Two years ago, when Todd Pavlisko was in the process of creating his installation Crown by having a sharpshooter fire bullets past the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Icons of the Permanent Collection exhibit into a brass cube, there were questions to raise.
I had some myself at the time, worrying about the symbolism of firing a rifle in a public place, whatever the purpose, in a time and country where schools, churches, movie theaters and shopping malls are all too often the sites of mass murder. And, for that matter, a country where we have to defend the safety of those places from an extremist gun-use lobby that wants to be free to carry loaded weapons anywhere.
But I also saw a point, and potential power, to the conceptual installation that Pavlisko envisioned: The beauty of the artistic treasures displayed in Icons is eternal, even if time for mere mortals passes “faster than a speeding bullet.” Yet, art’s existence is constantly threatened in the permanently violent world represented by the bullet.
If his high-speed-camera crew could film and then, using slow motion, show us the bullets’ path in such a way as to make us think about that, Crown could work.
Pavlisko, a native of Oxford, Ohio, who attended Carnegie Mellon University and now lives in New York, has a history of thinking big in his conceptual projects. He seemed up for the task.
Now that the show has opened, those who continue to question its propriety as a Cincinnati Art Museum exhibit seem off base. Contemporary art takes all different forms and uses all types of materials (or, sometimes, no materials other than the human body).
The presentation of Crown as a finished work of art is done safely and legally, so it’s legitimate for a museum to present.
As to the issue of whether it’s right to display images of a gun (or violence) in an art museum, just look around. There’s a long history of it.
But there is, however, the question of whether Crown works. Not so much.
The 24-by-24-by-24-inch bronze cube, with two sides penetrated by narrow projectiles and two others bearing slight bulges as if the bullets had tried to break out, is an affecting piece of sculpture in its own right. Right in the middle of the Great Hall, it stops you. And it references, as the exhibit’s provided information says, Minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd.
The rest of Crown, however, lacks that visual power. The sound-and-video portion has been installed in the Icons exhibit in the Schmidlapp Gallery — a long corridor. Eight monitors, four on each side, are along the black-fringe curtains that separate the individual “iconic” paintings and other objects, like Warhol’s “Soup Can (Cream of Mushroom),” Gainsborough’s “Ann Ford, Later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse” and a marble “Reclining Female Figure” from ancient Greece.
Each monitor, or screen, plays its own short video loop. Each loop is comprised of separate quick images that, when taken together, try to capture the experience of watching the bullet travel about 150 feet from the gun past art to the cube. (You have to move among the monitors to take it all in.)
You can also hear the repeated rifle shots from a speaker, and it’s sort of like the crack of thunder. Some people will find it intrusive, although it reminded me of old television westerns where bad guys are shooting from the hills — a curiously nostalgic memory.
I counted maybe four screens where I could see the bullets in flight past the art, and only two monitors where that was absolutely clear. And there were too many images of the sharpshooter, in his Madras shirt, positioned behind Hiram Powers’ neoclassical marble statue of a nude, “Eve Disconsolate.”
Maybe it was just too demanding a task for the camera crew to capture and present that movement continuously. But as a result, that portion of Crown doesn’t resonate, certainly not in the way Harold Edgerton’s “Bullet Through Apple” photograph, a reference point for Pavlisko, does.
Yet, as the exhibit material informs us, those bullets “now contain the history of the objects they have passed, and by transference the history of the institution. … The history of art represented by Icons now slams directly into the brass cube with its nod toward Modernism.”
That’s an interesting idea, but if you can’t see it, then you can’t feel it. Crown is conceptually provocative, but is overthought for what it actually presents to us.
Crown is on display through June 15. More information: cincinnatiartmuseum.org.
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