AT THIS point, the 1990s throwback trend in fashion and music has nearly been worn ragged, but between you and me, I've enjoyed every second of it.
While I understand why those of us in our late 20s and 30s have trouble getting why we’d want to dig through our parents’ basements in search of the mall duds we wore to a Jewel concert (electric blue tie-dyed, fur-print bell bottoms from The Limited, thanks, and yes, I found them), I still relish the vibe and welcomed its return.
Yes, bands, please slather on the Pavement influences! The guitar solo is back, thank God—er—J. Mascis! Give me all of the platform shoes—they’re the only heels that can handle cobblestone!
But the spirit of the ‘90s goes far beyond what’s in the closet and on the radio. Socially and artistically, it was a complicated—and integral—decade for environmental activism, identity politics, and globalization, via the birth of the internet and major advances in software development.
While it’s simple to reduce the representation of ten years to an aesthetic, like a plastic made-in-China tattoo choker, the crucial unrest and catalytic nature of the decade is captured lovingly and painstakingly in Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s, capturing some of the most important years in American history and, in turn, visual art.
With work by such luminaries as Doug Aitken, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu, Prema Murthy, Shirin Neshat, Catherine Opie, Gabriel Orozco, Diana Thater, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Kara Walker, this exhibit at the Jepson Center for the Arts is the first major museum survey exclusively devoted to the decade.
The ‘90s were a time in which multimedia, participatory, and experimental art reigned, as artists tested the waters of new digital media and net art. Conversely, there was also a renewed interest in painting and traditional materials—something select critics deemed a backlash against tech art, while others simply saw it as a return to the aesthetics of classic beauty.
Come As You Are Curator Alexandra Schwartz argues that those paradoxes and contradictions define the ‘90s as a historic turning point in the institution of art itself; it’s what makes the exhibition’s name, borrowed, of course, from the Nirvana song, so fitting.
“Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be,” Kurt Cobain languidly coaxes over a narco-haze guitar riff effected like it’s tremoring in the deep end of a pool.
“As a trend,” he offers. “As a friend.”
From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the Twin Towers, Schwartz has strived to capture the essence of a fascinating era of art in the United States.
“All the work that I chose addressed usually two of three main themes,” Schwartz explains.
Every piece demonstrates some tie between identity politics, the digital revolution, and globalization.
The first section of the exhibition spans 1989 to 1993, highlighting work based on cultural, racial, class, sexual and gender differences of the era. It’s integral to view Come As You Are’s work in the context of history: the AIDS crisis, Rodney King, and Anita Hill act as frames for the work on the walls.
“What was happening in society and politics—that was something that was very important to me,” explains Schwartz.
Pieces like James Luna’s Take a Picture with a Real Indian (viewers could pose with the artist as he wore their choice of costume: leather loincloth, Plains Indian feathered headdress, or street clothes) unblinkingly invited scrutiny of the politics of representation, as well as the role museums play in shaping the way we know history.
In his 1996 photographic series Sugar Children, Vik Muniz created portraits of the children of sugar plantation workers out of actual sugar and photographed them. Not only did the series serve as a comment on the disparity of the sugar’s country of origin (where workers suffered from exploitative labor practices) and countries where the product was sold (richer countries that made the bulk of profits)—Muniz also observed the stark contrast of the children’s happiness and the weary sadness of their parents.
Having worked on the show for five years, Schwartz says the 1990s trend is just a matter of lucky timing.
“I thought it was really fascinating, and it’s interesting that, since I started on this show, the trend has really taken off,” Schwartz says. “I feel the whole ‘90s nostalgia thing only happened in a couple years, but now there are so many artists thinking about multimedia and technology of the time. I think it’ll be really interesting for artists, and art students especially, to look at this work again and see its relevance today.”
“I also had been talking to a lot of younger artists interested in the period,” she adds. “They really almost had a yearning for the political engagement that the artists of the time had, and were looking to that period.”
A renewed interest in net art and the throwback aesthetics of Tumblr culture have demonstrated that resurgence within the art world. Schwartz notes that some of the artists with net pieces have had their work printed; while it would be ideal to project it directly from the web, some of the sites their pieces originally appeared on no longer function or exist. Technology has outgrown the art itself.
In a way, that insecurity and element of risk—not knowing if a page will one day slip away into the web, or get deleted, like a GeoCities page—makes it time-based art.
“A lot of the work of that time is already obsolete,” Schwartz notes.
“And it’s going to continue. It’s a fascinating issue, and part of what I love so much about doing the research is that these questions aren’t resolved. Yet the generations I’m looking at were on the frontlines of that; they were the first generation with internet, the first to feel the repercussions of that.”
At Come As You Are’s opening at Montclair Art Museum, Schwartz, the museum’s founding Curator of Contemporary Art, was pleasantly surprised at the blend of attendees.
“So many previewers were adults during the 1990s with specific memories of it, and there were people growing up in the ‘90s, kids born in the ‘90s who learned about it from friends and pop culture. I think that’s really interesting, and it’s important to bring your own personal experience to the show.”
“A lot of the subject matter is often challenging,” she continues. “But I think it’s really interesting and profound in a way to think about those works within the context of the period—to think about what we’ve heard about it, and the everyday life and experience.”