Following David Zwirner's habit of giving over the traditionally moribund summer slot to adventurers in the recent past, 'Bright Lights, Big City' is also consistent with New York's current nostalgic obsession with the downtown scene of 20 years ago. As music store shelves groan under the weight of No Wave and Punk Funk reissues, so a variety of art stars from a similar milieux are being wheeled out for a new generation. And while a few of their efforts taste rather better now than they did at the time, others have soured rather than matured.
'Bright Lights, Big City' was arranged to coincide with the launch of the third issue of Charley - a scrapbook of art magazine pages from the 1980s and early 1990s assembled by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick, with the help of designers The Purtill Family Business. Named after the ubiquitous Artnet Magazine newshound Charlie Finch (and surely also in reference to what the nameless hero of Jay McInerney's decade-defining novel affectionately dubs 'Bolivian Marching Powder'), this self-consciously bloated publication is a sobering run-down of how much work dutifully reported on and often highly rated at the time is now either a lingering embarrassment or lining the dustbin of history. That the exhibition itself is a similar experience may or may not have been what its curators had in mind.
Currently enjoying renewed success, Rob Pruitt was once a victim of changing tastes when a superficially off-colour collaboration with Stuart Early was poorly received by the politically correct audience of the early 1990s. 'Bright Lights, Big City' features instead the duo's Music Videos (1989), which star a cadre of art world celebrities, including Richard Prince and Sarah Morris, performing dire karaoke versions of commercial pop hits, and Sculpture for Teenage Boys (Miller Pyramid, 13 High) (1990), a monumental stack of sticker-plastered beer cans. Both works attest to a fascination with throwaway culture that, arguably, seems rather more in tune with today's sensibilities than those of the time at which they were made. David Robbins' Talent (1986), in which 18 artists are given the headshot treatment, belongs in the same category. Robert Longo's glam hair-do is a show-stopper.
If one form sums up the vampiric character of the market in 1980s New York, it is surely Graffiti art. The speed at which a number of the previously underground genre's top dogs were 'discovered', promoted, squeezed dry and unceremoniously dropped is now rarely mentioned, but it only takes an appearance of two works by Lee Quinones to bring it all flooding back. As ever, the work - even the iconic portrait Debbie Harry (1981) - looks profoundly out of place in a gallery, its energy dissipated by the absence of the context provided by subway and street.
Also dependent on an exterior urban setting is Krzysztof Wodiczko's Homeless Vehicle, Version 3 (1988), a mobile aluminium living-pod based on a shopping trolley but which 'bears a resemblance to a weapon'. It is a well-intentioned project but seems heavy-handed next to later, more thoughtful, treatments of related issues by Nils Norman and others.
The work of Jessica Diamond, on the other hand, only seems more enjoyable as time wears on, whether she seems to be addressing Real World concerns or not. Her wall painting Money Having Sex (1988) combines two obsessions of the 1980s that seem unlikely ever to go away and does swift justice to them both, as two dollar signs tease and tangle with each other before finally sharing a 'post-coital cig'.
'Bright Lights, Big City' is predictably haunted by the spectre of AIDS. Group Material's Aids & Insurance (1990) poster, designed for public distribution, deliberately misattributes an appeal for love and understanding to then president George Bush senior. The reaction of disbelief that this provokes neatly highlights a critical difference in attitudes towards the disease between government and citizenry that remains largely extant under the present administration. Ron Jones' Untitled (Core of the Human Retrovirus: Human T-Lymphatic Virus Type I which Contains Protein p25, the RNA which Carried the Virus's Genetic Information, and the Enzyme Reverse Transcriptase, corresponding to the Viral RNA) (1989) models the biological specificities with which the world was forced to become familiar into a Brancusi-esque bronze. As with Peter Saville's sleeve design for New Order's Substance (1987), Jones' aestheticization of the condition renders its horror all the more insidious.
Clearly partial, indifferently hung and not without its share of filler and irrelevance, 'Bright Lights, Big City' hardly constitutes the kind of comprehensive critical reassessment of the 1980s that would be useful just now - that task should probably go to a museum. But in reminding us of a few of the period's highlights, as well as a whole catalogue of its flaws, it has value as both gentle warning bell and refreshing pause for breath.
First published in Issue 79