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"Inopportune" by Cai Guo-Qiang at Mass MoCA

David at the Clark

Parisian Dancer Loie Fuller at Williams
Jacques-Louis David, Cai Guo-Qiang, Leipzig Painting, Becoming Animal, Moving Pictures
Berkshire Exhibitions at the Clark, Williams and Mass MoCA

September 1, 2005

During weekends in the Berkshires we are a short hop from three of the finest museums in the nation: The Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art, in Williamstown, and Mass MoCA in North Adams. There is also the opportunity to make multiple visits to the museums to absorb great masterpieces at the Clark, study the density and scholarly richness of offerings at Williams, and come to grips with difficult and confrontational contemporary work at Mass MoCA. Year round there is also a diverse array of seminars and lectures in Williamstown as well as copasetic, titubating dance parties and cabarets at Mass MoCA such as this Sunday’s, Labor Day weekend New Orleans Dance event. An opportunity not only to shake your booty but show support for the Crescent City in a time of need.
This past summer we have also enjoyed the Saturday morning open rehearsals at Tanglewood which are about a 40 minute drive from our home in Adams. Although there is stop and go it is insightful to observe how a conductor works with an orchestra for a particular interpretation of the music. Also, for $17 you get to sit in the shed; a bargain compared to the price of an evening performance. There was a lot of theater and dance that we never caught up with.
In view of their proximity the three museums have enjoyed the critical mass of an ever expanding audience as well a workable synergy. The Clark is about to undertake a major expansion designed by architect Tadeo Ando, under the direction and fundraising of the ambitious, Michael Conforti, in his tenth year running the museum. The Clark specializes in primarily 19th century masters such as the now closed “Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile.” The Williams College Museum of Art is known for superbly researched modernist shows such as “Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880-1910” which remains on view through December 10. While Mass MoCA concentrates on daunting, in your face, cutting edge installations such as the three shows up currently: “Cai Guo-Qiang: Inopportune,” “Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom,” and “Life After Death: New Leipzig Paintings from the Rubell Family Collection.” Because of the cost and complexity of MoCA’s installations they are up generally for a year or more. They are geared to that annual Berkshire visit. But the museum offers wonderful programming on an ongoing basis that serves an enthusiastic and increasingly sophisticated audience. Actually, this may be said of all three museums which have made inroads in promoting and marketing their institutions.
The area has additional contemporary programming with the Contemporary Artists Center, The Dark Ride, and Chapel for Humanity also in North Adams. The Eclipse Mill, a soon to be completed artist/loft building with 40 large studio residences, is about to launch its gallery and ambitious exhibition programming as well as a schedule of open studios. A second loft studio project the Blackinton Mill, also in North Adams, is about to start renovation and construction. In nearby Adams, the Topia Arts Center, which will concentrate on world music and performance recently enjoyed a grand opening. And the renowned Barrington Stage has relocated from Sheffield to a newly renovated theater in Pittsfield. It will compete directly with the Williamstown Theater Festival in its new expanded facility in Williamstown. Pittsfield plans to transform itself into an arts city built around the Berkshire Museum, the renovated Colonial Theater, new home of Barrington Stage, and a cluster of artist studios and galleries. The best news is that the Berkshires are rapidly evolving from summer to year round programming.
To start our overview of the seasonal exhibitions, what’s not to like about David at the Clark? They mount such delicious Old Master shows in recent years presenting: Klimt, Millet and Turner as well as a survey of Orientalism. Generally they draw upon strength in their own permanent collection. During the prime Leaf Peaking season, for instance, from October 9 through January 8, the Clark will present “Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History.” With great depth in French Impressionism, particularly Renoir, the Clark is one of the most endearing small museums in America. The question is whether the audience that visits the Clark will then move on to the more challenging exhibitions at Mass MoCA. And then stay around long enough to support a range of still depressed and struggling local restaurants and shops. Visitors continue to view Northern Berkshire County as a day trip rather than a place to hang out.
Although the epic scaled, salon machines of David remained in Paris, the Clark mounted a small, intimately scaled selection of works by the foremost painter of his time. The centerpiece was a rather camp, suck up to a dashingly mounted Napoleon Bonaparte, one of five versions of the icon, crossing the Alps, like Hannibal before him, to conquer Italy. Having done that, he ensconced one of his idiot relatives on the throne; at least until Waterloo. The down side is that David was a shameless propagandist and commercial artist, this brush for hire, but, gosh darn, what a heck of a painter. I missed the huge Louvre retrospective by a couple of weeks some 20 years ago. But surprisingly, what a coup, this was the first major, well actually minor, David show in America.
At Mass MoCA director Joe Thompson and his curators appear to have boxed themselves in. The largest and most imposing space, roughly a double football field, long rectangular gallery is tough to fill. Adequately. Over the past several years, for this viewer, they have had rather mixed results. The list or gene pool of artists capable of working with such a vast space is limited. So while the projects are grand and ambitious I don’t often feel that they work. The exception was Robert Wilson’s “Stations.” Last year’s installation by Ann Hamilton just kind of flopped. What was supposed to happen didn’t particularly. Although there are artists who told me that they were truly inspired by her work.
The current show, a series of flipping cars with elaborately lit, flashing sparks by Cai Guo-Qiang, just confuses me. I have been avoiding writing about the work all summer. During a dinner party with artists some weeks ago I tried to pick their brains and get a handle on the work. I get it; the cars are to be read as a kind of tragic accident. It is really a single car seen in freeze frame, exploding while flipping through the space. But it seems like little more than an elaborate one liner. Perhaps too much ado about too little. In a smaller gallery there is an installation of life sized tigers, highly realistic, pierced with zillions of crude, hand made arrows. Again, like the twisting cars, the tigers are contorted into a great range of postures and snarling gestures. Just outside the gallery is a scroll of “One Hundred Tigers” in a traditional rendering by the artist’s father. So this is the source of inspiration.
The wounded Tigers reminded me, to their disadvantage, of the exquisite Lion Hunt Assyrian relief in the British Museum and its iconic detail of the Wounded Lioness, a standard of art textbooks. The ancient work is poignant and understated while this contemporary work seems as they say in Texas Hold Em Poker, too All In. It appears that the artist is holding the short hand in this. When I expressed that response during a dialogue with Jane Farver, director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center, she strongly disagreed and suggested I take another look. The artist is an ongoing fellow at MIT and much admired in that community of art, science and technology. I did take another look. Actually two or three and I still don’t feel comfortable with the work. It seems just too bing, bang, boom, over big, strident and yes, gimmicky. The artist creates serious and ambitious work which I have admired in the past. For example the skeletal boat shot up with arrows that was suspended high above in a MoMA atrium. It was compelling to look at from various vantage points. But here the ambition fell short of fruition.
I didn’t expect to like the other two shows at Mass MoCA. Because what they present is not about being liked. So perhaps if I did like what MoCA shows they wouldn’t be doing their job. That said, a lot of their shows I really don’t like. Forget the challenge thing. Just bad work. Enervating, sophomoric, ersatz trendy, and edgy. Just not good. But this is a personal opinion. Shows mounted by former chief curator, Laura Heon, such as “Yankee Redux,” which featured artists creating works inspired by objects in the collection of the Society of New England Antiquities, or last season’s Matthew Ritchie installation, were well received by critics. She has moved on to become director of Site Santa Fe, the most highly regarded contemporary arts institution in the Southwest.
Her last show for Mass MoCA is an overbaked, dry roast, no gravy survey of Leipzig painting. Viewing this selection from the Rubell Family Collection is like consuming a turkey dinner without the fixings. But according to Heon’s wall text, which greets us at the entrance of the exhibition, that appears to be precisely the point. That these artists deliberately studied in the old Stalinist academies of the former East Germany the better to deconstruct a great and troubling moment in social reconstruction. Accordingly, the drift is that bad is good and good is bad. Like the awkward figure drawing and pasty color or deadpan settings for maudlin actions. So we are asked to dig deeper than the drab, soporific illustrations and to see in them a greater metaphor of the ennui of post socialism. It is the familiar avant-garde trope of boredom as the threshold of enlightenment and the sublime. Consider the hypnotic music of Glass and Reich, or attending “Waiting for Godot” and “Six Characters in Search of and Author” for the umpteenth time. So, arguably, that is what appears to be embedded in these Leipzig paintings that offer small pleasures for the eye.
Curator Nato Thompson’s “Becoming Animal” appears to pick up where “Unnatural Science” left off. It is too early to conclude whether Nato has identified a major movement or just a trend. While the artists he selects for these provocative group shows make sense in context they rarely have the staying power to sustain our interest on their own. We are left with a strong overall impression but the parts and elements rapidly fade into memory.
Because of their epic scale and elaborate fabrication most of the works can only be presented by major institutions. So Nato’s shows often transform Mass MoCA into a laboratory for rather than a museum of contemporary art. Kathy High, for example, has rescued doomed lab rats and given them a second chance as performance artists in an elaborate maze. During my visits instead of running around through the complex maze of tubes the rats were curled up in the nooks and crannies. They did not appear to be inspired by the artist’s environment. As I discussed this work with an artist of my generation it too readily recalled the tortured eels in a maze in Virginia Gunter’s ill fated “Elements: Earth, Wind, Fire and Water” for the ancien regime of the MFA in 1971. It shook up the museum but wasn’t much of an aesthetic success. Shock art, however, is alive and well in North Adams.
After several visits I finally entered and sat in Mark Dion’s enormous bird cage with a number of finches perched on a large tree with many options for nesting. They also poop on a ring of books, whatever that means, at the base of the elaborate structure. I sat there long enough to conjure great insights. It was quite delightful
Yes, it is significant that Rachel Berwick calls our attention to the last surviving giant tortoise of the Galapagos. It is a poignant tale but fails to transcend its overblown scale. This is the old notion of when in doubt make it big. There are two very large video loops of the tortoise lumbering toward us emitting an ominous sound. To complete the installation there are two large sails, jibs actually, tethered at an angle and blown by large fans. Whatever that means.
The monstrous sowish sculpture, all too human, mother nursing her young, by Patricia Piccinini, is haunting and oddly endearing. She commands exquisite skills. The Mud Woman by Ann Sofi Sinden, a museum within a museum on the upper level, is just off-putting. I gave it a real try, several times, and just didn’t feel involved with its awkward sensibility. The concept is a mud covered, nude woman from outer space (actually she wears panties under the muck) who confronts surprised individuals such as upscale guests sipping champagne at a museum opening. The video camera records these uneasy moments and her stilted dialogue as she explains who she is. It just seemed too much like an ambitious thesis project at a hip art school. A too tooo cute and clever video of a lizard tongued, snake eyed Lolita perched on a limb in a video loop by Motohiko Odani has the potential to induce seizures and madness. With each new viewing of the loop, which also features circles of frogs genetically altered with human ears on their backs, I found myself increasingly annoyed.
Having been appropriately shaken up by the Mass MoCA shows it was a pleasure to view the wonderful and richly satisfying survey of early film and modernism at Williams. It is not surprising to learn that it took curator Nancy Mowell Mathews some ten years to research and develop this superb exhibition. It attempts to consider simultaneously an overview of high art, film, and popular culture at the turn of the century. As we work our way through the exhibition there is a seamless transition from early film, seen on a number of small, flat screen monitors, cheek to jowl with illustrations from newspapers, books and magazines, experimental photographs and motion studies by Muybridge and Eakins, and the “high art” paintings and prints that they inspired.
The experience is nicely set up as we enter the exhibition. On a short wall, side by side, is a monitor showing pairs of ballroom dancers of lower class, next to the Glackens painting “The Spielers” from the Addison Gallery that channels the same sentiment. It puts the work of the Ashcan School painter into a context that I have never previously experienced. Similarly, there are primitive movies of vintage Atlantic City bathers juxtaposed with the lively genre painting of Glackens. Or a film of Niagara Falls next to an epic scaled painting by Hunt. There is stunning footage of the sensational Parisian dancer Loie Fuller twirling her costume next to the images she inspired. There are numerous such examples. The point of this is that high art, popular culture and kitsch were all cut from the same cloth. So this breaks down those barriers and allows us to see an era that disappeared from high art after the shock of the Armory Show of 1913, when the European avant-garde essentially Frenched the American scene. At least until now. The gem of this show is the Eakins painting “The Concert Singer” from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What a wonderful picture.
This is a show that I hope to visit a few more times. Just can’t get enough of a good thing. And this Saturday night we will boogie at MoCA.
Ah yes, after many a summer dies the swan. So much to see and do but so little time. That wonderful Berkshire dilemma.


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www.massmoca.org
www.wcma.org
www.clarkart.edu


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