Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Ann Hamilton "Stylus" at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, St. Louis

I still remember jokes that puzzled me in my youth and I only figured out some 10 or 20 years later. Similarly, sometimes it takes a while to grasp what is going on in an exhibition. So perhaps the Ann Hamilton exhibition we saw at the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis in August will suddenly be revealed to me in due time. I’ve been fascinated by Ann Hamilton and what she says about her work, the depth, thoughtfulness, and philosophical approach she takes, as well as by the respect she has earned from the art world, evidenced by the Pulitzer’s choice of her for their first artist installation exhibition.

However, the only work I’ve seen by her, her installation at the 1999 Venice Biennale, did not elicit a good response from me. I remember being fascinated and delighted by pink powder floating down the walls and piling up at the edges of the floor of the American Pavilion. But when I - and my two companions - read the label, which explained that the point of the installation was to demonstrate how difficult it is for people to communicate with each other, all three of us walked out, not just puzzled, but infuriated. I don’t know about them, but I was angry that such a lovely abstract environment was loaded with such complicated non-visual content and that the content was totally inaccessible without the label, although having read the explanation, one still didn’t really “see” the meaning she intended to convey. There was more to it: I think a recording a man reading the Declaration of Independence that had been slowed down to sound like a low growl and Braille inscriptions on the walls.

We went to the Pulitzer with curiosity and with fairly open minds, despite this previous disappointment. The Pulitzer is an eccentric institution, open only two days a week (now expanded to include Thursday evenings). So it was not unusual that the attendant at the desk explained a bit about the show and asked us to sign in. When we signed the register, we heard a discordant possibly musical sound coming from far away.

A second attendant asked us to choose a record from a file of unlabeled records. We each took one and she played them while she explained the weekly newspaper-like concordance-related publications Hamilton is producing for the exhibition. Each week she gathers from English-language newspapers around the world phrases containing a word she has chosen from a statement of purpose (we never found the statement). Our week the word was “Be.” The phrases were listed with the chosen word in a column down the center of the page. For $2 we purchased the concordance from August 6 that used “Reveal, Say, Sing, Singing, Song Speak, Speaking, State, Suggest, Tell, Utter, Voice, and World,” much more interesting than “Be,” but nonsensical nonetheless. On the wall behind the record player and the concordance is a video of an arm waving back and forth.

In the big gallery were metal staircases with projectors on top, some of which revolved. They showed fuzzy, vague images mostly of a pencil point moving on paper, sometimes with accompanying scratchy sounds. You could also heard sounds coming from microphones under the air handling system vents that run along the floor of the building. Shelves occupied one very long wall, that square shelving you often see in museum shops because it holds both books and objects well. Maybe 300 shelves, each with two or more papier maché hands, all in shades of beige and taupe. The attendant suggests that you may touch or try on the hands. I tried moving them around; I couldn’t fit my hand into them. Following the shelves down the wall you come to a small gallery with a piano inside, which you are welcome to play.

Going downstairs, we watched another attendant playing with a gadget that had four little metal balls on a small platform. She was busily rotating the platform so the balls rolled around on it. A microphone caught the sound of the balls rolling and magnified and broadcast it. If the attendant touched the microphone one of the pianos would play a few notes. She encouraged us to play with this gadget, which she was only demonstrating. She explained also that there is a second piano in the downstairs gallery and the two pianos are somehow connected so that sometimes playing one will activate the other. People signing in activate them also, as did touching her microphone.

On the top floor is a large table covered with Mexican jumping beans and microphones to catch the sound when they jump. The attendant here explained that the jumping beans are refrigerated when the gallery is closed, and that there are two sets, so one is kept cool while the other is on view, in order to give them rest and delay hatching. She also explained that we could read the concordance into a microphone in that area that I imagine would broadcast through the museum, but we didn’t try it. She said the jumping beans are the only thing in the installation that visitors may not touch.

I had noticed loudspeakers outside the building that broadcast someone saying something, just one sentence. We were given the opportunity to record something for broadcast, but chose not to. As I said to the attendant, I’m really used to not touching works of art and generally prefer not to be part of an art installation, but rather to look at it from outside. Perhaps my reticence is what the exhibition is trying to counter.

So, thinking about the installation in Venice, I figure this exhibition has something to do with communication, which Director Matthias Waschek confirms in his statement: “....the project deals with the raw material of communication. Familiar forms of interaction are de-contextualized, then stitched back together into a new, poetic entity that resonates with our most basic experience.”

O.k., I can see that the attendants speak to us, the videos are visual and depict writing, there are sounds and some fragments of music, and these elements appear randomly, without meaning. I could appreciate that the installation is subtly interactive, but none of the things I was invited to touch or play actually seemed like fun. The attendants were very friendly and talking with them was the best part of the project for me. Is it about the pervasiveness of mindless activity in our society? The videos of writing don’t show anything written or drawn, the pianos don’t play music, the concordances are random, the paper maché hands don’t fit, jumping beans are a fascinating but pointless thing to watch.

The exhibition involves extensive collaborations with other individuals and organizations in St. Louis and it may be these associated performance programs that fill out and enrich the experience. I can imagine that richness from a distance, but am limited to the physical experience of the exhibition and its booklet for my own appreciation of the project.

Looking at the beautifully produced documentation for the project, and reading the poetry Hamilton provided for the catalogue, I can’t avoid feeling that this is important, profound, evocative, emotionally fulfilling stuff. But I remain untouched, befuddled, and disappointed at the visual and experiential emptiness of the installation. On the other hand, a month later I’m still chewing on it.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey

The Montclair Art Museum, like many in the U.S., specializes in American art. For many years I had read notes about its significant collection of American Indian art, and have wanted to see it for a long time. This weekend, Tom and I were in New York for a wedding and had some free time on Saturday and a car, so we drove to Montclair to see the museum. I always have some trepidation about visiting small museums because they often do not exhibit much of their best-known collections, and I was doubly concerned when the information desk person said admission was free because some of the galleries are closed.

But the museum was a fascinating surprise. Small, with only three galleries open and only a couple more closed, it really celebrates its collection of Native American works. We looked into one small closed gallery that contained a selection of Pueblo pottery, much of it contemporary. Flanking the entrance to the larger permanent collection gallery of American Indian works were two totem poles, one dating from the beginning of the 20th century and the other from the end. This juxtaposition of older work with contemporary work in similar style, format, or media, is a recurring trope in the Montclair installations. I found it instructive and compelling, giving one a chance to think about change and continuity and permitting me to focus my attention on two objects at a time. Immediately inside the American Indian Gallery was a pairing of shirts, one from the early 20th century, made of buckskin with fringes, horsehair tassles, beautifully geometric beadwork, and significant traces of paint. The other, similar in form, consisted of color photographs, plastic rings and strips, compact disks, computer chips and other manufactured media. I neglected to write down the artist's name and the website does not give a caption for the images of it. And all I can do is link to the Native American collections at the website, where images of the front and back of the shirt come up eventually.

The museum labels say the American Indian collection initially had some 2000 objects (there are 4000 now); fewer than 200 were on view, but they represent an obviously impressive collection. There were three groupings: ceremonial objects, everyday objects, and collectible objects. Each of them is a superb example of its genre and each is adequately, if briefly described in the labels. I was especially taken by some of the northwest headdresses and contemporary masks, as well as the feathered Pomo baskets, among the traditional works. Among the collector’s items is a beautiful small jar by the great Hopi potter Nampeyo with an unusual design. Marcus Amerman’s Indian in a Bottle evoked stereotypes of Indians and was a surprise as a glass sculpture by an artist primary known for his beadwork. Three pots, one by each of the Folwell family, are excellent examples of their innovative designs, and the Diego Romero bowl depicts a grisly moment in the history of the Pueblo relationship to the Spanish invaders rather than his more humorous contemporary subjects.

The surprise of the museum, and its distinguishing and distinguished characteristic, however, is the complete integration of American Indian, African American, and Anglo American painting and sculpture in the exhibitions of the permanent collection and the museum handbook, Selected Works. On view was an exhibition of landscapesEngaging with Nature: American and Native American Artists (A.D. 1200-2004)(May 16, 2010 - September 25, 2011) and we could glimpse the installation in progress of a show of portraiture. In both exhibitions my sense was of nearly equal percentages of Native American and Anglo-American works. Selected Works makes the diversity of the collections even more evident, with strong images of important works by Latino, African-American, Native American, and Anglo artists constantly interspersed in the section on American painting and sculpture and then a separate American Indian section for work in other media.

When we got back to Kansas I found a review of the show in the online New Jersey section of the New York Times. The writer rightly criticized the landscape exhibition for its repeated use of words like “spiritual” and “sublime,” and suggested that it needed a more specific and nuanced discussion of the context for the works, addressing the diverse points of view of the American Indian and non-Indian makers. On the other hand, I was most impressed that the exhibition provided some quotations from the artists about their work and addressed each work without forcing it into a stereotypical slot of interpretation. Indeed, the spectacular Shasta doctor’s basket may not exactly belong in a landscape exhibition, but it is an extraordinary object and I’m so glad I got to see it. Major paintings by Emmi Whitehorse, Kay Walkingstick, Dan Namingha and Tony Abeyta held their own with those of Hans Hofmann, early Mark Rothko and Oscar Bluemner. I read and enjoyed the labels explaining the Louise Lawler and Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs. We loved the Charles Simonds imagined tiny ancient American ruin, suspended horizontally in a vitrine and were surprised to find a drawing by our hometown Baldwin City, Kansas artist Stephen Graber displayed next to the Louise Lawler photograph. If you want to see the label texts, object list, and a few images, they are available online.

In a side gallery I loved the juxtaposition of Dan Namingha and Allan Houser sculptures with The Whirlwind by J. Scott Hartley and Harriet Frismuth’s Joy of the Waters, as I love the pairing of Allan Houser with Melvin Edwards in Selected Works. And Philip Pearlstein opposite Carrie Mae Weems.

Critics, artists, and art historians often complain about the lack of diversity in art museum collections. Many museums have exhibitions or set aside areas for works by subgroups of the American population. I cannot think of another general art museum in this country that is displaying such full diversity and integration of works of art in meaningful, engaging, and even thought-provoking ways.

Finally, the museum has a small gallery with a fine selection of paintings by George Inness (1825-1894), who lived his last eleven years in Montclair (we saw a school named after him while searching for the museum). Inness is an artist I’ve never warmed to, but Montclair’s simple explanation of his association with Barbizon painting and then with the theories of Swedenborgianism that natural forms are manifestations of the divine (Selected Works, p. 39), as well as the range and beauty of their Inness paintings, has opened my mind to his possibilities.