Thursday, April 28, 2011

Singular Visions at The Whitney

The Whitney has provided an installation that intensifies the viewer-artwork relationship. Singular Visions, a twelve-piece summation of contemporary art’s forty-seven year journey to its current condition, has renovated the viewing experience by giving each piece it’s own room to accommodate its size, technique and concept. This regal approach allows the artwork to properly marinate within the viewer. The Whitney re-released these pieces from their permanent collection to remind the art community of its accomplishments and challenge it to reinvent some of its expired practices. The journey of contemporary art is best memorialized by the work of Gary Simmons, Ree Morton and Edward Kienholz.

Gary Simmons’ “Step Into the Arena completed in 1994 is similar to his previous “erasure” work, which incorporates white chalk drawings on slate painted surfaces. However, the artist incorporated his drawing technique to sculpture, which resulted in a white boxing ring with a black canvas floor, theatrically lit from above as if something greatly entertaining just ended. In it’s own space, the ring transforms the innocent viewers into suspicious spectators of a ghostly sport. The floor of the ring is marked with chalked foot instructions to the Cakewalk, a dance popular during the years plagued by slavery. Pairs of black tap shoes are tied to the roped perimeter of the ring increasing the feeling of recent abandonment. With adequate reflection it becomes clear that the installation is loaded with the racial and social disadvantages heavily burdening Simmons. A white cage has been made to entrap the black flooring. The chalk marks, although fine and two dimensional, lay heavily on the elevated, stage-like flooring. The rich blackness of the floor is polluted with the smeared white chalk and bound by the immaculate white structure around it. Simmons also includes a secondary commentary addressing the oppression of essentialism; a philosophy that claims everything has a definite purpose cementing them to a painfully narrow existence. Like a boxer, Simmons found himself defensive and fighting to break free of his imposed singular definition.

“Signs of Love” first exhibited by artist Ree Morton in 1976 is a piece that brilliantly displays the benefits of the one-room one-piece arrangement currently utilized by the Whitney. Morton entered the art world late in her life and did so with originality and sincerity. Her ten years of creative construction was interrupted by an untimely death in 1977. However, Morton’s work continues to pulsate with her artistic energy. “Signs of Love” is as bold as a broadway set design, but emits a sensitivity typically felt in the warmth of a home or in the innocence of new love. Materials ranging from wall paint and tape to ladders and garland make the installment an interesting piece serving as both a painting and a sculpture. The freedom in which she handled mediums allowed for honest, interactive and penetrating artwork. The attention given to decorative elements such as bow ties and picture frames, make the piece visually poetic; it’s revealing yet still obscured by its minimalistic approach. Undeniably feminine, “Signs of Love” seems to make an individual rather then political statement. It reads as a personal reflection of how love and womanhood are experienced based on the experiences unique to the artist.

Edward Kienholz’s “The Wait,” is a main attraction in this group exhibition. There is an immediate curiosity that is only nurtured by the questioning observers. The scene is familiar but unnerving, composed of aged materials, furniture and other oddities. Kienholz, who lives and works in New York City, collected from piles of discarded objects deemed unfit or useless to the owner with the intention of making recognizable scenes that swell with social criticism. A scene that can only be viewed from the front forces the viewer to confront the central figure whose lifelessness is haunting but delicate. The observers are positioned outside the woman’s space but the desire to intrude surges as you silently investigate. A woman made of animal bone and completed with a small, glass-covered photograph as a head, sits below a sizeable portrait of her husband. The title suggests she is waiting, but for what? The portrait of her husband seems to memorialize him. The fullness of his mustache and liveliness in his eyes makes him younger then his widow who continues to live, but does so painfully alone. Kienholz subject is a victim of her seemingly endless wait for death and the universal loneliness that erodes the human spirit in death’s wake. The barely recognizable objects, once members of homes and families, stand renewed and transformed as reminders of the dark realities of humanity.

The Whitney has taken a step forward in changing the way people interact with art. Twelve pieces, chosen for their unique representation of contemporary art from the past forty-seven years, occupy twelve different rooms. Allowing an individual piece to be the singular focus of a room permits the art to stand in its most powerful state. The observer’s personal reflections are intensified by this exhibits purity. Gary Simmons’ “Step Into the Arena (the Essentialist Trap),” Ree Morton’s “Signs of Love” and Edward Kienholz “The Wait,” are evidence of such success. The grand scale of the work is matched by their compelling concepts, making them suitable for such an imperial exhibit.

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