press release says it is inspired by Burroughs’ 1953 novel “Junkie.” The curator/artist Iván Navarro explains: “I became fascinated by the way Burroughs fictionalizes survival as a junkie, especially with minimal economic resources and using improvised strategies to reach a goal…I realized that, metaphorically, this attitude is exactly the way many artists develop their work, at least the kind of industrious artists I am interested in. They find inventive ways to take possession of common objects and ideas and use them for their own purposes, on their own terms.” What! A metaphor, that amounts to “artists are resourceful” is the excuse given for dragging William B’s stinking corpse into a Chelsea show room? As though that rather quotidian insight isn’t easily gleaned from, and applicable to, a hundred thousand other cultural situations? The next sentence of the press release tells you, with no foothold in the Junkie discussion, that all the work in the exhibition relates to light. This is clearly a trick. I mean, as you walk around, you indeed see all stuff that lights up—video monitors, projectors, outdoor sinage, a jacob’s ladder, etc.—but what does this have to do with “Junkie”? Is the press release some meta-joke about how useless group show themes are? Or that everyone in the art world stopped reading and instead uses books like Celestial Seasonings tea-bags they can drop into tepid water for some added conceptual flavor?


Anyways, there is a knock-out piece by the marvelous artist Jill Magid there. It indeed has light. It is a one-way neon rod empaling a printed page to the wall. A lighting rod pinning a butterfly. It is a multivalent shape, this white neon—an ice cycle, a unicorn or narwhale horn, a lance. It is magical and threatening. You could put your eye out. The text on the page is an analysis of the psycho-sexual aspects of slaying a human with a bayonet, how much more personal, upsetting it is—penetration and all that, with the bayonet becoming an extension of the soldier’s body. Like most of her work there is deep consideration of interpersonal connections. It has a lot to say about war and humanity. Humans in fact do not like to kill each other, which was clear in an earlier warfare: when confronted face-to-face killing has a different charge as opposed to the distant video-game technology of the drone. There is a lot to parse out here, anbecause she is a great artist Magid doesn’t underline anything. It is playful, delightful, beautiful, sad, terrifying. It makes you think about your body, a skewer, the wall.


That I have to wade through imaginary angel food cake to encounter this Magid piece is fine with me, although I think it might be more useful if we stop trying to act like the group show is anything other than an chance to bring together works that look interesting together, and sometimes it isn’t clear why or how.


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—Contributed by Jarrett Earnest