I am swayed by beauty and this show had no shortage of it, but I remind myself at the outset of this review that my criteria for an effective show is its ability to provoke thought, ask questions, and offer compelling visual ideas. In this case, I found Dahn Vo’s mid-career survey as a whole to fall short of those standards, partially due to the gap between the different works and their ambitions.
The show starts on the main floor and as the viewer ascends the spiral, she surveys objects from diverse backgrounds subject to varying levels of manipulation. For example, a Virgin Mary statue is cut in half and haphazardly shoved into a duffle bag, and Budweiser boxes are gilded and decorated with calligraphy. With objects ranging from family refrigerators to engraved tusks, Vo draws from his origins in a colonized, christianized, war-torn Vietnam. He wishes not just to challenge the idea of canonized art in an institution, but to challenge the idea of “fine art” as objects commodified and reshaped from other cultures in order to bring self-awareness to viewers in New York, a part of the fraught history of post-colonialism.
These are admirable goals, but there is a surplus of work, and between them conceptual gaps very wide (enough that they rely too heavily on an eloquent New York Times’ article to justify a connection). How do mirrors with text from the movie The Exorcist quotes relate to a wig on display on the floor, or to old farming equipment paired with American flags hanging from a corner of the Guggenheim? They may sincerely relate in the artist’s mind, but with the lack of any system to navigate this body of work, a sense of confusion is the result between what this work hopes to accomplish and what it actually accomplishes.