Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dialogue, Work, and Space: A criticism of Bilateral Engagement

by Anonymous

With thirty-three artists represented, the majority from Washington Sculptors Group (WSG) and nine pieces from the permanent collection of the Art Museum of America (AMA), this exhibition was a recipe for success. The museums website says, “…Bilateral Engagement, an exhibit that seeks to both demonstrate the historical sweep of WSG member work of the past 25 years while also connecting it with select pieces from the AMA’s permanent collection…” The theme of dialogue pertaining to the progression of contemporary sculpture gives the show major promise. But, because of poor curatorial decisions, in my opinion it did not live up to it’s potential.

As I first approached the museum, I thought to myself, “Is this the museum?” The building looks more like a Spanish style colonial home than a space to house contemporary sculpture. (Note: As stated on the Museum’s website, “The historic building housing the Museum was designed by noted architect Paul Cret in 1912 as the residence for the Secretaries General of the Organization of American States. It is Spanish colonial in style with white walls, iron grilles, a red tiled roof and a loggia decorated with richly colored tiles in patterns modeled after Aztec and Inca legends.” I guess my first impression was correct.) Besides its generally close proximity to the rest of the Smithsonian buildings and a sign labeling the structure as the Art Museum the Americas, the museum could be easily missed all together. As I walked through the show, I continued to feel slightly bemused. The combination of twenty-five years of three-dimensional work resulted in a general sense of clutter and inconsistency. Was it supposed to represent an adolescent identity crisis of contemporary three-dimensional work? It is possible that this was the point. Even still, I left the exhibit feeling slightly under whelmed, a little perplexed, and ready to get off the crowded stairwell.

The building itself was intriguing. Similar to experiencing work at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, or the Guggenheim in Venice, the intimate setting of a once residential interior creates a unique experience. Unfortunately, the AMA does not retain the grandeur of the former residence. In the parts of the building that have not been renovated with the stark white walls of a modern gallery space, there seemed to be no balance between the residential elements and the display of the art. Instead, they seemed to be at odds. The natural light of the back room, for example, was beautiful and unexpected. But, the room itself, with the rich royal blue mosaic tiles stole attention away the work being displayed. I almost missed, Gail Jameson’s exquisite piece, …my mom’s dressform, because I was looking at the wall instead.

The rest of the exhibit confronted me with unsettling curatorial decisions. While the stairwell offered a natural flow to visitor traffic, the selection of pieces displayed along the steps was one of the more problematic parts of the show. Not only did I ask myself if this work was apart of the exhibit, I felt like I had to carefully maneuver around so I did not bump Brian Reed’s pieces at the top of the stairs. The ‘black box’ room, featuring Renee Butler’s piece 2 States/4 Dimensions was not operating during my visit and I was not informed that some of the exterior pieces of the permanent collection were apart of the show. Finally, the location of Linda Hesh’s brilliant piece, For and Against, led me literally to the bathroom. Laura Roulet, the juror and curator of the exhibition, is well known and respected, and some of these kinks should have been resolved.

There have been positive responses, from the Washington Post and many local DC blogs, to the selection of works. And as a “material” based artist, I would, for the most part, agree. The constant redefinition of contemporary art has definitely been experienced in the three dimensional world and Roulet selected works that touch on these transitions and had the potential to engage in this dialogue.

Once anything became an acceptable medium, sculptors had to redefine their work and started to defend it based on its materiality. The way I understand it, this means take something that has one function and redefine its use to create something authentic and original. I am also under the impression that this idea comes as a rebuttal to the minimalist approach of the 1960s, which, to unfairly interpret the theory, was to oversimplify. Now, however, it seems as if materiality is almost passé. While Tara Donovan and the like, are still finding extreme success in their material based work, there is a new kid in town.

The momentum from 1970s performance art has led to relational aesthetics, which defined by Nicolas Bourriaud is, “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space,” (Thank You, Wikipedia) and is now at the forefront of contemporary dialogue. Artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija are some of the more popular names associated with this type of work. The transition from the minimalist approach, to materiality, to relational aesthetics creates the framework for the dialogue Roulet is trying to address.

Since many artists are still successfully creating and showing material based work, the bulk of the exhibit, speaks to materiality. This concept is best represented in the work of Kirsten Campbell, Joel D’Orazio, and Leah Frankel. Campbell’s piece, Mangrove, is created with steel and wire. The piece takes on an organic shape that resembles the roots or branches of a tree, simultaneously grounding and growing. Surmising from the title of the piece, I believe the artist is aware of the visual connection. The heavy nature of the material is transformed by the wrapping and outward growth, which creates juxtaposition of lightness and gravitational force. As the viewer, I accept the piece as original and do not question the material make up. D’Orazio’s piece, Dreadlock Chair, has a similar sense of organic growth. The cables are literally pouring out of the center of the chair. Challenging not only materiality, he takes on the concept of form versus function. The explosion of cables through the chair makes it non-functioning, but it is still recognizable as a chair. D’Orazio’s piece compliments Campbell’s. Thankfully, they are experienced together in the first room of the exhibit. This was one curatorial decision that worked toward the intended dialogue.

Frankel’s piece, Stacked Paper, displayed in the next room, is a beautiful exaggeration of the traditional experience of paper. The material transformation here comes in the disproportional size of the stack of paper to the viewer. Being 78 inches high, the stack of paper confronts the average height of a human. This piece also addresses form and function, and therefore a dialogue is created between D’Orazios and Frankel, and therefore between Frankel and Campbell. In my opinion, this is another positive curatorial decision. The dialogue sparked by the pieces in the first two rooms, unfortunately ends there.

The remainder of the exhibit, disrupted by awkwardly displayed pieces along the stairs and a somewhat random selection of work on the second level, begs the question, “How are the rest of these pieces supposed to interact?” While the downstairs rooms seemed somewhat cohesive, the works upstairs just seemed haphazard. A few works from the permanent collection are added to the selection on the second level, but instead of informing the other pieces they hamper the dialogue from the first floor. The piece that salvaged the intended dialogue for the exhibit, but also highlighted the worst curatorial decision, was Linda Hesh’s For and Against. Hesh’s piece is the most conceptually contemporary work in the show, and therefore contextualizes intended dialogue.

Hesh created and documented an experience between the viewer, the art, and the artist. Some have called For and Against a relational aesthetic experience. I don’t know if I would categorize it as such. But, I do agree that what we see in the gallery is just documentation, and the real art happened on the street. She set up two benches, one with the word “For” and the other with the word “Against”, in public places and asked people who walked by to sit on one of the benches. Once they chose, she asked what they were “For” or what they were “Against.” Hesh recorded people’s opinions on clipboards and through photographs.

This is great example of non-traditional, yet highly acclaimed, work of the contemporary world. The idea driving this piece directly challenges the theories backing the material driven pieces like Campbell’s. This could have been an interesting dialogue. But, Roulet displayed Hesh’s piece in a corner. Not only was the documentation of the work displayed in a claustrophobic way, there was a huge disconnect between the benches that were exhibited in the courtyard and the labeled piece in the upstairs hallway by the bathroom. This therefore distracted the viewer and disabled them from making the contextual connection between the works of the exhibit. It seemed that Hesh’s piece was an afterthought, when really, in order to serve the theme of the exhibit it should have been one of the featured piecs. I am confused by Roulet decision. This is the final example of how the placement of works affected the dialogue of the show. If you didn’t need to go to the bathroom, you might not have seen the most thought provoking work chosen for the exhibit.

While the artwork as individual pieces represent a broad range of material and the progress of the last two generations of three dimensional art, the show as a whole some how fell flat. The WSG has an amazing talent base. The AMA has a beautiful and unique space. Laura Roulet took on a bold curatorial concept. But when put all together, the potential was unfortunately not reached. So, am I For or Against? I would have to say, I am Against.

The Art Museum of the Americas and the Washington Sculptors Group (WSG)
Bilateral Engagement
October 16th, 2009- January 15th, 2010

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