A portrait of the artist as simplistic But Borofsky's work is worth a look

March 25, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Jonathan Borofsky's art appeals to a great many people among whom I cannot count myself.

An artist whose work has been widely seen through the 1970s and 1980s, Borofsky has become known for his installations. But has also been making prints since the early 1980s. "Subject (s): Prints and Multiples by Jonathan Borofsky 1982- 1991" brings together about four dozen of these works in a traveling show now on view at St. John's College in Annapolis.

In his introduction to the catalog and in his entries on particular works, curator James Cuno, director of the Harvard University Art Museums, tells us that Borofsky deals with profound subjects on a level of simplicity at times approaching naivete. It is, Cuno writes, "an art of contradiction . . . an art of the modern primitive, a religious art in the age of intensive secularization, a romantic cry in the wilderness of civilization, an art that laughs with deadly seriousness."

It is also an intensely self-referential art. Enter the Mitchell Gallery and you come upon a stand with a flashing red light. It's timed to Borofsky's heartbeat. This (always quoting Cuno) is "a vanitas image, a symbol of the brevity of life."

Borofsky's "Molecule Men," originating in a silhouette of himself, is a print of two men, as full of holes as Swiss cheese, meeting with arms outstretched toward one another either in hostility or in affection (looks more like hostility to me). This shows us that "while we are designed to seek reconciliation and thus preserve ourselves and propagate the species, we are equally violent and destructive by nature. The task at hand is to emphasize the former and control the latter."

Borofsky's signature piece may be the man with a briefcase, seen here as a piece of aluminum from which the figure has been cut out so that the man is actually a void. This reflects both Borofsky and everyman, and "suggests the emptiness and anonymity of modern, bourgeois life and the paralysis that results from entrepreneurial ambition."

Borofsky's "All Is One, All Is One" consists of that repeated phrase, written in Arabic and printed both on a plain and a multicolored background. "We are all one," this means, "living of and for each other and everything: a simple idea that is, nevertheless, a mystery. . . . Such a simple phrase, so direct and naive, is akin to the direct and childlike character of Borofsky's art. Both seek to state the obvious, in all its simple profundity."

Without doubting the sincerity or the seriousness of either the artist or the curator, I find Borofsky's art not only simple but simplistic. Its ideas are not profound, they are cliches, and Borofsky has nothing new to say about them. Moreover, they are presented in ways that, when examined, reveal themselves to be empty and dull. Arresting neither in style nor in content, these works' salientcharacteristics are their pretentiousness, which acts as a smoke screen to conceal their essential vacuity and their reflection of a self-obsession that seems more in tune with the 1980s than with the 1990s.

Or so it seems to me. But there are many more knowledgeable people who think otherwise, and this opinion shouldn't keep anyone from going to this show. On the contrary, I hope it'll make people curious enough to run down to Annapolis, for the show provides a good opportunity to see a considerable body of work by a widely praised artist.

ART REVIEW

What: Jonathan Borofsky exhibit.

Where: Mitchell Gallery, St. John's College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis.

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; through April 28.

Call: (410) 626-2556.

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