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February 9, 2004

Strange Days at the MCA

The last time I visited the MCA I spent most of my time in the Kerry James Marshall exhibit up in the main galleries (really an unfortunate decision as it were) and so only caught a casual and weary glimpse of the current permanent collection exhibit upstairs—and I was underwhelmed. When I raced down after work last week for an hour and a half's worth of hot Free Tuesday action, with the Lee Bontecou show still being installed, it was all that was on offer. Titled Strange Days, it purports to address "unsettling aspects of contemporary life and [offer] unexpected representations of everyday phenomena". A rather selective list of highlights as deciphered from notes I scrawled on a museum visitor's guide, taken category by category:

Filed under Travel Anxiety

A dangerous and expanding world, humanity uprooted:

Andres Serrano Nomads (Payne) (1990)—An artful street portrait of a man Serrano describes as among the 'hard-core homeless' of NYC, enlisting more than its fair share of art historical reference. Considering Serrano: back around Thanksgiving I had a rather extended discussion with a painter who mentioned (and I don't recall the context of these particular comments) that years ago she'd had some sort of association with him, and her opinion of his work seemed rather negative—considered as it was principally from her particular moral standpoint. Looking at this haunting but luminous and humane portrait led me to wonder again how she could consider Serrano's photography degenerate or exploitative. He has certainly tackled several projects with plenty of potential for an exploitative approach (and the man certainly has his detractors), but all of the photos of his I'd ever seen had been handled with the utmost of careful grace and humanity. Of course the works I was familiar with were his Morgue and notorious body fluids series (and add to that now the Nomads)—case studies for the dignified portrayal of the most unsettling faces of human existence. After poking around a bit I've decided that perhaps she had something more like this in mind, certainly something a degree less graceful.

Meditating on the notion of Warped Spaces

Groping explorations of strangeness in the familiar:

Hiroshi Sugimoto Saint Benedict Chapel (2000)—Haunting and monumental. In Sugimoto's imposing image, the chapel looms like a monolith, dark and obscure, but undeniably present. That so simple and austere a work can be so powerful is something I still find quite remarkable. This is from his Architecture series, the subject of a fantastic exhibition in 2003, more on which sometime soon.

Gordon Matta-Clark's Circus or The Caribbean Orange (1978) is a set of photos documenting a project in which he gutted a townhouse, "peeling" entire sections of wall, ceiling and floor in circles and spirals like... well, like an orange. The shots are disorienting to the utmost.

Aida Ruilova Oh No, You're Pretty, Almost, Do It, Come Here, and 3, 2, 1 (videos, dates ranging from 1999-2002)—Together these six videos together clock in at under 4 minutes. Ruilova (often working with explicit musical metaphors) has given us the visual equivalent of 3-chord verse-chorus-verse form, reduced to manic barrages of choppy, repeated montage cuts—ritualistic, claustrophobic and bizarre.

Monuments to a Paradise Lost

Visions drawn in the shadows of utopia:

Jeff Wall Forest (B&W photo 2001)—You can chalk it up to Wall's deliberate production methods and calculated ambiguity or just to the typical effect of any such vast and densely detailed surface, but I can always lose myself in one of his photos. Unsettling, but enveloping.

Tony Tasset Cherry Tree" (oils, wax, steel armature 1999)—In spite of the knee-jerkery exhibited in the wall text's insistence that this counterfeit tree critiques the way 'natural beauty is largely mediated' by art and culture, I was pretty impressed by it once I actually stopped to take a look. I've grown generally weary of the quotidian in art and the trite but inevitable claim to Duchampian pedigree and appeal to the institutional theory. And yet (and actually in spite of its rather elegant form), like a specimen out of some kind of mundane suburban Madame Tussaud's, something about the achieved verisimilitude of this object (whether it's the fresh, waxy buds or just the impressive dedication such a creation would demand) is downright perverse.

Also: Rene Magritte, Les Merveilles de la Nature (1953); Ana Mendieta, photos from the Silueta series.

The lamentations of Posttraumatic Culture

The elegiac, the dejected and the just plain severe—memorializing loss and acknowledging our inability to control the world without:

Rosangela Renno (Brazil) Untitled (Hangman), Untitled (Shy Man), Untitled (Tree Man) (all 1996/2000)—On examination, these commanding near-monochromes reveal astoundingly subtle photographs, as if emerging from fog. Broad swathes of retina-blasting blood red, my immediate association was to Richter's red mirrors, both from yards away as well as inches, as my eyes strained to find the images—in this case not the faint, the tinctured likeness of my own reflection but those of various nameless soldiers. It's a simple and perhaps shop-worn gesture, making it that much more remarkable when prolonged looking seems to prove rewarding (in these respects similar to the Sugimoto).

Gillian Wearing Trauma (2000)—Wearing's video project in which people hidden anonymously behind bizarre, almost affectless masks relate in detail the traumas from their childhood. Shown in a claustrophobic confessional-like enclosure, the video is direct, depressing, and almost oppressive to the point of unwatchability (this is, of course, not to say that it is necessarily bad).

Included here for good measure: Joseph Beuys, Felt Suit (1970); Anslem Kiefer, Banner (1990); Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Kennedy (1964)—black and gold; William Kentridge drawings from History of the Main Complaint and others; Christian Boltanski Monument: Les Enfants de Dijon (1985).

Flying under the banner of Carnal Knowledge

Tucked into a side gallery, paying tribute to the forces within:

Balthus, Rineke Dijkstra, Robert Mapplethorpe—In what is probably the finest bit of curatorial judgement in the exhibition, we find a striking trio of images: the typically erotic Balthus painting, Two Young Girls (1949)—an interesting title in that it strikes me that a theme of much of Balthus' oeuvre, if you'll indulge me a bit, might be one of too young girls; meets the dispassionate Hel, Poland, August 12, 1998, from Dijkstra's beach series; beside the disconcerting kitsch of Mapplethorpe's Thomas, a portrait in crisp, glowing detail of an impressively-hung man holding a cat. (A more extensive reflection on the Balthus should be forthcoming.)

Tony Oursler's Guilty (1995)—As always with Oursler's grotesquerie, this video/sculpture installation is unsettling to the nth degree (and nearly as unwatchable as Wearing's Trauma).

Further: Claire Zeisler, Rosemary (fiber 1968); Cindy Sherman; Jim Nutt.

Also worth mentioning—grouped under Reconfiguring Labor

Labor, vocation, technology and accommodation in a changing world:

Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman (1988); Sharon Lockhart, On Kawara: Whole and Parts, 1964-1995 (1998); Daniela Rossell, Untitled (Ricas y Famosas) (rooftop) (1999); Joao Onofre (Portugal), Untitled (Vulture in the Studio).

I approached this exhibit somewhat reluctantly. Between the title of the exhibition (with corresponding Doors quote) on the wall and what struck me initially as pretty hollow thematic grouping in the galleries, I anticipated either something critically over-extended or, alternately, some vague and clumsy excuse for a survey of permanent collection holdings (perhaps something like the nonsense that was Life Death Love Hate Pleasure Pain—if you insist on running the gamut like this, just forgo the arch wall text and let the art speak for itself). At any rate, the most I expected was a heaping of weak sophistry and some decent art. Yet something genuinely interesting and coherent, if occasionally spotty, fell into place.

A significant (though far from inclusive) motif of those works that stood out to me might be something I'd describe along the lines of religiosity, if slightly askew: the articulation of (loosely speaking) sacred, meditative or memorial space (Wearing, Boltanski, Wall, Tasset, Mendieta, Sugimoto, Onofre); the presentation of significant objects, of icon-like images (Serrano, Warhol, Mapplethorpe), totems (Beuys, Kiefer, Zeisler, Mapplethorpe[?]) and various memento mori (Renno, Kentridge, Boltanksi, Sugimoto[?]). Perhaps this speaks more to my tastes than to the exhibition itself (indeed it's a selective viewing, omitting for example some crap by Chris Burden and even ignoring whole categories which I just can't recall). Nonetheless, considered in the terms put forth by the curatorial team, I would put these works forward as representative of a strategy and a vision of art seeking not to circumscribe or exhaustively comprehend our uncertain world, nor necessarily to provoke or 'problematize' it, but rather one which looks to cultivate memory, sensitivity and reflection as bulwarks against it, established in the shared materiality of culture.

"Strange Days at the MCA"
Posted by Dan at 10:59 PM


Referenced in this post:

Balthus: Nude With Cat (substantially similar to Two Young Girls)
Balthus: Nudes
Balthus: The Golden Days
Balthus: The Guitar Lesson
Balthus: The White Skirt
Dijkstra: FOCUS
Dijkstra: Hel, Poland, August 12, 1998
Kentridge: History of the Main Complaint
MCA Chicago
MCA: Gillian Wearing
MCA: Gillian Wearing--artnet Review
MCA: Hiroshi Sugimoto
MCA: Kerry James Marshall
MCA: Lee Bontecou
MCA: Life Death Love Hate Pleasure Pain
MCA: Strange Days
MCA: Strange Days--Newcity Review
Madame Tussaud's
Renno: Lombard-Freid Fine Arts
Renno: Soldiers
Rossell: Ricas y Famosas
Rossell: Rooftop
Ruilova: ArtForum
Serrano: A History of Sex
Serrano: Nomads (Payne)
Sugimoto: Architecture
Tasset: Cherry Tree