Exhibit at Blanton Museum examines art of the 1990s


Go ahead. Grab a Sony Walkman.

Listening to a 90-minute mixtape of 1990s music — using 1990s technology, no less — may seem at first just an amusing addendum to “Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s,” a traveling exhibit now at the Blanton Museum of Art.

But the soundtracks actually serve as an excellent entrée to this eclectic and sometimes rangy show.

For one thing, the exhibit, which is organized by New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum, takes its name from the Kurt Cobain-written grunge rock hit recorded by Nirvana in 1992.

Cobain’s “Come As You Are” became an anthem for the alternative, identity-searching and DIY subculture that emerged in the 1990s — a pop subculture that remains largely intact today.

Though we like to believe we are on some brilliantly radical cutting edge today, much of our current cultural narrative is rooted in the cultural narrative of the 1990s.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the Tiananmen Square protests erupted in Beijing, events that launched the social, political, economic and cultural globalization we take for granted today.

The first public version of the Web launched in 1991, the beginning of the greatest transformation of information and knowledge since the invention of the printing press. And the Internet forever altered art-making, too. Suddenly, artists had art-making — and art-distributing — tools like never before.

Today’s self-absorbed YouTube confessional video style is foreshadowed in Alex Bag’s “Untitled (Fall ’95),” the artist’s wonderfully ironic pseudo-autobiography that presciently prefigures reality televison as well. And pre-Photoshop digital collages — displayed in the exhibit as inkjet prints of old screengrabs — look charmingly clumsy.

Racial, cultural and sexual identity shapeshifted, too, during the 1990s. And the Blanton makes several contributions to “Come As You Are” in this arena, with several pieces that were plucked from its permanent collection for inclusion in the exhibit.

Byron Kim’s “Synecdoche,” for example, is a grid of 20 painted panels, each a monochrome painting replicating the skin color of individuals Kim randomly encountered at the University of Texas during a 1998 visit. The majority of the panels in “Synecdoche” are beige.

In fact, the museum does an excellent job adding to the traveling exhibit, fleshing out key areas to provide a more robust understanding of the 1990s. In particular, the Austin iteration of the show begins with an entire room dedicated to art addressing the AIDS crisis, something the original version of the exhibit hopscotched around.

Thousands of individually wrapped candies in silver cellophane cover the gallery floor in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Placebo)” from 1991. Visitors may take a piece of candy — or not, either action a metaphor in its own way for the loss of life in the early years of HIV and AIDS when government was slow to make medications available to patients.

Nearby is “Riot,” a mural by artist collective Gran Fury, also a reaction to the nonreaction of health officials.

The Blanton likewise amped up “Come As You Are” with its screening of Matthew Barney’s seven-hour, five-film epic “The Cremaster Cycle,” arguably one of the signature works of American art to emerge from the 1990s.

If “Come As You Are” at first look doesn’t seem groundbreaking or fresh, it might be the myopia of the new millennium. We too easily like to think the digital world, the global geopolitics and marketplace, the fluid and evolving definitions of personal identity, are all manifestations of the 21st century.

They aren’t, though. The 1990s got us here first.



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