JIM LAMBIE’S PLAZA, 2005; PHOTO BY TOM LOONAN.
So here we are: The final leg of the AK One Fifty, the yearlong sesquicentennial anniversary celebration of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The festivities began late in 2011 withThe Long Curve: 150 Years of Visionary Collecting at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which focused on the men and women who built the museum’s world-class collection. Then it was on to Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s, a nostalgic trip back to a time when our region’s arts engine was firing on all six cylinders (visual art, film, video, performance, literature, and music).
And now DECADE: Contemporary Collecting 2002–2012, the satisfying finale that could also be subtitled “The Grachos Years.” It wasn’t planned as a final hurrah, but after ten years as museum director, Louis Grachos surprised everyone last June by announcing that he will depart for Austin, Texas, to become director of AMOA-Arthouse in January.
DECADE includes only a fraction of the nearly 1,200 works collected during the past ten years, but it manages to fill the museum’s second floor, Clifton Hall, and the underground pedestrian link, with additional pieces scattered throughout the gallery and grounds. Some works, like Nancy Rubin’s attention-grabbing outdoor boat sculpture and Sol LeWitt’s awe-inspiring stairway scribble drawing, are permanent installations. Much of the art is large scale. Most reflects cutting-edge developments in content and media. It’s safe to say that the gallery hasn’t seen such an influx of signature work from the world’s leading contemporary artists since director Gordon Smith and Seymour Knox combined to present Contemporary Art: Acquisitions 1954–1957.
There is one notable difference between the Knox/Smith years and today. In the past, the audience was left to its own interpretive devices, but today’s curators strive mightily to assist viewers in understanding what they’re seeing. Exhibition organizers Douglas Dreishpoon and Heather Pesanti have divided this show into ten topical themes: Film/Photography/Fiction, Insidious Humor, L.A. Angels, Language is a Virus from Outer Space, Psychology of Space, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, Shape of Space, Social Space/Private Ritual, The Wayward Line, and What Happened to Painting? Descriptive text abounds, and, of course there are the ubiquitous audio wands. I asked one discerning art enthusiast partway through the show what he thought. His answer was succinct: “If you ask me so far, I say wow.”
One wow-worthy work destined to become a visitor favorite is Mona Hatoum’s + and –. It’s essentially a circular stainless steel sandbox about eight inches deep and nearly 160 inches across. A rotating rail spans the diameter; one half slowly combing a ribbed pattern into the white sand as the other half silently flattens it. Whether you take this as a metaphor for the temporality of existence, a contemplation of yin-yang forces, or just a mesmerizingly cool thing, its meditative allure is hard to deny.
While Hatoum’s work seems shoehorned into one of the more equivocal exhibition themes—Psychology of Space—Andrea Zittel’s thought-provoking A to Z 1994 Living Unit II fits it more comfortably. Zittel designs beautiful and vaguely disturbing portable personal living spaces. This self-contained compact unit folds ingeniously into a handsome wooden shipping trunk, blurring the line between industrial design and conceptual art. Four Cybachrome prints encased in circular Lucite frames by Mariko Mori might make you think of atomic or cosmological activity—or a lava lamp. They fit the theme though, if only because—like the artist’s public persona—they’re spacy.
JIM ISERMANN’S UNTITLED (0397), COURTESY OF ALBRIGHT-KNOX ART GALLERY.
Speaking of space, writer William S. Burroughs once said, “Language is a virus from outer space.” Evidence of language’s viral-like ability to mutate into new forms is found in the crafty wordplay of Three Color Sentence by pioneer conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. Kosuth’s self-referential red, blue, and green neon word sign produces a conundrum of connotation. Jason Rhoades’s Highway to Heaven and especially Kiki Seror’s provocative Married at Dusk Killed at Dawn: 1001 Nights might be described as adult-language-based art. If the kids take a sudden interest in reading Seror’s circular light-box—no easy task with her skewed perspective lettering—you might want to redirect them to the Insidious Humor theme. Children will enjoy the whimsy of Kai Althoff’s Untitled (for Lionel Maunz), a colorful toy-like lion in a Victorian cage. Observant parents will detect sinister decorative undertones encoded into the design of the enclosure. Erwin Wurm’sJakob/Big Psycho VII engages viewers with its compelling fusion of figurative sculpture and Marx Brothers absurdity. Words fail to convey its goofy pleasure.
Other joys are found throughout the exhibition. Four separate works by the endlessly creative Janine Antoni only hint at the artist’s expansive range. Inhabit is a large-scale digital print of Antoni suspended in her daughter’s room by a tethered harness reminiscent of a spider web. She “wears” a child’s furnished dollhouse like a skirt, her legs manacled by the floors. Antoni seems trapped by the domesticity of family life. Her head tilts downward, eyes shut, as if she is resigned to her fate. The preparation and attention to detail—like the matching patterns on the artist’s blouse and dollhouse curtains—will have viewers transfixed. If Antoni’s disquieting themes aren’t troubling enough for you, take a walk down Jim Lambie’s nearby Zobop(Stairs), a site-specific op art-inspired work that uses vinyl tape to provide ordinary gallery steps with perilous funhouse appeal.
Despite the prevalence of new media, painting still manages to provide fresh pleasures. Like much of the gallery’s celebrated collection, the emphasis is on innovative forms of abstraction. Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (Rage) #2 is a conceptual and technical tour de force that expands the limits of paint. A nubby coal-black surface masks an almost imperceptible stenciled text with an angry outsider message. It’s as aesthetically satisfying as it is politically acerbic. Kelly Walker similarly combines painting and politics, if you count chocolate as paint. She smears the stuff with expressionistic fury over a civil rights era photograph. Garth Weiser’s Tahitian Moon stands out for technical mastery, as he somehow manages to make oil paint behave like woven blue mesh bonded to a contrasting-colored under-painting. Stunning. Clare Woods’s photography-to-paint process looks more like monumental abstract painting than camerawork. Failed Blackwould be right at home next to Jackson Pollack’s Convergence. Speaking of riffs on abstract expressionism, Barnaby Furnas’s Flood nearly turns dramatic, painterly flourishes into narrative. Works by Scott Short, Linda Besemer, and Philip Taaffe are among others building on the past to answer the question: What Happened to Painting?
But sculpture makes the biggest impression here. John Bock doesn’t so much build his sculptural installation as perform it. Urhütte (Primitive Hut) is Pee-Wee’s Playhouse on drugs, within which a frenetic video of its creation runs continuously. Similarly, the subversively zany Austrian art group called gelitin provides a mixed media assemblage that looks like it was made blindfolded … which it was. Rachael Whiteread is known for casting common domestic objects. Doorway I is just what the title implies, an unassuming door cast in transparent resin. But her monumental Untitled (Domestic) dominates the gallery’s sculpture court. Cast from the negative space of a stairwell, it fits in neatly with the gallery’s sculptures by Tony Smith and James Rosati; intellectually, though, Whiteread owes more to Duchamp. Liz Larner’s massive angular alien orb with the green-purple iridescent paint job can best be described as something Lady Gaga might emerge from.
While precedents for much of the work in DECADE can be traced back to earlier generations, there is an unmistakable twenty-first-century feel to the exhibition. This is the art of today. Maybe Grachos and the gallery’s acquisition committee had in mind the words of Gordon Smith, who wrote for a 1957 ART Newsarticle: “The museum of today has more than ever before a duty to act as a patron of these artists—who are making history—not after they have made it, but while they are making it.” It’s a duty addressed here.
Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, and writer living in Buffalo.
Out of the Ordinary
Here’s how artist A. J. Fries describes his paintings: “I believe that the everyday world is full of beauty and that we encounter sublimity almost constantly, but are too busy, distracted, or numb to notice. By paring down my work to simply light, shadow, and composition, I attempt to cast light on the sublime in the everyday.”
Yes, these are paintings—which is obvious when they’re seen in a gallery, but it’s not always immediately apparent in reproductions. However, despite the painstaking representational accuracy of the work, there is nothing cold or clinical about it. Highway vistas are haunting and poignant; drops of water on glass are shimmering and otherworldly. It’s easy to capture the magic of the ordinary in a photograph, but in painting the process can become bogged down and the result ponderous. Fries’ accomplishments are his light touch and his ability to create a subtle, suggestive slice of reality.
See for yourself on December 1, 8–11 p.m., at Big Orbit Gallery, 30D Essex Street, bigorbitgallery.org. The show runs through January 15.