MoMA vs SFMOMA

As regular readers of this blog may have come to realise, any opportunity I have during my overseas travels, for business or pleasure, I always like to visit the local public art galleries. Apart from providing a cultural fix, these institutions can reveal a lot about current fashions, curatorial trends and even technology adoption in the elite world of marquee museums. Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to visit MoMA in New York, and SFMOMA in San Francisco.

Mario Bellini – Olivetti TCV 250 Video Display Terminal (1966) – MoMA New York (Gift of the manufacturer) – Photo by Rory Manchee

Both museums are housed in contemporary buildings which, in keeping with a noticeable trend among modern galleries and museums, emphasise their vertical structure. Compared to say, the 18th/19th century museums of London, Paris and Berlin (with their long, languid and hall-like galleries), these 21st century constructs force us to look upwards – both physically, and perhaps metaphorically, as they aspire to represent “high” art in a modern context?

Although I have been to MoMA many times before, there is always something new to discover among the touring exhibitions and permanent collections. On this latest visit, there were four standout displays: Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age (see illustration above); Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait; Max Ernst: Beyond Painting; and Stephen Shore.

Apart from the latter, there is clearly a statement being made within the format of “Title/Name – colon – concept/context/subtext”. Stephen Shore is obviously an exception to this curatorial technique. Here is a photographer, whose name I was not familiar with, but whose work seemed both familiar (everyday images and popular icons) and exotic (otherworldly, outsider, alien); yet also pedestrian (repetitive, mundane) and alienating (elements of the macabre and voyeuristic).

The Thinking Machines display threw up some interesting juxtapositions: most of the devices and the works they produced were artisanal in approach – one-off pieces, requiring detailed and skilled programming, and not the mass-produced, easily replicated works we associate with most digital processes these days. Plus, even when the outputs were generated by a computational approach, the vagaries of the hardware and software meant the works were more likely to produce chance results, given the large role that analog processes still played in these systems-defined creations.

Louise Bourgeois’ work can still challenge our sensibilities, especially when conveyed through her lesser-known works on paper, even though many of the images are familiar to us from her sculptures and installation pieces (the latter represented here in the form of one of her giant spiders).

The exhibition of works on paper by Max Ernst also reveal another aspect of the artist’s oeuvre, although unlike Bourgeois, I feel there is greater affinity with his more formal paintings because, despite the different media in which he worked, there is a consistency to his image making and his visual language.

Across the country in San Francisco, this was the first time I had been to SFMOMA, so in the available time, I tried to see EVERYTHING, on all 6 levels. But I still manged to miss one entire floor, housing the late 19th century/early 20th century permanent collection.

The main exhibitions were Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing The Rules; SoundtracksWalker Evans; Approaching American Abstraction; and Louis Bourgeois Spiders.

So, less of the colon-delineated concepts compared to MoMA, and more literal titles – and you have to think that photographers, like Shore and Evans, don’t merit these sub-textual descriptions, because with photographers, what you see is what you get?  On the other hand, with Bourgeois’ Spiders, it contains what it says on the tin – giant spider sculptures.

I’d seen the Rauschenberg exhibition earlier this year at the Tate Modern in London, as it’s actually a touring show curated by MoMA itself. Seeing these (now familiar) works in another setting revealed aspects that I hadn’t appreciated before – such as the similarities between Rauschenberg’s collages and combines, and the mixed media works of Max Ernst and other Surrealists, for example.

The Evans exhibition was an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) career retrospective. In addition to many of his iconic images of crop farmers during the Great Depression, there were more urbane/mundane images of shop window displays, merchandising and branding – not too dissimilar to some of Shore’s serial photo essays.

Wandering through (or approaching…) the American Abstraction display was like immersing oneself in a who’s who of modern US art: Brice Marden, Sol Le Wit, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Cy Twombly, Adolph Gottlieb, Morris Louis, Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly, Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Joan Mitchell…. It struck me that despite the differences among these artists, and their individual mark making and contrasting visual languages, the collection was very much of a whole – the familiarity of many of these works, in close proximity, felt very comforting, even though the original intent was potentially to shock, challenge or disrupt. That’s not to say the works no longer have any impact, it’s just that our tastes and experiences have led us to adapt to and accommodate these once abrasive images.

Finally Soundtracks was probably the weakest of all the exhibitions I saw, pulling together a mish-mash of mostly sculptural and installation works embodying some form of audio element. My interest in this vein of work probably started when I saw the exhibition, “Ecouter Par Les Yeux” many years ago in Paris.

Despite a few banal pieces (too literal or pedestrian in their execution) this current incarnation had some individually engaging and landmark pieces: namely, Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s “Clinamen”, a version of which has been on display at Melbourne’s NGV in recent times; and Brian Eno’s “Compact Forest Proposal”, which I only know of through its audio component – so here was a chance to walk through the fully realised, and dream-like installation.

As 2017 draws to a close, Content in Context will be taking a (much-needed) break for the holidays. Having made 8 overseas trips in the past 12 months, the author is looking forward to spending some down-time closer to home. Many thanks to all the people who have made 2017 such a truly memorable year for me – for all sorts of personal and professional reasons. You know who you are. Normal service will resume in January, and have a safe, peaceful and uplifting festive season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surrealism, Manifestos and the Art of Juxtaposition

Like all good coaches and mentors, the best artists challenge our assumptions, reframe our perspective, and re-contextualise both the positive and negative, to provide a narrative structure with which to navigate the world around us. Likewise, they don’t tell us what to think, but leave us to interpret events for ourselves, having given us the benefit of an informed and critical vantage point.

Image: "Untitled" (2012) by Greatest Hits, NGV, Melbourne © Greatest Hits

Image: “Untitled” (2012) by Greatest Hits, NGV, Melbourne © Greatest Hits

Over the holidays, I went to a couple of unrelated but inter-connected exhibitions that both played with our traditional perception of reality while demonstrating the importance of context in providing meaning.

The Comfort of the (Un)Familiar?

First up was Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes, at the NGV Australia. I’m a big fan of Surrealist art, having visited the landmark retrospective, Dada and Surrealism Reviewed at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1978 (and I later made a very minor contribution to a documentary on Eileen Agar in 1989). What I particularly like about Surrealism is its use of the familiar to create alternative realities, which is both comforting and unsettling. Sadly, I know next to nothing about Australian Surrealism (and I imagine I am hardly alone, given it has only recently gained formal recognition and critical appreciation).

So I was pleasantly surprised to find early pieces by major artists such as Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan, which to my mind were far more interesting than the works for which they are popularly known. When seen alongside contemporaneous exhibits by Max Dupain, Eric Thake and James Gleeson, it’s easy to see how Surrealism was a significant influence on Australian art from the 1930’s to 1950’s. And yet I don’t recall many references to the local Surrealist movement or a wide acknowledgment of its impact on 20th century Australian art. More’s the pity, when you can see how the threads of Surrealism continue to be woven into the work of contemporary artists like David Noonan, Julie Rrap, Anne Wallace and Pat Brasington.

The Long Shadow of 19th Century Gothic

Part of the problem might be the fact that later, more familiar works by Nolan, Tucker and Gleeson have become severed from the artists’ original (and modernist) Surrealist roots. Instead, as I see it, these artists (along with Boyd, Perceval, Olsen et al) have been re-cast as part of the continuing 19th century Australian Gothic sensibility (Goths being more tangible than Surrealists?). This prism prefers the literal over the metaphorical, “real” legends over allegories, and landscapes over mind scapes.

Even Inarticulate Art Speaks for Itself?

Another issue, from my perspective, is that contemporary Australian Surrealism continues to play with psychological and political issues, alongside themes of gender, sexuality and hierarchy – topics designed to make us feel uncomfortable. Whereas, in my view, too many contemporary artists are either obsessed with process over form/form over content (to the point that any potential meaning is lost); or conversely, output is everything (often reducing their work to mere illustration or decoration).

Not Made Here?

On a purely aesthetic level, and to be hyper-critical for one moment, I wonder if Australian Surrealism is overlooked because received art opinion considers it to be too derivative of its European counterpart – and therefore, it has fallen victim to cultural cringe. One possible example is Barry Humphries‘ sculpture “Siamese Shoes” (originally made in 1958, shown here in its 1968 remake). While Humphries, according to the exhibition notes, “is considered to be Australia’s first Dada artist” (only 40 years too late, some might say…), I don’t believe for a moment that he was trying merely to imitate Meret Oppenheim‘s almost identical and much earlier work, “Das Paar” (originally made in 1936, remade in 1956).  When viewed in the context of its companion pieces that also formed part of Humphries’ solo exhibitions and artistic happenings, and when one considers Australia’s cultural climate of the 1950’s, then it’s more likely that Humphries was appropriating Dadaism and Surrealism for his own purposes, specifically designed to stir up his local audience out of their suburban bourgeois complacency.

Re-directing Surrealism’s Legacy in Australia

What was especially telling about Lurid Beauty was the 15-20 minute conversation I had with one of the gallery volunteers. She was very keen to get my views on the work, and asked how I came to learn about this particular exhibition. I got the impression that attendance has not been as high as anticipated, perhaps due to a lack of publicity. Despite being on several mailing lists for Melbourne’s arts and cultural events, I had not received any promotional material about this exhibition. We also discussed whether Surrealism features in the high school art curriculum, and whether the exhibition needed to emphasise the contemporary works and themes (rather than taking a somewhat traditional or historical narrative, based on a selective bunch of male artists – the usual suspects).

Given the legacy of Surrealism on film, literature, advertising, music videos, fashion and design, I think more could have been done to make this exhibition appeal to a broader and younger audience. The works, for the most part, are vibrant (if at times challenging), and even the themes depicted in the older pieces still resonate today. (A concurrent exhibition of Les Mason‘s advertising, graphic and visual design work only emphasises the point about Surrealism’s continuing influence.)

Finally, one very welcome aspect of Lurid Beauty was the extensive collection of original publications from the NGV’s library: magazines, catalogues, journals, and of course, André Breton‘s “Surrealist Manifesto”.

In the Artists’ Own Words

Speaking of Manifesto, this is the title of Julian Rosefeldt‘s video exhibition next door at ACMI. I had the privilege of hearing the artist introduce one of the works at a special screening, in which he mentioned his fascination with art manifestos. In a rare example of an artist directly and explicitly acknowledging his sources and inspiration, Rosefeldt shared with the audience that he had even become somewhat obsessed with a particular feminist manifesto. Not only did this provide some fascinating insights on the artistic process, it demonstrated yet again that we are all products of what has gone before, and it reinforced the importance of understanding art in the context of the history, theory and criticism, when it comes to interpreting old and new art.

Using around 50 different manifestos (artistic, political, cultural, critical), Rosefeldt has created 13 short films, each representing a particular art movement. The selected texts have been juxtaposed as monologues for 13 different characters, who deliver their lines, seemingly out of context with the visual settings, but at the same time, totally integrated into coherent narrative forms.

The fact that Cate Blanchett is cast in all 13 lead roles has no doubt created additional interest among local audiences. But, not to take anything away from her performances, this should be irrelevant – the point is that Rosefeldt has taken something with very specific meaning from one context, combined it with a mix of related and unrelated elements, and created a whole set of new meanings. (If anything, seeing simultaneous versions of Blanchett performing multiple, disparate roles, screened side by side, only underlines the fact that actors are the great deceivers – which, if any, is the “real” Cate?)

The videos are looped and synchronised. At times, the monologues converge and overlap, creating three and four-part harmonies for spoken word. This further de-contextualises the source materials, while lending them further meaning, even if we can’t immediately fathom what that might be. (Personally, I think it could be a subliminal reference to the Tower of Babel, or simply a comment on the manifestos themselves – and by extension, the vacuous words of so many artists’ statements.)

Less Is More

Two other works in the exhibition, Stunned Man and The Soundmaker (both from The Trilogy of Failure), are more straightforward narratives, also featuring a single character cast in a familiar setting.

First, Stunned Man is a dual screen projection, comprising mirror images of the same apartment. Over time, elements appear to interchange between the two screens, in a process of forward/reverse destruction and re-construction. But there are enough visual clues to suggest that not all is as it seems, in this parallel universe.

Next, The Soundmaker deconstructs the work of the Foley artist, using a similar process of destruction and re-construction – but split across three screens and two scenes, the viewer could be left wondering whether the “real” action is actually the soundtrack for the Foley artist at work.

What all these works demonstrate is that sometimes less is more – a simple idea can still be executed with wit, sophistication and restraint, to lend it a level of complexity that does not over-burden the final result. It requires a deft touch. There is nothing obvious or ponderous in these films. Nothing about these highly staged videos has been left to chance – every detail has been meticulously thought through. They are perhaps all too rare examples of when formal planning, combined with creative process and technical production, can give us content that is fully formed, but still open to interpretation.

The Artistic License

In my professional work as a coach and mentor, I’m not in the habit of constructing manifestos (believe it or not, I don’t possess that level of didacticism…). But I try to challenge my clients’ assumptions, reframe their situations, and draw on analogous scenarios (not just from business, but from technology, culture, art, music, etc.) that can help re-contextualise their perspectives, especially when clients are stuck. I see a large part of my role as consultant to use the “artistic license” I have been given to investigate, interpret and identify solutions to client problems – which at times can even take the form of a type of alchemy. As one client I worked with recently commented, “the way you reframed the situation was like pure gold”.

Next week: Why The Service Sector Lacks Self-Awareness