Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Mass MoCa, North Adams, Massachusetts

My inaugural visit to Mass MoCa was pretty much laughs and good conversation for the whole day.

A little bit about the campus.

The good: it's freaking massive. It's located at what is basically the borders of Vermont, New York & Massachusetts in what used to be a (I think a textile) mill converted into like a billion square feet of museum space.

The bad: Half of it was closed (maybe not exactly half... as I was told it's probably closer to a third). The Anselm Kiefer exhibit was scheduled to go on display yesterday and it was, uhm, empty and in the big installation room there was some sort of art quarrel where somebody needed more money and somebody else said no, so the judicial showdown left us without even being able to view the largest gallery.

I was okay with missing the Anselm Kiefer since I just saw Heaven & Earth at SFMoMA with Ellen in January, though it would have been cool to see what Mass MoCa purchased, since what was to be on display was to come from the new addition to their permanent collection.

But what was on display was pretty cool for the most part.

On the main floor was a large collection of work by Spencer Finch, What Time Is It on the Sun? Of the work as a whole I'd say it was like ... oh, I don't know... 3 out of 5 stars? I mean there were some real jewels in there, but there were also some pieces that felt like they were kind of shoved in spots just to fill up space. And in my opinion, there's nothing much worse than that.

I'd rather have seen him just title an empty wall.

But let's not harp on the negative; the museum is large and I have a lot to say (when don't I?).

Like I said earlier, there were some really beautiful pieces in the exhibit, namely:

Night Sky Over the Painted Desert, Arizona had a choice piece of gallery real estate as it is the very first thing one encounters upon entering the space. And it's breathtaking, really, even before you read the title. This raised an invisible bar: now I expected this caliber throughout the whole exhibit. The above image is taken at the Whitney, but at the MoCa installation the proximity of the "stars" to one's head was very noticeable. The presence of the work leeches into your personal space, but it isn't unfriendly, in fact, it's quite pleasant and warm.

Moving through the space and to the right we encountered:

102 Colors from my Dreams, 102 Rorschach tests in unstained maple frames. This piece in the MoCa was a little more condensed and its randomness made me feel like it was filler. Jo & I agreed that we would have liked these a lot better if they were just "T-pinned" to the wall. The (what seemed like) cheap frames added a level of pretension that Finch didn't have in other works. Even now I'm considering the fact that the frames could have easily been those $5 ones from K-mart and I just don't see any purpose for them at all.

But in the next room the installation that we happened on next actually blew my mind and I adored it:

When we were coming in off the street into the museum I remarked to Katie and Jo that I loved things "like that," pointing to the outside of this installation, noting that it's something that is usually taken for granted as being part of the architecture and passed on by, well, passers by.

But I didn't know at the time (nor did I even realize it when I snapped the photo) that this was an installation by Finch. My own current obsession with windows required me to snap the photo. The above image isn't altered from the camera; the whole room was bathed in this incredible warm and comforting light: Candle Light, as he calls it. I could have spent my whole day in this room alone, wrapped in this warm reality. It was just so damned beautiful. It was an incredibly sensual experience.

MoCa says about Candle Light:
"In a gallery facing the museum's entrance courtyard, Finch will create a luminous wall of stained glass, one of two site-specific works created for MASS MoCA. In this yet-to-be-titled installation, the colored glass panes, a mix of yellow, red, and grey, will transform the sun's light into the intimate glow of a candle's flame."

Trying to remember the color of Jackie Kennedy's Pillbox Hat was both poignant and sweet. To me, it brought a reminder to a kind of world we once had or maybe to a world marketers have led us to believe we had. Either way, there aren't many ladies like Jackie O any more. Though the work could be considered fluff by some circles, I think that might have been the point -or maybe it wasn't. But it asked more questions than it provided answers and for me, that always makes art what it is.

There's only one more piece of Finch's that I'll discuss, though there were many other really good ones and bad ones that I could bore you with loving or hating.

On Finch's website he shows Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickenson, Amherst, MA) with the flourescent tubes outside of the camera view, but this image (screenshot from MoCa's site) is actually how you encounter the piece. It's light and looming at the same time. Jo and I carefully slid our bodies (as to not disturb the piece) underneath the sculpture to feel its presence above us. It was exactly like an open sky or dooming cloud. It was weird because you'd expect to feel confined with something like this six inches above your head, but it was strangely pleasant, almost familiar.

Onward to the rest of the museum...

The show-stealer of the second floor was most definitely tucked way in the back of an offshoot gallery. Theo Jansen makes these incredible wind-powered animals, or beasts, really, out of some sort of pipe and bottles. I suppose I should note that I favor well with materials that are left in their natural state but used for other purposes. This guy has it all... well, hell... see for yourself!

On display they had one of the "beasts" and it was just so cool. The duck tape Jansen used on the beast was beaten by wind, half fallen off, merely a residue of some wild beach experiment. The documentary video shows Jansen guiding, fixing, working with these "animals" who have obviously consumed his entire focus. Just gorgeous and exciting.

There was also this other story about Emery Blagdon, a vagrant for many years of his life until a death in the family granted him a home in Nebraska. He was diagnosed with cancer at some point and made "his pretties" which he also called his "healing machines."

"Blagdon believed that his deliberately and delicately constructed pieces, made from copper wire, foil, ribbon, beads, magnets, and other found items, in combination with small rhythmic or concentrically pattered paintings, generated an electromagnetic energy that could alleviate pain and prevent—perhaps even cure—disease. Blagdon arranged his machines and paintings in a manner that was to aid in the conduction of electromagnetic pulses in a shed he built on his farm in Nebraska. Intriguing as potential healing devices and captivating as art, the entire composition is at once challenging, alluring, and mysterious. Blagdon was 48 years old when he embarked on this project never knowing the journey his creation would eventually take." (source)
I also found some interest in about half of what the identity project Breyer P-Orridge created, example Amnion Folds:

I really enjoyed the ambiguity of this piece and another one of which I couldn't find an image. The other one was in a similar style but was only four panels of a nude woman's lower torso with crossed legs and fishnet stockings. In the top left and bottom right corners the top slit of the clitoris was visible and in the top right & bottom left, it was either hidden or an image of a different part of the body. The lines from the fishnets seemed to draw your eye to the center and away from it giving a nice push/pull effect. These were the most successful of the pieces.

There was a really well done "stairway" with kitschy little framed Jesus pictures all bordered with gold glitter above each "stair." I noticed that the very top stair's picture was a landscape and all the others were portrait. It was set up like a cross section of a home from maybe the 70s or late 60s with deep maroon wallpaper.

There were also these crazy wolf-head sculptures, all dolled up in ridiculous fake jewels and craft mirror pieces, feathers and dried flowers. Part midwestern housewife and part fetish club victim, the wolves' bloodied lips held daggers with their upturned throats allowing the blade to jut into space through the outstretched mouth and teeth. In one sculpture two wolves heads circled each other, one strung from the ceiling on a rotator and the other on a pedestal. The blade-tongues almost touch with each revolution, but not quite. There were some really successful metaphors overall.

Much of this work dealt with my favorite topics: kitsch, gender identity and sexual idiosyncrasies; I just felt that some of it was trite and overdone, or that it made either too much sense or not enough sense (in a not very good way). But maybe I just didn't get it. Or maybe I got it too much. I don't know.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the next installation to go up again. Next trip will be to the Fuller Crafts Museum in Stoughton, Mass. Jo was telling me about these cloth paintings that I need to see.


Jo said...

Gee Keri, I LOVE your review! I was there with you, and I feel like now I appreciate it more after reading about it! How strange is that? I noticed you got my ass in that pix...as I said. it's my best side! NOw, next time I have a show, PLEASE do a review on it! I LOVE that way you talk about art. I also love that fact that I have someone else to go see art with...it's no fun looking at stuff and making sarcastic remarks to myself about it. You are FUNNY girlfriend! I had a swimmingly good day. Good art, good friends, who could ask for anything more?

ellen said...

that's what i'm talkin about! Finch's Candle Light is subtle yet fills the space as if it were meant for it. I can feel the goodness. It doesn't act as a meuseum piece.

It seems the MoCa is better designed to display contemporary art vs. the SAM. Which makes me think about the function of sculptures/paintings. The "pretties" were made to heal, they had a function displayed in a certain setting. In a museum (to some extent galleries) they are just art objects. Do contemporary painters by default create artifacts? Installations are more involved, but paintings? should museums even bother worrying about this? there are plenty of other spaces for paintings. . .

by the way i totally dig nicole eisenman an all out painter.

oh, hi jo, glad you know keri. she's great eh?

keri marion said...


you'd really like jo..

Candle Light was just so experiential. I think that's what I enjoyed about it most; it wasn't pretentious, it just *is* what it is.

i'm gonna look up nicole eisenman because i love reading up on painters... i mean, we're a dying breed (i even contribute to the death!).


KAinAR said...

Hi Keri---Loved the review also. It was better than my internet visit to Mass MoCa. I'm with you on the Candle Light, that must have been really cool! It felt real to me here in Arkansas. Thanks for broadening my view of the world. Kathy

keri marion said...

"It seems the MoCa is better designed to display contemporary art vs. the SAM."

This might be true with most museums that are set up for specific agendas.

SAM, if I recall correctly, has on hand both art & artifact, so it's more like a regular museum that is meant to serve the community that primarily funds it.

It'd be interesting to see where funds for the museums we visit come from. Like, for instance, I know the Met in NYC is a suggested donation admission because it's funded by national tax dollars. They have special galleries set up for roaming exhibits that you pay a n additional fee to view because those exhibitions are *not* funded by tax dollars...

I don't know how much SAM gets from the state or the national government, but last I was there it housed a bunch of antiques, too.. not just art. That's also why I was a little shocked to see something as contemporary as Cai Guo-Qiang as the "lead in" to the museum.

It seems kind of out of place. "experience Cai Guo-Qiang's exploding cars, see abstract expressionists on the 2nd floor and the majestic 4century Buddha on the 3rd floor..."

I suppose with a little intention, one could create a time vessel using art history as the subject to move from floor to floor experiencing a lineal time line from contemporary to pre-colombian artifacts.

This is all just kind of generalized, though. I have been drinking a little beer tonight and I could be talking straight out of my ass, but I don't think so. Would I know?

I've got more to say. Certainly I do.