Visual Art News - Criticism: October 2009 Archives
October 27, 2009
He was affable, humorous and generally seemed like an all around great guy. Not exactly the typical description you might expect to hear of an artist's lecture in a formal academic setting like a university museum. But then again I'm talking about Fred Wilson, an artist who thrives on the unexpected, and whose lecture I attended this evening at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. I believe it is no small part of Wilson's success as an artist that he is a likable and engaging character. This good-naturedness allows him easier access to a rather privileged world he loves to tinker with, the inner workings of museum culture, in order to produce work that reframes, rethinks and challenges the status quo.
Wilson's work explores curatorial practice itself and often relies solely on existing artworks in museum collections as subject matter which he rearranges and displays in unconventional and compelling ways. Working in this manner allows him to produce startling exhibitions which provoke and confound our expectations of museums, their role as cultural arbiters, and their interpretation and presentation of artworks themselves. This working method has in fact become Wilson's main methodology especially since his exhibition "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992 - a breakthrough event he concedes changed his life forevermore afterwards. After this landmark show, recontextualizing works of art (and in turn our interpretations of them) through bold curatorial juxtaposition became Wilson's signature. Just one look at the well known image from "Mining' of Wilson's display of slave shackles and elaborate silver tea goblets together in the same display case is really all you need to start reconsidering the notions of historical accuracy, authenticity, and truth. History is written by the winners as they say.
In the years since "Mining the Museum" Wilson has gone on to produce other provocative displays in museum and galleries worldwide. Representing the U.S. in the 2003 Venice Biennale afforded an opportunity for international cultural exploration and Wilson fittingly explored how the Moorish culture and Africans exerted and continues to play such a large part in the cultural life of Venice. His large ebony chandelier entitled "Speak of Me as I Am" became a metaphorical exploration of Africans' impact on the culture of this particular city through one of their rich traditions- glassblowing. His large chandelier was rich in form and seductive in its understatement of its medium.
Wilson spoke of how he loves the idea of bringing two differing things together to produce a third thing - namely some unexpected concept or rethinking of the work itself - and this notion is one that continues to drive much of his artistic production. His work reflects his own perspective of course so his reworkings of museum collections still provide a highly personal take on history and how it's been told- a fact the artist readily acknowledges. Yet he does it with such gripping force that it has the effect of stopping you in your tracks.
The fundamental core of Fred Wilson's art is the idea that historical accuracy and representation are not all they are cracked up to be. There's more than one way to organize a show he tells us. And in that telling, Wilson's art explores not only how strongly museums impact and shape our cultural view but more importantly how we consider and understand ourselves.
Fred Wilson, "Mining the Museum" Maryland Historical Society, 1992
courtesy PBS, Art:21 and PaceWildenstein, New York
As it wound down its run towards its final weekend, the group show
entitled "The Conquerors" at Artspace seemed to be crying out for a final close
look. So I was more than happy to oblige.
Mark Bodnar wins the Tim Burton award for his figures set in generic, yet seriously strange landscapes. Bodnar's subjects are typically involved in a kooky and mysterious contemplation of their next move in any given scene all the while casting a wary eye about with Betty Boop-like beepers. His observations stand as an eccentric looking glass into a world in which your own emotions take flight couched in disowned, unloved cartoon characters trying to find their own place in the world.
Mari Inukai's paintings are
sumptuous in their technique and direct expressive qualities. Her underlying sense of sentiment and desire
stand like beacons to ground her painterly figures in a realm which seems as
influenced by Vermeer and John Currin as Manga and Anime. I felt mesmerized by her tactile paint
handling and strong emotive yearnings.
Bonnie Brenda Scott produced "Reactor"
a large mural which dominates a full wall in the gallery. The work is composed of writhing figures rendered
in cerebellum-like matter that wind their amoeba shapes across the wall's expanse
in a flurry of orange, pink, and blue. Smoke like shapes flutter up above and her
shapes seem at once to be menacing and contemplative as if engaged in some
weird conversation to which we are not fully privy.
Bill McRight sticks to black
and white imagery exhibiting a loose amalgamation of monsters hanging out and
doing scary beasty things. They also cavort a little though and also do things
like ride motorcycles. He purposefully
leaves the work a bit vague so that you're forced to fill in the blanks. Yet the
strong graphic presence of his pieces (probably the boldest in the show) propels
you into a dialogue that leaves you feeling like the work is always going to somehow
win the battle on its own terms.
Liz McGrath has the only sculptures
in the show exhibiting a trio of flying bunnies elongated in mid-leap (ala
Barry Flanagan style) though hers are clothed in odd, hand-stitched, quasi
military uniforms. She also has a pair of boxed relief works which depict an
elephant and a mosquito in an elaborate ceramic framed and velvet lined animal
reliquary. They stand out like some sort of carnival sideshow attraction at
once mystically repellent yet so elaborately crafted that they command
The Conquerors at Artspace
September 4 -
Picasso and the Allure of Language
I will be the first to admit that I approached this show with caution and also a bit of trepidation. The thought crossed my mind that the jig was up and it's just that our museum-going selves haven't caught on as yet. I mean, can there really be that much more to be said in a Picasso exhibition that hasn't been said already? The blockbuster shows, of which there have of course been many, have effectively worked over the terrain of Picasso as artistic genius to the point of exhaustion, but "Picasso and the Allure of Language" the current show at the Nasher Museum at Duke proves there is still fertile territory to be plumbed. This show's perspective takes a beguiling multi-faceted approach with the primary aim of exploring the role and influence of language and writing in Picasso's work.
Organized by the Yale University Art Gallery in conjunction with Yale's Beinecke Library and support from the Nasher, the show displays manuscripts, letters, book projects, catalogues, and poetry both from Picasso himself (I have to admit I didn't know he had written such a large amount of poetry) and his contemporaries such as Georges Braque and particularly writer Gertrude Stein. Surprisingly, fewer paintings are on hand than might be expected though the show includes a multitude of prints, drawings, and various illustrated book editions. There are also archetypal cubist-style Picassos included that were either created on newsprint or utilized newspapers as source/ subject material such as the work "Pedestal Table with Guitar and Sheet Music" from 1920. One of the more intriguing works is entitled "Dice, Packet of Cigarettes, and Visiting-Card" from 1914 in which the artist remade one of Gertrude Stein's and Alice Stoklas's calling cards (left at Picasso's door when they called on him in his absence) into a collage work itself regifted by the artist and left at Stein's and Stoklas's door shortly afterwards.
It is a natural that this show emanates from Yale in that
the literary influence of Gertrude Stein on Picasso's work can be directly
traced from and supported by the Beinecke Library's vast archive of her
writings. An early benefactor of Picasso,
collector of his work and his primary patron during the crucial formative cubist years of
1905-1914, Stein was a larger than life expatriate figure with an enormous
influence in Parisian artistic life of
It is to the show's benefit that it possesses such
strong multi-media appeal (a snazzy touch-screen video display with digitally turning manuscript pages kept many viewers' rapt attention while I visited the
show) and is quite interdisciplinary in nature. In this sense, it is in keeping with our
media enthralled age to a degree and yet also able to strike some common ground with appeal for lovers of the visual image, the written word and the printed page- vintage bibliophiles, art fans, and Twitterers alike.
While the chronology of the show is vast - exhibited work spans across Picasso's life from age 19 to his 87th year - the intimate feel of the show in the Nasher's gallery gives it the feel of a retrospective in miniature form. One in fact will likely leave feeling a bit dazzled by it all... but also refreshed.
(author's special thanks to Thornton Wilder for his suggestion to Stein to donate her literary archive to Yale in the first place. Who knows how much longer we would have had to wait before some intrepid scholar would have tracked down these literary linkages otherwise?)
(image courtesy the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University)