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Taking the artistic pulse of Generation Y

Cheekily titled 'Younger Than Jesus,' New Museum's exhibition looks at the freshness and verve of artists under age 33.

By Carol StricklandContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2009

New York

"Each new generation," according to social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville, "is a new people." Through July 5, the New Museum in New York, which specializes in new art and new ideas, exhibits the visual culture of the generation called the Millennials, composed of artists who came of age after the millennium. The cheekily named exhibition, "The Generational: Younger than Jesus," includes work by 50 artists from 25 countries – all younger than 33 – to see if this cohort has anything in common beyond age.

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Not only the title of the show is brazenly irreverent. In the time-honored fashion of rebellious youth, these artists shake up their elders with "huh?"-indu­cing conceptual works. To add an element of surprise, Mexican artist Adriana Lara instructs a museum employee to eat a banana and discard the peel each day for "Installation (Banana Peel)." Such art may literally upset your equilibrium.

Chinese artist Chu Yun's "This is Laura" consists of paid volunteers, young women whose role is to sleep (with the aid of a sleeping pill) under a white duvet in the middle of the gallery. This living sculpture snoozes away like an island of stasis amid the hubbub of churning life.

In "This Consequence," Ryan Gander, from England, also uses a live person to engage viewers. A museum employee wearing a white track suit embroidered with scarlet drops like blood strolls through the galleries. The piece tests our powers of observation and imagination.

These works are in the tradition of antitradition that reigned in the beginning of the 20th century, when artists wanted nothing so much as to create new, unprecedented forms. Innovation and originality were the hallmarks of modernist art. Artists were considered noteworthy based on their degree of invention and subversion.

But most of the works produced by the Millennials don't seek to be outrageously original. Rather, they tell stories and comment on sociopolitical currents. A major common thread is the use of the century-old collage technique – in both video and hand-made art. The French artist Cyprien Gaillard's "Desniansky Raion" video combines footage of a violent clash between young Russians, a light-show playing over the facade of a French low-income housing project just before its demolition, and aerial views of soulless, desolate towers in Kyiv (Kiev). The sum of these parts discredits Utopian architects' plans to improve society through giant housing blocks, which instead breed crime and despair.

The Cypriot artist Haris Epaminonda makes actual collages. She superimposes shards of bright colors on photos of ancient Egyptian and Cypriot objects to juice up these remnants of the Old World.

The painter Josh Smith, born in Japan, unabashedly returns to brushy abstraction in his collages of newsprint splashed with vivid paint. Not afraid to revive 1950s Abstract Expressionism, Smith exuberantly reinterprets the genre with hallucinogenic colors from the 1960s, like a mash-up of Kandinsky, Rothko, and Basquiat.