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The Here and Now

Cincinnati Art Museum welcomes 21c to Cincinnati

By Steven Rosen · February 8th, 2011 · Visual Art

Have you noticed that the Cincinnati Art Museum is becoming a pretty exciting — provocative, even — place lately, edgy and with a sense of experimentation, rather than stodgy and risk-adverse?

The next bold move in shaking things up is The Way We Are Now: Selections from the 21c Collection, now on view in CAM’s Schiff Gallery through May 15.

The exhibit’s very existence shows the museum can respond quickly to opportunity — shows often are scheduled a year or more in advance, but this one was announced just a few weeks before it opened. Louisville’s 21c Museum/Hotel, owned by contemporary-art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, is planning to open a branch in Cincinnati (downtown in the old Metropole Hotel), so it’s definitely timely. The show was curated by William Morrow, 21c’s museum director.

The exhibition, of about 70 pieces primarily made in this century, shows ever more clearly that CAM wants to be a major player — along with 21c and the Contemporary Arts Center — in presenting contemporary art in Cincinnati.

“This is the first one we’ve done with 21c, but hopefully there will be others,” the museum’s Chief Curator James Crump says. “As a curator looking at resources in this region, in terms of collections one might eventually borrow from for exhibitions or (working) together in a joint-venture fashion to acquire works or put shows together, this is something I’m interested in.”

The museum’s 21c show is similar in theme and even title to CAC’s recently concluded Where Do We Go From Here? Selections from La Coleccion Jumex, in that the international artists are out to poke, probe and confront you with their ideas on politics, race, identity issues, sexuality and repression.

And that they do. The video known as “Oh Mickey” by Mickalene Thomas, an African-American artist comfortable in various media who probes issues of identity, beauty and the role of gender in art, is hard to miss. In the middle of one gallery wall, it consists of an African-American woman nude but for striped athletic tube socks and red evening shoes, standing in a room that has a 1970s-urban look.

The “Oh, Mickey” chants — from the old Toni Basil hit song — are interrupted by a voice (Thomas’?) making comments like “You don’t understand.”

See many more photos from the exhibition here.
"Oh Mickey" by Mickalene Thomas

It’s sort of a taunt, but directed toward whom? Wall text informs us the piece is modeled on Balthus’1933 “La Toilette de Cathy,” in which a fully dressed man sits comfortably, perhaps invasively, as a nude woman passively prepares (with her maid’s help) her hair. I’d say Thomas’ piece (one of three of hers in the exhibit) is about “shifting the gaze,” empowering the nude woman in art to look and talk back to the artist and the viewer to avoid male idealization.

But it’s also personal, maybe even nostalgic. With wood-paneling, print upholstery and bold pillows, the room is a remembrance of the kind of places the artist knew growing up in Camden, N.J.

“I find the work very brash, very forward, very provocative,” Crump says. “She’s interested in not only how African-Americans have been perceived or represented in art but how they perceive themselves today.”

If The Way We Are Now has a signature piece, it would be “Fat Bat” by the French artist Virginie Barré, a sculpture of a rather portly costumed superhero (who looks a lot like Batman) suspended with aircraft cable over the walkway outside the gallery. Made of acrylic resin and leather, it’s cute and playful, but it has a bite to it that signals the piece as something more than mere Pop Art celebration.

“It is a provocative piece in its own right,” Crump says. “Perhaps we see it as less (of that) because it’s so funny. But what she’s trying to do is show us what a superhero in our own age would look like, and I think it’s also from a French perspective.

“So to me it’s kind of a critique of American obesity and the reach of American capitalism, with large corporations like McDonalds or Starbucks opening storefronts throughout Western Europe and certainly France. It’s a superhero probably well-intentioned but one who is overweight from too many donuts and American fast food.”

There are plenty of other pieces with a blunt political dimension. Dave Cole, a U.S. artist, has “Memorial Flag,” which is an American flag comprised of 18,000 red, white and blue toy soldiers. It’s a troubling image, turning the flag into a kind of death mask. The flag seems like sticky flypaper upon which the soldiers are stuck. And it’s made more sobering by the fact the piece’s dimensions match those of flags draped over the caskets of veterans.

Among some of the other politically charged pieces are American artist Al Farrow’s “Study for a Mosque Reliquary” and “Menorah VI,” both of which are sculptures made from steel, guns and bullets; Peruvian artist Jota Castro’s “Homeland Security,” made of steel and razor wire with three big gates on wheels, and Austrian artist Werner Reiterer’s untitled work, a green barrel marked “laughing gas” that releases some kind of emission into the air. I saw few people sniffing it, a comment on our politically paranoid times.

Among the photographs, three from Elena Dorfman’s series of silicon sex dolls and their human companions are especially striking. The dolls look so real. In “Rebecca 1,” a man lowers his head to one of the dolls’ chest as “she” looks blankly forward, lips as red as beets. Is some kind of evolution going on here?

Crump comments, “You can get really close to the surface of the picture and still ask yourself, ‘Is that what it is?’ People with plastic surgery and body augmentation look more and more like dolls. I was asking myself, ‘Is it in fact a doll or possibly human?’ ”

THE WAY WE ARE NOW: SELECTIONS FROM THE 21C COLLECTION is at Cincinnati Art Museum through May 15. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.


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