Bowling Alone at Andrew Rafacz Gallery
When an exhibition stands undisguised upon the foundation of another’s ideas, issues emerge in the exercise of critiquing said exhibition. It is all too easy to launch into a fanatical pontification on the merits and faults of the source text without even considering the nuance of the artworks and curation at hand. Bowling Alone, Andrew Rafacz Gallery’s most recent group show, is unabashed by its strong conceptual connections to Robert D. Putnam’s sociological thesis of the same name. And while any review of the show, curated by Jessica Taylor Caponigro, must first deal with what hangs and stands within the walls of the gallery, the simple question that cannot be ignored is: why Putnam’s Bowling Alone? Putnam’s book does advance a thought-provoking thesis: rampant individualism in the United States is replacing the highly social interactivity of a nation once thought to be rich in social capital. Nonetheless, as the book was published in 2000, little of Putnam’s supporting research is relevant today.
Luckily, the exhibition Bowling Alone does not simply reiterate the book’s argument verbatim. If anything, Caponigro strives to assemble a collection of artworks that, in this context, make addenda to areas of Putnam’s work that now seem swollen with disreputability while still adhering to the basic message of the original Bowling Alone.
Benjamin Funke’s video piece One addresses the most basic of Putnam’s inaccuracies: the contingency of social capital made available through technology. Funke’s work exists as an audiovisual collage of musicians on YouTube playing Metallica’s song “One”. The original context of these videos sits on a tenuous boundary between the social collective and the isolated individual. While they are frequently used as teaching tools for other musicians, the images often make the seclusion of the player quite clear. The visual element gives the impression that these cybernetic performers are playing together in one massive symphonic rendition of Metallica, but the lack of anticipated sound works to push them apart again. While Putnam’s Bowling Alone pessimistically assumes that technology will dissolve community, Funke’s One supposes that there is social capital in electronic media while still keeping a weary distance from the acquiescent idea of a “brave new technological utopia”.
Sarah Mosk also utilizes collage, in this case as a means to assess ideas of collectivism in architecture and physical space. Mosk’s images present a photographic mélange of interior and exterior, the metaphorical domains of the individual and the citizenry respectively. The oscillation here pushes the viewer into considering what defines private and public. Putnam’s thesis largely ignores the role of space, designed or otherwise, in the formation of social capital. However, pieces by Mosk such as Glow Gate encourage the consideration of such architectures.
Min Song’s piece in the exhibition uses the context of fine art rather than design to further these investigations into space and architecture. 36 Floor Tiles recreates the minimalist floor patterns of Carl Andre using domestic building materials rather than fabricated steel and aluminum. At the edge of the tiles is a composition of flowers in a modest planter. The image of “high” art from Andre is transformed into an excerpt of public architecture, a shift from what is now considered distinctly elitist to something vernacular. But minimalism was not always considered pretentious; indeed its original claim was to be the great equalizer of art, an aesthetic that would topple hierarchies and eradicate the perplexing metaphysics of emotive expression. Min Song’s nod to Andre might then be a larger warning against allegiance to the seemingly egalitarian intentions of the avant-garde.
Jessica Taylor Caponigro’s Bowling Alone does well to repair Putnam’s broken discourses rather than only repeat its outdated logic. But this exhibition presents a matter of greater importance than the relevance or lack thereof of a particular sociologist’s oeuvre. It has become fairly palpable in 2012 that the last decade or so of art has sported a strong affinity for collectivism and the abolishment of any notion of a singular and authorial genius. The basic concept of this sympathy is by no means novel: the historical avant-garde of early 20th century Europe and the neo-avant-garde of midcentury America had also adopted it. As such, could this newfound aggression towards 21st century individualism signal the initiation of a neo-neo-avant-garde? Does this new ideology have a name and constituent movements and if so what are they? Furthermore, will this new vanguard manifest itself with a trademark aesthetic or is it to be identified by academic inclination alone? These questions and more lie as deep subtexts in Caponigro’s Bowling Alone. But in the true cooperative spirit of the show, they are not queries for only one author to answer.
Bowling Alone runs until August 11th at Andrew Rafacz Gallery. Hours for viewing can be found on the gallery’s website.
Hairy Blob at Hyde Park Art Center
"The group exhibition Hairy Blob presents works by artists who tease, tweak, stretch, jumble, arrest, and intensify time using video, sculpture, drawing, installation, movement, sound, and several participatory events”. Upon first read, this mildly overwrought sentence from the press release of one of Hyde Park Art Centers current shows sounds like an overly ornate declaration that the show is about multimedia works that address the fourth dimension: hardly anything riveting for an exhibition at this institution.
Luckily, Adelheid Mers’ Hairy Blob is a little more captivating than the above sentence might have you believe. The exhibition stems from a series of drawings by Mers from 2008 that depict visual conceptualizations of time, the final of which is the titular “hairy blob”. This last figure indicates a central earth of limited resources (the blob) with individual lives or timelines (the hair) rising from the center before reaching a summit and turning back towards the nucleus of the diagram. The possibility of overlapping timelines implies the existence of cooperative efforts in history. This simple graphic already expands the viewer’s understanding of the show; not only is Hairy Blob speculating in temporal investigations but also Mers’ conception of cooperative history and an acute attentiveness to the present.
Lauren Carter’s sculpture Sunsets stands at the entrance to the first gallery of the exhibition and effectively introduces variations on the themes of Hairy Blob. The piece consists of a towering stack of encyclopedias. The gold-sided pages of the books form a gradient of yellow luminescence that the piece derives its title from. Here we essentially see a large compendium of information forming a familiar pastoral icon. With this in mind, Carter’s sculpture comes to be a visual representation of two coexisting sublimes: the awe-inspiring Nature of 19th century Romanticism and the paranoia-inspiring abundance of information and languages in our present epoch of postmodernism.
Moving into the first gallery, we see Sarah FitzSimon’s Pier (In Memory of Ancient Seas, and For Those Waters Yet to Come). This photographic documentation of a site-specific sculpture works with time in the same manner that Piero Manzoni’s 1961 piece Base of the World works with space. By dissecting an enormous quantity of time with a poetic object, we are able to envision a monumentality otherwise cloaked by its own gargantuan proportions. FitzSimon’s desert pier essentially functions as a lookout point upon which we may comprehend the enormity and even elegance of all time on Earth.
Skipping to the spatial end of the show is Faheem Majeed’s work Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden. This installation incorporates a plethora of bizarre items from the South Side Community Art Center including telephones, typewriters, cameras, tattered exhbition posters, a lantern, jewelry, and Maya Angelou’s first autobiography. These items and their haphazard presentation are unfit for any authorial archive documenting SSCAC’s history but in this context they offer an alternative chronicle inspired by the audience’s associations with the myriad artifacts. Majeed’s piece ossifies the larger anthropological concept that the best way to observe and fathom a society’s social moorings is through its refuse.
Hairy Blob ultimately presents an eclectic mix of highly academic and particularly successful artworks of which those mentioned above are only selections. But how do these works speak to one another? Apart from a strong penchant for scholastic research, the show ultimately lacks unity. Mers’ curatorial thrust does a magnificent job of forming dialogues between the central ideas of the exhibition and individual pieces but falls short in creating any degree of conversation between the works themselves. The hairy blob diagram as a curatorial basis soon begins to resemble Vilém Flusser’s scattering solipsism of the technical image, the curator’s ideology dissipating the artworks into insulated corners where cross chatter becomes virtually impossible (coincidentally, Mers admits that Flusser was an influence for the drawing but I somehow doubt this was intended to play out in the mentioned fashion). In the end the audience is left with no merging force apart from the contrived opening remark that Hairy Blob is a show about time.
Hairy Blob runs until July 29th with Kirsten Leenaars’ video piece created during her residency at Hyde Park Art Center beginning regular screenings on July 16th.
Phantom Limb: Approaches to Painting Today at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Michael Darling has only been at his position with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s administrative personnel for some two years. In this short amount of time, however, the former curator of the Seattle Art Museum has brought evolutionary vision to Chicago’s MCA with outstanding shows such as The Language of Less (Then and Now) and Ron Terada’s Being There. It should be no surprise then that Darling’s most recent curatorial endeavor Phantom Limb: Approaches to Painting Today continues this phenomenal run of exhibitions.
As with The Language of Less, this new exhibition at the MCA mixes tasteful amounts of art history and academia and showcases iconographic artists of the 20th century to foreshadow recent developments in contemporary art. Phantom Limb departs from the supposed mortality of painting in the last half century, delineating the neo-avant-garde of the 1960s as a revitalization of painting through the dismissal of the artist’s hand as a signifier for artistic integrity and authenticity. Darling’s exhibit speculates, however, that the romantic presence of handcrafting has reemerged in recent years as a kind of phantom limb, an uncanny sensation of still being connected to that extremity of aura once amputated by the likes of Warhol.
The materialization of this analogy into an exhibition begins by presenting the historical moment of the artist’s hand’s dismemberment. In the first gallery we see Andy Warhol’s Jackie Frieze beside Robert Rauschenberg’s Retroactive II, both marking the initiation of the mechanical paradigm in fine art painting. From here, Phantom Limb displays multiple works from contemporary artists that build upon this automated approach to painting. Adam Pendleton’s Sympathy for the Devil draws largely on Warhol’s affinity for silkscreening rock ‘n’ roll iconography on canvas while Paul Cowan’s Untitled draws more generally from pop art by extrapolating the ornamental flourishes of advertising marks and presenting them as modest abstractions.
As one progresses through the exhibition, the phantom limb’s presence of aura slowly begins to reemerge in the work. Wade Guyton’s two untitled inkjet on linen pieces demonstrate a use of digital technology that is nonetheless heavily reliant on manipulation by hand. Likewise, Kerstin Brätsch’s Not Yet Titled is an analytical deconstruction of the painted mark on mylar but still relies on a foundation of gestural painting. This exponential reintroduction of the artist’s hand culminates in the final gallery with exceptional work from Christopher Wool and Albert Oehlen. Also in this gallery is a particularly painterly abstraction by Mary Heilmann that only seems to fit with the mechanical theme of the exhibition by taking minimal patterns of grids and lines as its subject matter.
The experience of leaving this final gallery and exiting Phantom Limb's designated space in the MCA through the first gallery seems an intentional curatorial tactic by Darling. After having seen the second coming of the artist's hand transpire throughout the show, one is invited to reconsider the exact placement of the aforementioned Warhol and Rauschenberg pieces within the exhibition's curatorial direction. Yes, Warhol's Jackie Frieze utilizes printmaking over a paintbrush and depicts the disquieting image of Jackie Kennedy immediately following JFK’s assassination in Dallas. But it also pulls from the heroic tradition of the frieze itself. And with Rauschenberg’s Retroactive II, the subtle but distinctly gestural marks of ink and oil paint on the canvas seem to entice more attention the second time around.
Even with this ingenious invitation to reeaxmination that ends Phantom Limb, there is still one issue that remains entirely unaddressed by the exhibition. This show focuses on the antagonistic relationship of mechanization and craft in painting over the last half century but seems to stick almost entirely to the literal medium of painting: pigment on a two dimensional textile surface. Surely there have been artists who have taken a fundamental interest in painting and the connection between machine and hand but moved their medium away from traditional notions of painting. Sterling Ruby and Aaron Curry bring sculpture into their work, but let’s be honest: moving from the ennobled medium of painting to the equally ennobled medium of sculpture doesn’t quite cut it in this context. The only piece utilizing a medium heavily disconnected from painting is Kelley Walker’s Schema; Aquafresh plus Crest with Whitening Expressions (Regina Hall), an inkjet on canvas image that was originally distributed on CD-ROMs thus giving it an approximate connection to a new media practice.
Phantom Limb: Approaches to Painting Today will be on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until October 21st and, despite its one pitfall, is still a must see for patrons that have already been drawn to Michael Darling’s refreshing curatorial style.
Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective at The Art Institute of Chicago
The exhibition Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective that recently opened at the Art Institute of Chicago features a tremendous collection of this infamous pop artist’s work gathered not only from the museum’s permanent collection but also from institutions and private collections spanning the globe. However, what truly marks this show as remarkable is not merely its concision and magnitude but the expert curatorial work that has managed to elevate the format of the retrospective above its tired formula.
In the most principal sense, a retrospective aims to plot a linear sequence of artworks that detail the evolution of an artist’s career. Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective accomplishes this task expertly but also begins to plot a second sequence, one that in its realization is not entirely linear. The Art Institute of Chicago’s newest large-scale show additionally maps a hypertextual chronology of art history itself.
The exhibition begins on an iconic note with 1961’s Look Mickey, the painting that notoriously began Lichtenstein’s foray into pop art. The artist’s earlier career working within the confines of New York School painting is not forgotten however; in the very next gallery is a series of diptychs comparing the artist’s pre-pop abstractions of the 1950s with the more recognizable brushstroke abstractions of his late career. Moving from here we see a primarily chronological depiction of Lichtenstein’s work during the pinnacle of pop. Images of domestic life such as Washing Machine give way to the most prominent of Lichtenstein’s work with paintings such as Whaam! and We Rose up Slowly.
From this point on, the curatorial organization of the exhibition changes from solely following a consecutive progression of the artist’s career and begins to arrange Lichtenstein’s paintings according to which periods of art history the works appropriate from. The retrospective truly gets interesting here; the audience is privy to seeing an evolution in the career of one painter through the retracing of numerous important figures and styles in fine art. We see Lichtenstein develop his own oeuvre while his trademark comic book aesthetic is combined with the subject matter, style, and even material of Braque and Brâncuşi or the academic traditions of landscape and the nude. This method of organization dominates the remaining galleries of the show.
It is in this broader art historical facet of Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective that the exhibition also fulfills and reveals a crucial role of the museum in visual culture: education. The museum differs from other white cube art institutions in that it serves not only to disseminate visual culture to the masses but to also present historical knowledge in a fascinating and appealing way. Lichtenstein’s retrospective presents a plethora of works that form a cohesive network with the historical pieces the artist builds upon. After spending some time looking at these colorful spotted paintings, I thought it would be interesting to make a diversion into the other galleries of the museum to see if Lichtenstein’s source material was on display. The results are in… A selection from Monet’s Haystacks can be seen in the Impressionist galleries while proofs from Utagawa Hiroshige’s print folio One Hundred Famous Views of Edo are currently on display in the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean art galleries. The modern wing also boasts the De Stijl paintings of Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian in the European Modern Art galleries and Jackson Pollock’s Greyed Rainbow in the space covering contemporary art from 1945 to 1960.
Whether these supplementary pieces thematically assembled together by Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective will remain on display for the entirety of the show’s tenure at the Art Institute is unknown. What is certain, however, is that this phenomenal exhibition will travel to Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, London’s Tate Modern, and Paris’ Centre Pompidou. The institutional role of education will continue to be achieved in these places as the trajectory of Lichtenstein’s prolific career is synced with the historical collections these superb museums offer.