Friday, December 16, 2011

Revision Sherrie Levine Mayhem

My first inclination after reading the text accompanying Sherrie Levine’s exhibition, “Mayhem” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was to disregard it. The title I found to be relevant to Levine’s work because of the large array of works in Levine’s ouerve, but I felt that the goal of the curators was to convey to the viewer that the artist’s point is to honor the masters who came before her. This idea seems to puts the wrong context around the work. Levine’s work is less about exalting previous artists and more about asking the viewer to question the validityof that art., pertaining to the question of why the master’s work is important. By appropriating or reinterpreting master’s works, Levine pushes the boundaries of art in an almost comical way. She reexamines pieces that are influential and interprets them in ways that make them seem humorous. Levine uses parts of ideas from masters works and creates pieces which push the boundaries of what art can be. In doing this Levine has become known for appropriation and the critique of authorship in art. In this exhibition the pieces ask the viewer a series of questions; Is this art? What makes this art? Who’s art is it? By asking these questions and several others the artist challenges the accepted system of art and proposes that viewers open their minds to the possibilities of art.

The exhibition is arranged into five rooms, each containing several replications of works by well known, influential, and recognizable artists. The artists include Marcel Duchamp, Walker Evans, Gustave Courbet, Man Ray, as well as others.

The first piece you encounter when entering the exhibition space is a series entitled “After Walker Evans”. Levine rephotographed photos taken by the artist, during the Depression era and displayed them in such a way that when encountering them all together an interference pattern becomes visible. The photographs blending together when viewed as one piece calls into question the importance of the individual works.

Settled next to this series is a piece entitled “Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp)” Levine replicates the infamous Duchamp readymade “Fountain” but has cast this version in bronze. Levine’s version of the readymade combines Duchamp’s gesture of appropriating an everyday object with the materials of a colleague Constantin Brancusi. By merging the two, Levine’s piece is paying homage to the lineage of the masters but also calling into question authorship and what makes an artwork belong to a specific artist, if that work can be replicated by another.

Levine has a knack for choosing a particular pieces from an important artist and recreating those pieces in such a way that makes the work unique. For example, in the second gallery twelve eerily lit skulls are placed in wood and glass panelled boxes in the center of the room. The artist is responding to the European still life tradition in which artists used skulls to depict the presence of death. Levine begins to pokes fun at this concept by placing the skulls in repetition so that the gallery has become a place where one could come gather supplies in order to create a still life, as if the skulls were an everyday commonplace object. The repetition of the skulls places the context of vanitas, or the presence of death, as inconsequential because they reference the idea that death happens constantly and is not of any consequence.

In the piece “La Fortune”, after a painting by surrealist artist Man Ray, Levine has reworked the imagery from a two dimensional surface into a three dimensional, functional object. In Levine’s version four, life size billiard tables occupy almost the entire space of the middle gallery. When entering this space I felt dwarfed by the presence of the tables. There are fairly wide rows between each table but the colors and materials used have an ominous feel to them because of their scale, color and presence in the room. Levine blurs the line between the reality of an actual pool hall and a minimalist sculptural installation. Out of the context of the gallery the works would be likened to nothing more than pool tables used in a familiar pastime except that the tables aren’t functional at all, they have no pockets. This calls into question the idea of the importance of the gallery space or context in which art is seen and if art can be functional or not.

Overall the exhibition was enlightening and the questions the artist wanted to convey through her work were apparent. It was also exciting to have the opportunity to guess who each work was created to copy. What I found confusing is that the curators of the exhibition, seem to have interpreted, at least in my opinion, the ideas behind Levine’s work in a way that is inconsistent with what the work is actually about. The works in the exhibition were not about honoring the master but trying to convey the idea of questioning the validity of the works presented. Maybe it is presumptuous to assume that what I interpreted the works to be is more correct than the way in which the curators have interpreted it, but I did not understand the work in the way that the curators seem to have expected. What I understtood from the exhibition was something different than what was outlined in the texts accompanying the work. Instead of honoring the masters who came before, Levine’s work probed the viewers with questions about why we exalt certain artists, or aspects of art. The artists works stand for themselves and make statements without the need of texts to accompany them. The exhibition clearly ask viewers to believe in the validity of art because of the accepted norms within the art world, however what was conveyed were comments on the validity of those works, if taken out of the context of the canon and those accepted norms.

1 comment:

  1. I think you do a great job of explaining how you interpreted the work, and you definitely make it clear that your way was different than how the curators wrote about the show. You give good examples, but I think you could make the difference even clearer. Maybe you could quote the wall text or specific choices the curators made that you did not understand. I especially like your paragraph about the vanities skulls, because I thought the same thing when I viewed the exhibition. I also felt like she was furthering referencing Warhol, whocalso played with the idea that death is so commonplace, anyhow this effects the psyche of people living.