Is Nostalgia in the Art World Ever a Good Thing?

A look at art that uses the aesthetics of 1990s graphic design to become new.

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Laura Owens

As a general rule, nostalgia in art is bad. It’s a gimmick that makes people like your art more than they should, because it’s familiar, and it is never seriously critical. Nostalgia is an intellectual and aesthetic crutch that prevents cultural artifacts from reflecting their own epochs.

But there’s a recent trend being made and shown that I support, and it’s not just because of my weakness for Seinfeld and Vaporwave music. It’s a whole host of new art that uses the aesthetics of ’90s graphic design to become beautiful and new.

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You know what I mean because you’ve noticed this yourself: It’s in the denim of Korakrit Arunanondchai’s work, for example, and in the Lisa Frank-esque neons of Alex Da Corte and the later work of Peter Saul. It’s also in Sam McKinniss’s portraits of Prince and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and in Kerstin Brätsch’s gradient-heavy loops, reminiscent of a broken Magic Eye repeating itself in the wrong way. All of it is wholly deep-fried in that decade.

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Untiled, Ruth Root, 2014-15
Ruth Root

Take Laura Owens’s untitled top-floor installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which closed in February. Those giant notebook pages embossed with graphics and scented markers build to a humble, Expressionist still life in the corner, retaining the garish Zack Morris palette. That piece happened to be a recreation of her young son’s notebook, but there’s a childlike quality to all such art.

Ruth Root makes her own spandex with children’s pajama-like designs and wraps it around canvas, and Christina Quarles sneaks such colors and graphic-design elements into her otherwise dark scenes of body dysmorphia. Quarles is young, and most of the people creating this kind of art today were children in the ’90s, which helps inspire the feeling of play.

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Michael Jackson, Sam McKinniss, 2017.
Sam McKinniss
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So is it nostalgia? This new wave feels different than the usual culture mining that goes on 20 to 30 years after a decade has ended, the way the cool people of the 2040s will probably try to mimic our tragic current era. For one thing, it’s so widespread. For another, the 1990s didn’t have as cohesive a look as the ’70s and ’80s did. Instead of Halston bias cuts and bell-bottoms, the outfits ranged from grunge to Hackers to dorky dad. And, like the Rachel haircut, all of it has aged terribly. (Nineties-inspired looks have been appearing on the runways for some time now.)

“Since the beginning of her career in the mid-’90s, Laura Owens has been actively challenging our assumptions about what counts as beautiful or ugly in art—and beyond,” says Scott Rothkopf, who curated Owens’s show at the Whitney. “Her assault on the conventions of good taste is why many of her paintings don’t settle into chic interior decor. But for me, this is part of their strange and lasting power.”

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Untitled (History Painting), Korakrit Arunanondchai, 2013.
Korakrit Arunanondchai

The ugliness adds something here, a certain liberation. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the raver colors of the era have been associated with the new psychedelia: It’s transgressive to borrow aesthetic elements of our recent past that many would rather forget. Some people I overheard at the Whitney sounded like they thought the goal of the museum, in hosting the Owens survey, was the same as the Nazis’ in the Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937. I’m not sure that tracks.

What does it all mean? This is good art, so you can’t really generalize about it. It all says something unique about itself, about the looks it’s borrowing, and about our current era. But for the portion of it that’s been made in the past couple of years, I do have a question: Might this trend have something to do with the fact that we’ve had to stare at two ’90s characters, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, for the last three years?

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Hedge Yer Bets (Baby, I’m a Maze), Christina Quarles, 2017.
Christina Quarles

The ’90s, after all, were the last time we thought of society as something that would keep getting better and better. The end of the decade was almost the end of optimism itself, because after that came 9/11, and we’re still living out the reality that followed.

If artists are returning to the ’90s, it may be that they suspect, like the rest of us, that things have gone downhill culturally ever since. There’s clearly some hope here. It’s thin, and it’s fragile. And for some, it’s Day-Glo—but it works.

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