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Provocative Lectures at Our Art Museums

By Steven Rosen · March 9th, 2011 · The Big Picture

In recent weeks, there have been some thought-provoking guests at our art museums. I’ve attended talks by the French superstar street artist/photographer JR at Contemporary Arts Center and renowned architect Billie Tsien, who is designing the new Barnes Collection building in Philadelphia, at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Both offered ideas and comments worthy of further discussion.

Tsien is facing a real conundrum. The late Albert Barnes, an eccentric industrialist, decreed his world-class collection of Impressionism be displayed on the walls of his mansion in such a crammed, cramped manner that, Tsien says, visitors now have problems viewing it. Yet, Tsien is mandated to repeat that same installation in the new building. Shouldn’t she go public in opposition to that?

Meanwhile, the JR presentation was especially timely. And packed. He came to Cincinnati for the opening of CAC’s Keith Haring: 1977-1982 exhibit, in tribute to the importance of the late Haring as a pioneering guiding light of street art. He was also en route to the TED conference in Long Beach, where he was to announce that he would spend his $100,000 TED Prize on “The Inside Out Project,” where anyone can upload a photo of themselves for JR and receive a ready-for-the-streets poster back. (There’s already a Web site for the project, www.insideoutproject.net.)

Not bad for a young guy who, to create an aura of mystery (and to thwart arrest for his often-illicit street-art activities), won’t divulge his real name and wears sunglasses at public appearances.

JR got his start posting an enlarged black-and-white photograph of several black young men, one holding a shotgun-like video camera outward, on a wall in a working-class Parisian suburb.

In 2005, when riots struck the neighborhood, the media discovered this confrontational poster in a place they never much cared about previously. It seemed prophetic and compelling.

He went on to Israel/Palestine with a project to support brotherhood. After taking extreme close-ups of the faces of residents of both nationalities, usually making a humorous or exaggerated expression, he pasted the enlargements on walls in both Israel and the West Bank. Working without official permission, he managed to perplex and delight his wary, unsuspecting audiences.

JR spent a lot of time at CAC explaining the positive response to this project, which is a good result, especially in that part of the world. But overall the project seems a pretty safe, uninspired idea for street art — too close to a corporate feel-good advertising campaign by Benetton.

JR’s newer work has been more interesting, with a more understated message and greater sense of design, drawing from Christo’s outdoor environmental projects as much as Haring. Working in a hillside favela in Brazil and a Kenyan shantytown bordering railroad tracks, he and a crew paste poster-size photographs of residents on buildings, hillside stairs (that would work great here) and other places they can be seen from afar.

If not voice, the work gives “face” to the anonymous residents. And in Kenya, residents have even used the posters as roofs. A New York Times story raises an interesting question, however — should he be paying his subjects as models?

Currently in Los Angeles, city of eternal youth, JR is pasting up huge “wrinkles” posters depicting elderly faces. And he says he is finding a new problem. City officials are confusing his art with outdoor advertising, raising yet another question. Should art seek to imitate billboards or get rid of them?

Photo by Scott Beseler, courtesy CAC 

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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