A recent trip to Los Angeles museums left me exhilarated at the scale and imagination with which major contemporary artists are using non-traditional materials.
But the return here, followed by thinking about past and upcoming shows and activities, had me wondering if our younger artists have enough opportunities to ever make a similar impact with their work.
The local preoccupation with contemporary realism, especially in painting and sculpture, does not seem that relevant (though there are certainly exceptions) after this trip. “Contemporary” implies something more than recently made; it implies stretching ideas about art. I like new representational art but I see it as modern traditionalism, not — in Robert Hughes’ term — “the shock of the new.”
But I did ultimately find reason to believe at one of our scrappiest spaces, the Brighton co-op gallery called semantics. Upon going there after returning from L.A., I can’t underestimate its importance locally. It’s so underappreciated, especially as it launches its fundraising Year of Action (facebook.com/semanticsgallery).
More on that later. First, the Los Angeles trip:
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) joined with Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Guggenheim in New York this summer for a three-city presentation of work by 70-year-old artist James Turrell. The retrospective L.A. show has been selling out. And with good reason.
Turrell is a master of using light (and space) as his medium. At a time when so much that once had firm physical qualities (recorded music, print media) has turned virtual, he has taken something ephemeral and applied shape and color so we perceive it like a defined, two-dimensional abstract painting.
In sections of two separate buildings on the LACMA campus, Turrell had put his light creations in galleries.
The spaces, thus, are three-dimensional — the galleries being defined rooms. But the projected/programmed colored lighting completely changed them to the point where one could no longer be sure where the boundaries were. There was just the aura, the glow.
In some galleries, Turrell opened up spaces in the walls to create new, mysteriously beckoning chambers of light and color. You couldn’t always tell where these “space warps” began, or how big they were. Guards had to warn you to not get too close, lest you fall in. It culminated with the new Breathing Light Ganzfeld in which one could walk within an entire room of light. It felt infinite.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art – Grand Avenue, the first U.S. survey of the Swiss-born, U.S.-based Urs Fischer was underway. And it was a long way from traditionalism.
Taking unusual materials — and unusual ways to display work in a museum — to extremes, Fischer displayed a cabin made from loaves of sourdough bread; a plate of molding cheese impaled by an oversized screw; several worse-for-wear skeletons posed over beat-up objects or otherwise commanding attention; and much more impish strangeness.
The museum’s gallery walls had been battered and broken through, exposing large holes you could walk through or jump over. Around you, all manner of objects were in various states of suspension.
He has detractors, but I watched as the museum patrons quizzically but intriguingly responded to the show. This kind of art has impact — especially when the artist has the “establishment’s” support and ample resources to work big.
With these shows in mind, I returned to Cincinnati and wondered where the satisfying exhibits are locally that let artists move toward that goal of working big. And I wandered into semantics’ recent Basic Needs exhibit on a Saturday afternoon. The gallery has been around for 20 years and isn’t usually crowded, except for openings.
The show, put together with minimum publicity, highlighted artists with a recent or current University of Cincinnati school of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning connection. The first thing that hit me was an unusual smell — the milk inside the intravenous bags of Rebecca Carpenter’s “Aesculapean Family” wall piece had gone sour. That effect wasn’t planned, but I thought of Fischer’s work — beauty and discomfort, expressed through unusual materials combined into a mysterious whole.
But Basic Needs had other unconventional, striking pieces, too. Allison Smith’s gorgeously subtle “What Remains” and “Bed” used the cells of living things — seedpods, bees — in new ways, and there was also arresting work from Julie Ward, Jenny Nunley, Kiki Hunter Avalos and others.
Semantics offered me a whole group of worthy local contemporary artists to track in the future. I have a feeling we may see bigger things from them. And we should also pay greater attention to this crucial local gallery.
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