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Saturday, August 29, 2020

MASS MoCA, at last

A view of James Turrell's Into the Light at MASS MoCA
A recent survey reported that just 13% of Americans are happy - the other 87%, may simply need a visit to MASS MoCA.

A lot of people hear the words "contemporary art" and immediately think they can't relate (why they seem to think they can relate better to 19th-century art - i.e. Monet - is beyond me). But the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams is so friendly, and the art there so fresh and varied, that I believe it could make many converts of those stodgy grumps.

On a recent (much delayed) foray, my wife and I viewed nine exhibitions (among many others), and we really had a good time doing it. Need I explain that the place is huge, with nine buildings and some spaces so vast they might be better measured in acres than square feet? So it requires stamina, and a lot of time, if you want to try to see it all.

Blane De St. Croix - Hollow Ground 2020
(seen during site-specific installation)
The primary temporary show, entitled How to Move a Landscape, features several monumental works by Blane De St. Croix, an eco-artist committed to battling climate change by making art about the effects it can have in far-flung places, such as above the Arctic Circle. It also includes a great deal of smaller-scale work, covering a range of media from drawing to sculpture, installation, animation, and video, in addition to a research section that offers sketches, photographs, and other ephemera.

Unlike most political artists, De St. Croix hasn't lost his sense of humor - much of his work is quite playful, even as it confronts our pending global disaster. Notable in this regard is an electric train set that runs in a circle near the entrance to the exhibition, piercing a wall tunnel-like twice as it goes round and round. Its cars are loaded with modeled tranches of tundra, neatly offering a solution to the show's titular problem.

This witty miniature is balanced by a massive, tilting construction in the huge gallery beyond that looks for all the world like a life-size swath of melting glacier, which you can perambulate and walk under, and even poke your head up into (via some of its melty craters). Technically, De St. Croix's sculptural illusion is effective, yet it's also obviously a physically challenging bit of installation. Entitled Hollow Ground, I found it very likable and, frankly, far more interesting live than it looks in pictures.

Ad Minoliti - Fantasias Modulares
Underscoring De St. Croix's emphasis on scale is a "monumental miniature" entitled Broken Landscape IV that depicts a long, deep slice of the U.S./Mexican border. The meticulously crafted sculpture stands eye-high, and is dozens of feet long, with tiny details of grass, telephone wires, and, of course, the barrier fence marching along its surface.

Near the sprawling St. Croix exhibition is a relatively small one-room installation by the Argentine artist Ad Minoliti that more than makes up for its size by deploying great swaths of cartoon-bright colors. Indeed, Minoliti is something like Disney for the cultural elite (that's us, dear reader!), and served on this visit as a delightful palate cleanser as we moved on through the museum.

Ledelle Moe, whose massive concrete heads and figures occupy the famously football field-sized Building 5, is another sculptor utilizing scale to powerful effect. Entitled When, the installation seems to impose silent contemplation on its viewers, similar to the awestruck effect of standing in a vast temple or cathedral.

Ledelle Moe - Remain  at left; Congregation at right
While this collection includes works from as early as 2005, the show's central piece is current. 2019's Remain is an 18-foot-high kneeling female figure that evokes the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. In addition to the figure, Remain incorporates a complex scaffolding of metal rods that support innumerable small concrete forms of uncertain identity. The sculpture is deeply impressive even while remaining rather mysterious, as is the rest of the work in this show.

Another sprawling exhibition currently at MASS MoCA, entitled Kissing through a Curtain, engages with questions of communication, crossing borders (its 10 artists come from all over the world), and - obliquely - our current crises of COVID and racial injustice. Unfortunately, I found the work simply didn't engage my interest, much of it seeming to try too hard.

Justin Favela - Popocatepetl e Iztaccihuatl vistos desde Atlixco,
after Jose Maria Velasco
, 2016

In one example, Justin Favela's painstaking paper and glue renderings of numerous landscape paintings by Jose Maria Velasco, which are provided as a starting point for the show, come off as merely colorful kitsch. In another, Kim Faler has suspended a panoply of enlarged sculptural renderings of chewed wads of bubble gum. Are you kidding me? In the end, I couldn't find the inspiration to care about any of these artists' obsessions.

On the other hand, the Them and Us/Ellos y Nosotros exhibition by the Mexican-American artist ERRE (aka Marcos Ramirez), communicates and engages effectively across languages and and borders, using varied media while literally straddling the frontier between Tijuana and San Diego.

I loved this show for its audacity in making art out of common materials such as printed metal signs, cloth fabric, wood, neon, and kernels of corn, and for its liberal incorporation of the Spanish language (significantly, there are more than 50 million Spanish speakers in the U.S., though it is still not an official language here).

ERRE - Orange Country
ERRE (the written rendering of the Spanish rolled "r") is an ingenious creator whose installation at MASS MOcA incorporates a full-scale re-creation of a section of border wall as a divider between the show and the rest of the space on the second floor of Building 6 (a fabulous building, by the way, which opened about three years ago and is gorgeous all by itself).

His messages are both simple and complex, featuring a mysterious video of a fictional desert crime scene, proverbs presented as shimmering metallic-colored eye charts, a four-poster bed with a map of Mexico in pounded nails, and an elegant but deeply chilling curved cage. For me, this is what political art strives to be, but so rarely succeeds.

Wendy Red Star - Medicine Crow
More educational than political, but very pointedly cultural, is an exhibition in MASS MoCA's Kidspace gallery by the Native American artist Wendy Red Star. In Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird, Red Star uses altered archival photographs to examine historical truths about her Apsáalooke (Crow) nation, and creates large-format color self-portraits that debunk stereotypical views of Native Americans.

Not just for children, this work is witty, well crafted, and draws you in. Though a timed reservation for the smallish Kidspace is recommended, we were allowed to walk in, as the space wasn't at capacity. Also, it's possible to visit just the Kidspace gallery without paying admission to MASS MoCA, should you so desire.

Speaking of planning ahead, in these pandemic days one must set up a timed entry ticket to visit MASS MoCA (and masks are, of course, required) but it's such a huge space that keeping adequate distance once inside is no problem. I found it easy to reserve a timed arrival window online, and when we got there a few minutes late due to road construction delays, we were ushered in with a welcoming smile.

More urgently, to view James Turrell's truly extraordinary exhibition Into the Light, one must gain a specific timed entry slot by "purchasing" a free ticket online. If you do, you will be treated to an immersive experience unlike anything you've ever been through (see images at top and bottom of this post). In it, your retinas will get a bit of a workout, and your cones (the color receptors) will be having a ball.

An example of a James Turrell hologram
Turrell is a light sculptor. How do you sculpt with light? Turrell does it by creating smooth, deep, white spaces and then washing them with liquid color. The illusions thus created are mesmerizingly potent. In one of the works constructed at MASS MoCA (and officially scheduled through 2025, though we were told that was extended to 2042), you enter the space and see effects both inside it (i.e. around yourself and the others in there with you) and outside its entrance (where the colors change magically in response to your eyes' mechanisms). It's hard to describe, but unforgettable.

Additionally, there are quite a few other works by Turrell, including about half-a-dozen holographic projections, numerous very sleek architectural models of his plans for lightworks inside a crater he owns in Arizona, and several other individual light sculptures, one of which resembles a snowy black-and-white TV screen (though it is actually a shaped, empty void). Some of these require that you enter a darkened space through labyrinthine path, and then let your eyes adjust. Others work in ambient light, creating spatial illusions that are simply fascinating. Go and see for yourself.

Note: Ledelle Moe's When is scheduled to end on Jan. 3, 2021, and ERRE's Them and Us will run through summer 2021, while the other shows we viewed appear to be ongoing, either without a published ending date or with one very far in the future.

It's also worth noting that When and Them and Us are curated by Susan Cross, who is the juror of this year's Mohawk-Hudson Regional Exhibition, set to open at the Albany Institute of History & Art on Sept. 19.

A view of James Turrell's Into the Light at MASS MoCA








1 comment:

John Rowen said...

David: That was a flowing, insightful and witty article about MASS MoCA. Describing a James Turrell experience is pretty hard but you did a good job of it. I also liked seeing Justin Favela's paper creations based on another landscape painter's works.

A few years ago, we drove over to MASS MocA. On the way into the museum, we were at a stop light. A woman pulled up in a vintage station wagon and had her dog in the passenger seat. They were two happy "people" and I wish I had had the presence of mind to take a photo or video of them.