Exhibition at the Tang challenges us to look at Abstract Art with Fresh Eyes
By Rebecca Smith
Sunday, January 23, 2011
The Jewel Thief, currently on view at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, makes a persuasive argument for its theme and gives the viewer a great ride in the process. Co-curated by the artist Jessica Stockholder and Tang curator Ian Berry, the show “raises questions about art and display,” according to the curators’ statement. Abstraction is the thread that holds together an array of clamoring artistic voices, which for this viewer makes for an experience that is well worth the effort of the attentiveness it requires. It’s sort of like driving the station wagon with too many kids in the car— – love ‘em to death, but you know you can’t possibly give each of them the attention they deserve.
The art of Jessica Stockholder— a respected sculptor and a professor at Yale–deploys everyday objects into compelling installations that manage, despite a high-energy confluence of material, cultural reference, and vivid color, to achieve a satisfying integrity. In the same way, this exhibition draws on a raucous range of art works and presents them in a viewing space that enlists color and architectural additions to the viewing experience. Besides brightly painted sections of wall and carpet, large cube structures of graduated size have been introduced into the Tang gallery space as surfaces for art or supports for sculpture, or both (perhaps a visual pun on the notion of the plain white box— – which the Tang in this incarnation most definitely is not). Paintings are installed above each other, small and large mixed together, hanging up to roughly 20 feet high. A large Joan Snyder painting is seen partly on a white section, partly on a tomato red section of wall. A Sherrie Levine knothole painting overlaps a 9- foot photographic partial view of the sculpture located on the Tang grounds near the exterior side of the wall, which is by Dorothy Dehner (longtime Bolton resident and Skidmore art teacher). The Dehner sculpture, as well as several other works perched on a giant cube within the space, can only be seen from the building’s second story “bridge.” Well- known and lesser-known contemporary and older artists, as well as several whose works reside in the museum’s permanent collection, are presented with equal effectiveness to convey a vision of an abstraction of the everyday, in which a fluency of visual language is assumed. This is a challenging and intelligent show. Its visual language is not only of the art- historical brand but also the vernacular, such as camouflage and geometrical patterning. The chandelier — of which there a few variations, by Jorge Pardo, by Virgil Marti and by Stockholder herself — emerges as a sub-plot.
Stockholder is also represented by a metal staircase, highly colored platforms, and the design of the exhibition itself. Chris Martin shows us how straightforward painting can still say it all without venturing into the object world. Elana Herzog’s shredded fabric interventions into a plaster wall; Richard Rezac’s otherworldly sculptural objects; Stephen Dean’s revolving bookrack stocked with transparent, reflective, color rectangles, and the 1968 woven fabric piece by Ednah Root are all striking works.
Throughout the show a retro flavor occurs among these mid-20th century and early 21st century artists for whom it seems that 1950s’ colors, interior design tropes, and modernist geometric abstraction are either a shared experience (Dehner, Joan Mitchell, Anni Albers) or a shared memory (the baby boomers). Abstraction that was at one time regarded as utopian, elitest, and referencing specific moments of art history has by now been played out into mass culture and prevails as a lingua franca. This show gives us an abstract art that is heavily invested in dynamic form and popping color but is also very much connected to the social world, cleverly evoked by the complementary touches of décor—wedges of carpet, the light fixtures, and the incorporation of staircases into the show’s architecture.
The Jewel Thief is co-curated by Ian Berry, Susan Rabinowitz Malloy Curator of the Tang Museum, and Jessica Stockholder, Director of Graduate Studies in Sculpture at Yale University. It runs through February 27.
Smith is an artist who makes sculpture and tape drawing installations. She lives in New York City and Bolton Landing.