Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Weighty Matters in Contemporary Art at BYU Exhibit

BYU Museum of Art’s “Monumental Matters” with works by Rebecca Campbell (left), Mike Kelley (center) and Claudia Casarino (rear, right), photo by Shawn Rossiter

So light and airy, transparent even, is Claudia Casarino’s “El Otro Abrazo,” you might miss it, tucked away in the corner of the BYU Museum of Art’s exhibition Monumental Matters. A tulle blouse scaled up to fit an individual who would be several stories tall, it has been hung from the ceiling at the points of the shoulders and collar and lit in such a way that one can only with effort make out the mostly transparent blouse. Its shadow, cast on the white wall behind it, has more presence than the object itself. The elegant, white, gossamer-thin material projects resonances of rites of passage, religious and secular, and the piece works on the interplay of the female body and its representation: in this case an almost invisible presence.

Side view of Anselm Kiefer’s large untitled painting, photo by Shawn Rossiter

By contrast, Anselm Keifer’s encrusted, multi-paneled painting, stretching 25-feet across a gallery wall, feels so massively present, so weighty, you might think twice about standing beneath it. Kiefer, one of the best-known artists of the post-war generation, has, in a series of installations, sculptures and paintings created over the past two decades, put the materials in that oft-abused artspeak term, “materiality.” The untitled work at BYU, an autumnal scene of a river seen through a screen of trees, has been layered — almost as if from clay from the river — several inches thick with paint, shellac, lead, metal, and sediment. It so outscales the other works here, it imposes its own will, subsuming the viewer, dominating the room. Kiefer has long been obsessed with German Romanticism, as well as the 20th-century nightmares it spawned: and his themes, like the ones in this piece, run to ruins, religion and the specter of history. Centered, towards the top of the work, a massive open book doesn’t so much float as anchors itself into the work, threatening to pull the whole scene down.

George Baselitz, Kiefer’s compatriot and near contemporary, has also wrestled with his inherited history. He is best known for his early practice of inverted paintings, works hung upside-down so they at first appear as non-referential abstractions but eventually resolve themselves into portraits, landscapes and still lifes. With “Zero Mobil,” a 2014 sculpture, he plays with inversion of a different sort: one of scale and mood. The almost ten-foot long work weighs more than 200 pounds and is made of copper patinated to look like charred wood. The sculpture is in the form of a simple baby’s rattle, made macabre by the skull shape at one end; and it hangs, improbably, by a small chain, a few feet from the ground. A small, adorable item used to comfort children has been transformed into an imposing, oppressive and haunting presence.

This, at least, is how the work might be perceived, if it weren’t undermined by the unfortunate juxtaposition with the nearby sculptural installation of Mike Kelley. “Fallen Warrior,” from 2012, features what look like the scattered foot, sword and helmet of an ancient bronze statue, mounted on dark black plinths. But it’s Shelley’s Ozymandis as we might find him in Las Vegas: the entire installation is made of Styrofoam. Kelley’s piece is what the curators call a “pre-fab failure … a postmodern riff on the value our society places on the tattered relics of the past” — which is an apt enough reading; but its visual similarity to Baselitz’ work undermines the latter’s. And the curators undermine Kelley’s. Monumental Matters is framed as an exhibit not just about scale, but about the deep issues these contemporary artists explore. In their introduction to the exhibition, the curators talk about these works’ “commanding presence” creating “a space for deep thinking and heightened emotional experience.” But Kelley’s irony-laden, Gen-X riff seems tiresome in such a framework.

Detail from Paul Benney’s “Reliquary Series,” 2017, oil on resin on wood, 32 x 26 inches each panel.

As Paul Benney’s “Reliquary Series” proves, “commanding presence” can be undermined by factual inconsistencies as much as by ill-placed irony. The 2016 work is a series of dark paintings in oil and resin depicting a lit candle progressively diminished by its burning — a long-standing symbol for passing time in vanitas paintings. To create a more dramatic visual effect, the candle, in the fictional world of the paintings, has been placed in an inverted bell jar, so that it becomes enveloped in its own smoke until, in the final panel, nothing is left but vapor. But as every Boy or Girl Scout will tell you, fire needs three things, one of which is oxygen, and the glass covering would never hold enough of it for the candle to consume itself out before the flame itself was extinguished. It’s possible one could come up with metaphorical interpretations for the jar and the vapor, but the factual contradiction implicit in the paintings is the type of thing any editor will tell you will trip up an audience, get in their way of a response, emotional or intellectual.

Less objectionable, perhaps, are the factual disparities in the painting on the back wall by Rebecca Campbell. The perspective in Campbell’s painting is incorrect, or rather, it is multiple rather than single-point, allowing the viewer to see up into the top floor and down into the bottom. In this respect, Campbell is playing more with the storytelling frameworks than with reality itself, and the off-kilter perspective heightens the tension in what is an expressionistic rather than realistic painting evoking childhood trauma. Campbell is represented by another, completely different work. (In an exhibit of so few works and even fewer artists, it seems an unjustified misstep that Campbell’s heterogeneous works have taken up two scarce spots). “Two year supply: Clean” is more impressive than the painting, though it suffers somewhat from too many metaphors. Rows of mason jars are filled with window-cleaning product so that the installation ripples with shades of translucent blue. The mason jars and the work’s title reference the LDS practice of food storage (Campbell comes from a Mormon background), with its “prepper” overtones, while the cleaning products speak to ideas of worthiness and religious scrupulosity. Across this screen of supermarket minimalism, a projection — of the artist’s mother — is meant to play (though repeated visits to the exhibit prove this is not always the case). When it does, it muddies rather than elucidates the work.

In a museum not generally given over to works of such size or recent mint, Monumental Matters impresses, if it doesn’t always cohere. And for those who may not frequently leave the state, it is an opportunity to view and consider work by marquee names in the contemporary art world.

Georg Baselitz, “Zero Mobil,” 2014, copper, patinated 32 2/3 x 111 x 32 2/3 in

Monumental Matters, BYU Museum of Art, Provo, through Aug. 12

Tagged as:

1 reply »

  1. The argument that curators (a splendid misnomer if ever there was one) who don’t understand how works in close proximity affect each other (I think the word is “dialog”) probably don’t understand the works at all is valid and well made. I ponder sometimes what to say when a work is physically or scientifically bogus, like the candle under the bell jar, but I am reassured to see it questioned effectively and without offensive. I’ve always found Rossiter to be a graceful stylist with a mean ability to leave nothing out. This is a new side to one of my favorite critics, whose company I am humbled to find myself among.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.