Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / In 2000, The Onion published a durably wise wise-ass book called Our Dumb Century, chronicling with heavy satirical spin the endless follies of the twentieth one. Maybe a sense of relief lifted the editors. They could be forgiven for surmising, mistakenly, that centuries couldn’t get any stupider. That was the year before 9/11, when the world looked improbably rosy. It remains a moment that many look back on with special fondness. But there is dumb nostalgia and there is smart nostalgia. In “1999 NYC Tees,” a bracing four-day exhibition at Fierman on the Lower East Side, painter Nora Griffin zones in on this period and shows that the smart kind lives on the border “between kitsch and pathos.”
Griffin bought vintage 1990s tee-shirts on eBay, most of them depicting the iconic skyline that included the Twin Towers and instantly evoking that halcyon turn-of-the-century span between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. Then she decorated them with the camo patterns, wavy grids, and color blocks that distinguish her gloriously bountiful, deceptively freewheeling paintings, which also reach back to that epoch. Her intent is not to lament the passage of a cherished time by consigning a fleeting snippet that truncates the full story to the sanitized ether of selective memory. That would be dumb nostalgia. She aims instead to affirm the possibility of discovering kindred hinge-points again – as she puts it in the statement accompanying the show, “to bring the past – the emotional past of a New York City that has changed many times over – into the future, with a joyful, colorful burst.”
Artists can also use nostalgia to accommodate and leaven otherwise forbidding material. In Asteroid City, Wes Anderson’s targeted affection for gleaming cars, fabled desert scenery, and warped celebrity clichés enriches and humanizes a film that might otherwise seem astringently sardonic. He scrutinizes 1955 America, which, in contrast to the 1990s version, faced the prospect of self-annihilation and worked hard to deny it. No one bats an eye when mushroom clouds from above-ground nuclear bomb tests appear on the horizon. The eponymous town is in the American Southwest, remote but on a highway, named for a meteorite that hit the site almost 5,000 years earlier, leaving a huge crater. It is commercially organized around that signature event in lovably cheesy Roadside America fashion: a diorama of brightly colored facades subverted by a matte, washed-out texture suggesting destructibility. The set-up is wistfully and incongruously funny.
There is more than a trace of Dr. Strangelove in this densely meta film, but Anderson naturally makes the material his own. He presents the goings-on in Asteroid City as a play tracked in a TV documentary, hosted by Bryan Cranston in the solemn manner of Eric Sevareid. In the play, visitors have gathered for a Junior Stargazer youth science convention sponsored by the U.S. government and a fictitious aeronautics firm – Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex.” The key characters are eventual lovers Augie Steenbeck, a phlegmatic war photojournalist, and Midge Campbell, a disaffected Monroe-esque actress, both in town with their precocious science-geek children. In these roles, Jason Schwartzman is spot-on in his bemused seriousness, Scarlett Johansson in her archly manipulative despondency. They impart unstated grief, dread, and resignation.
When an alien descends from a spacecraft and steals an encased fragment of the vaunted meteorite, later returning it, a five-star U.S. Army general (Jeffrey Wright, reveling in contained anger), in Asteroid City to preside over the convention, quarantines the town pending the military’s assessment of alien intent. Tilda Swinton’s heartbreakingly clueless UFO expert does not reinforce his credibility. Confident of the alien’s benevolence, teenagers participating in the convention use the hi-tech weapons they have invented to disarm the military, which then meaninglessly lifts the quarantine. Thus is the Cold War revealed as a cynical absurdist artifice, executive control of science as a joke. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, which comes out later this month, should lend the weight of real-life tragedy to the argument.
If “1999 NYC Tees” is about validating joy when it seems appropriate, Asteroid City is, on some level, about questioning joy when it doesn’t. But Griffin acknowledges that her enhanced vintage tee-shirts, “like the city itself,” are “at one with change, sparkling for a moment, inciting ideas and happiness in their wearer, and then moving into an unknown future as their skyline fades and the colors wash into each other.” She seems about as far from Pollyanna as Anderson does from Cassandra. Neither artist is too nostalgic.
“Nora Griffin: 1999 NYC Tees,” Fierman, 19 Pike Street, New York, NY. Through July 9, 2023.
Asteroid City, directed and written by Wes Anderson. Distributed by Focus Features, 2023.
About the author: Jonathan Stevenson is a New York-based policy analyst, writer, and editor, contributing to the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and Politico, among other publications.