'Looking for the Black Cat' is too much work
"For the Blind Man in the Dark Room Looking for the Black Cat That Isn't There" is not, as some of us might have guessed, the name of a new play by Ntozake Shange, but of the current exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. It comprises a smorgasbord of art, most of it recent, assembled by the Museum's chief curator, Anthony Huberman.
The title comes from a remark Charles Darwin supposedly made, deprecating mathematicians and their search for knowledge that is often less than concrete; and Huberman takes that quest as a virtue, comparing the mathematician's aims to the artist's. His basic idea is that art can place us in a productive state of uncertainty, of "not-knowing," and that this lack of certainty is, in itself, a kind of knowing, or at least an analogy for how we actually comprehend things.
"Darwin mocked the mathematician's inability to describe the physical world in anything but abstract and speculative terms," Huberman writes in a gallery handout. "But artists also understand the world in speculative terms. With their help, we can learn to enjoy the experience of not-knowing and the playfulness of being in the dark."
The premise is compelling, to be sure, although it also seems exceptionally vague as the basis for choosing art to exhibit. One strains to think of artists who give us absolute certainties in their work.
First, a Cat
But the show starts out strong, with a sound piece by the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, Interview with a Cat, 1970, playing on a single speaker affixed to a wall in the museum's lobby.
In it, the artist discusses paintings with a cat, who responds, naturally, by meowing. The work is funny, with Broodthaers's earnest queries met by caterwauling, as if he were squeezing his pet. That he conducts the discussion mostly in French does not lessen its comic appeal, and, while listening I broke out into a Cheshire Cat grin of my own.
Yet this is serious fun; at one point Broodthaers says, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe), making reference to the inscription on Belgian Surrealist René Magritte's famous 1929 painting La Trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), which, in fact, pictures a pipe and thus throws into question not only representation, but the epistemological convictions we take for granted.
Interview with a Cat also humorously skewers the pretentions of Joseph Beuys' performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), in which the German artist made mystical twaddle of art's place in society.
Then the Dark
The dark first room of "For the Blind Man ..." holds only a projector showing Flash in the Metropolitan, 2006, by Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer, an English artist duo. They shot their film in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in unlit galleries, using only a strobe, and it features alternating moments of blackness and vignettes of artifacts that appear in bright light and then fade out again.
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They highlight mostly ancient stone and ceramic objects in this way -- a circumstance due in part, no doubt, to the museum's restrictions on blindingly illuminating more sensitive materials such as oil paint on canvas -- and they succeed in making artifacts from the distant past strange and mysterious once more. At the same time, they make us uncertain as to what we actually have seen, as those things flicker momentarily before our eyes and disappear before incising themselves upon our memory.
Between rooms, a 17th-century book open to a double-page engraving of a Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities, seems to equate a nobleman's collection of oddities -- a taxidermy crocodile hangs upside down from the ceiling; stuffed birds and fish line the walls -- with the exhibit of modern and contemporary art before us, but instead of the quasi-scientific display intended to impart some kind of objective knowledge of the fauna of parts unknown, Huberman intends to give us the opposite.
In the next gallery, he does, with Rachel Harrison's Voyage of the Beagle, Two, 2008, a row of 58 framed photographs of mostly heads -- representations of heads, that is, from a Roman portrait bust to Wolfgang Puck's visage on a can of soup, from decaying garden statues to cracked mannequins, from Barbie to some sort of ceramic figurine of a cat in an Elizabethan ruff. The lineup suggests a nonsensical taxonomy, distantly parodying Darwin's morphological observations, which gave rise to his theory of evolution.
Three of Harrison's sculptures, column-like affairs covered in her signature pearlescent stucco, stand nearby, sporting accoutrements: a single ski leans against an upright block slathered in indigo; a pale buttery-yellow one has a blue rectangle painted across one corner and a framed mirror printed with an image of Shakin' Stevens hung on one side; a third, in bubblegum pink, supports a hammer and a plastic lemon.
This juxtaposition of incongruous found objects with chunky structures forms a staple of Harrison's art and produces a pleasurable bemusement -- just the sort of thing, one suspects, that Huberman is after. Yet, while Harrison's combinations of disparate items confound interpretation, they have begun to feel programmatic, familiarly unfamiliar.
Needed: a Bench
Fauna, or at least people dressed in animal suits, figure in Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss' video The Right Way, 1983, projected on another wall in the room. This 55-minute work depicts a giant, potbellied rat and panda bear capering through Alpine landscapes like a pair of overgrown plush toys left outdoors too long.
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During the time I watched, they put rocks on their heads to imitate geologic formations, explored a cave with torches, and ran a waterfall on their backs before floating downstream through a tree-lined canyon while holding onto a log. At one point, Rat drags Bear though a meadow, forages for mushrooms and catches a fish with his "bare" paws. Slightly later, he rather violently captures a small pig. Throughout, the two characters converse with each other in solemn, subtitled German about childhood memories, the blame for their predicaments, and the origins of animals. The pseudo-serious silliness calls to mind an episode of Barney & Friends re-enacted by survivalist philosophers.
Regrettably, however, the video looks terrible. Projected too large in a too-bright room, the image is washed out and often hard to decipher. To add insult to injury, despite the video's length, there is nowhere to sit. Would a bench have been too much to ask for? Really?
Surely, the Contemporary Art Museum does not expect visitors to stand for nearly an hour on the cement floor to watch the work, which means that we are only ever supposed to see snippets of it. I don't know why museums do this, although many do. In effect, they second-guess the artists, telling us, "We know better than they do. You only need to see bits of the work of art to understand it. The rest is superfluous." It's condescending and it's objectionable. I stood watching The Right Way for about 20 minutes until my back began to ache. Then I moved on.
Meaning of Morandi
Along with the works by Harrison and by Fischli and Weiss in this room, a gorgeous little painting by Giorgio Morandi, Still Life, 1953-54, borrowed from the Saint Louis Art Museum, depicts three objects -- two vases and a cup -- lined up in a row. Painted methodically but incisively in muted, grayed hues, this portrait of painfully ordinary things practically vibrates with quiet intensity.
But what is a classic work by a famous Modern artist doing in a show of contemporary art about uncertainty? Morandi is a known quantity. Reams of interpretation have been written to account for his obsessive practice of painting just a few household items over and over again within the confines of his Bologna apartment. Biographical details, including his devotion to Mussolini and fascism, constitute territory equally well trod. So, to fit Morandi's painting into the exhibit's argument seems a stretch.
In the elliptical and overdesigned catalogue that accompanies the show, Huberman makes a case for reading the dogged repetitiveness of Morandi's practice itself as a sign of profound "not knowing." He writes, "To paint a bottle sitting next to a jar, [Morandi] seemed to say, would always be a speculative process that he would never understand," and suggests that the artist painted his objects many times because "they stayed permanently out of reach."
The conception is beautifully poetic, but it is not necessarily convincing. Focusing on a single subject, of course, even over a lifetime, represents a common trope of Modernist art. So the question of why the show features Morandi's still life, and not, say, Monet's facade of Rouen Cathedral or Agnes Martin's parallel lines, remains unanswered.
In fact, the inclusion of Morandi seems to take "For the Blind Man ..." from an exploration of the unknowable in art to an exercise in deciphering opaque curatorial intentions, which is not, one hopes, the kind of inscrutability Huberman intended to highlight.
Moreover, while Still Life and another Morandi canvas that appears later in the show represent prime examples of the artist's best work -- Huberman appears to have a great eye for Morandi -- they also constitute the only paintings in the exhibit. For the Contemporary Art Museum to mount a major presentation of recent art in which the only paintings date to more than 50 years ago seems a curious state of affairs. It implies a serious lack of faith in contemporary painting, which, to many observers (this one included), comprises a significant component of art at the present moment. Was there not a single canvas created since 1954 that might have fit the show's thesis?
That Isn't There
Perhaps because it raises such questions about the process of organizing the exhibit, the presence of the Morandi marks a turning point in the show for me. From there, it seems to slide downhill fast. There are still interesting works of art to be seen, mind you; a ceramic sculpture by Rosemarie Trockel, Dessert 2, 2007, for example, hangs on the wall in the next gallery. It looks like a rough mass of clay on which the German artist set down a bucket, creating a smooth circular impression in the center of an amorphous blob. Covered in seductive metallic glazes that range in color from pyrite to cafe con leche, it ends up resembling a skeletal human pelvis, economically conflating accident and intention, representation and abstraction, the beautiful and the grotesque, the meaningful and the meaningless.
But in the same room, an installation of drawings, prints, photographs, collages and found images by Matt Mullican completely covers two large walls from floor to ceiling. Dating, a label tells us, from the 1970s to the present, they form a compact mini-retrospective of the artist's work. Mullican gained fame in the 1980s for works that deployed graphic symbols, like those of street signs and corporate logos, as well as architectural renderings, to critique consumer capitalism and, more recently, has become known for an artistic practice that finds him making jittery work while under hypnosis. (The article continues after the photograph.)
Photos by David Ulmer
Matt Mullican, Individual works range from 1971 – 2009. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist; Tracy Williams Ltd., New York; and Mai 36 Galerie, Zürich.
Both modes appear to be represented here, and while individual works may hold more or less interest for the viewer, the scores of items pinned to the wall do not seem to add up to anything in particular, beyond the sheer volume of their accumulation. The artist does not even intend for us to examine many of the works at close range as they hang well above our heads. Clearly, we are supposed to be impressed by the space-filling copiousness of his activity, but I find that assumption patronizing.
In terms of the exhibit's theme of uncertainty, almost any gathering of 30 year's worth of random material might produce a similar effect of being unable to connect the dots.
A third work in the room, Chapeau! (Hats Off!), 1988-89, by Belgian artist Patrick van Caeckenbergh, resembles a top hat that opens to reveal dozens of tiny drawers. The oversize contraption has a shoulder brace for support at the bottom and a jaunty ostrich plum at the top (a photo in the catalogue shows the artist wearing it). A gallery handout informs us that the prop should evoke the story of a man, "plagued with knowing too much," who wanders from town to town telling tales inspired by small objects contained within the drawers of his hat, but without that written description, we would never guess this narrative.
Similarly, Dave Hullfish Bailey's room-size sculpture, To do with a wide spot along a dusty road crossing a dry channel, between the old end of Old Red and the dead end of the New West, 2009, means to suggest a story or a character.
Bailey has outfitted a boat trailer with all manner of stuff, including a small photocopier, spools of rope and string, a traffic cone, wooden stakes, glass jars full of dirt, orange plastic mesh fencing, buckets, a shovel, wire screens in wooden frames, black and white Legos, a garden hose and topographic aerial photographs resting on sawhorses. The work suggests some sort of prospector or paranoid conspiracy theorist, but it does not go any further than that.
In the absence of additional clues to the intended narrative, we remain in the dark and the sculpture stays fairly inert. Here, the viewers' experience of "not-knowing" feels less like the product of a deliberate strategy on the part of the artist than of the artwork's failure to communicate.
Near the exhibit's second Morandi -- superb, like the first, and borrowed from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington -- sits one of the most confounding works in the show, Bruno Munari's Seeking Comfort in an Uncomfortable Armchair, dated circa 1950, but then confusingly captioned "Sequence of photographs from Fantasia (1977)." Projected onto a white-painted wooden box resting on the floor, 12 slides reproduce black-and-white photos of a man, presumably the Italian designer himself, trying unsuccessfully to read his newspaper on an awkward seat, half fauteuil, half chaise longue.
The results are humorous, with both the chair and the sitter occasionally ending up upside down, but why these photographs should be displayed as a hard-to-view slideshow on the floor escapes me. As with Morandi, our uncertainty with regard to this work has more to do with the decisions of the institution than anything inherent to the art itself.
In the exhibit's penultimate room, a two-channel video by Dutch artist Falke Pisano -- less than 14 minutes long, but accompanied by a bench! -- Chillida (Forms and Feelings), 2006, overlays images from a book of black-and-white photographs of work by the Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida with a woman's voice that describes the emotions his work induces in the narrator. As the video progresses, the images undergo various kinds of simple digital manipulation until they become subsumed by a grid of black lines that echoes a painting by Mondrian.
A lovely meditation on art's essential ineffability and our equivocal relationship to it, Pisano's work is quietly memorable. Its literal quietude, however -- the soundtrack plays through one of those transparent speakers that hangs overhead like the Cone of Silence in Get Smart -- means that it often cannot be heard over the more strident audio blaring from Jimmy Raskin's The Annunciation, 2009, in the opposite corner of the gallery.
Raskin's installation features a central sculpture in the form of a large oblong block balanced on a sphere and sprouting a pair of long pointy ears on top. Covered in gray plaster to resemble concrete or rock, it brings to mind some sort of giant Cubist bunny or a Flintstones TV set.
Painted in black on the walls behind it, silhouettes of a kicking donkey and a soaring eagle with a serpent in its beak frame the schematic image of a hollow tree. Overhead on a flat-screen monitor, scrolling text read by a loud male voice describes an elaborate allegory, ostensibly based in part on writings by Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Rimbaud, in which the donkey stands for the Poet and the eagle for the Philosopher. The work exudes an affable literary intellectualism, but it never really seems coherent, and the rather leaden visuals serve only to flatfootedly illustrate the conceits of the writing. The best part of the piece, the dead leaves and pine cones mixed with tinsel and colored tissue paper that Raskin has piled on the floor, look like a New Year's Eve party has exploded in the forest.
If "For the Blind Man. . ." began with a bang, it concludes with a whimper in the Contemporary Art Museum's central hall, an ungainly space uncongenial to art, the architectural albatross around the building's neck.
Two works forlornly inhabit that large room. One of them, Towards an Intuitive Understanding of the Fourth Dimension (continued), 2009, by a team of designers who call themselves David William (David Reinfurt and Will Holder, the latter of whom designed the exhibit's catalogue), takes the form of a low table and a pair of child-sized stools constructed from raw wooden planks. On the table sit a metronome, a clear plastic box filled with black marbles and a number of small square cards printed with green and red moire patterns on front and back.
The set-up invokes a nursery game, and that is what the artists intend. They invite us to sit down on the tiny seats and attempt to "play" it. But the game's "instructions" sometimes found on an adjacent shelf -- the Museum seems to run out of them frequently -- comprise a fold-out pamphlet with a series of quote about time, mathematics and Lewis Carroll by other designers, who include Munari and Buckminster Fuller; artists Olafur Eliasson and Robert Smithson; and writers such as Umberto Eco and Thomas Pynchon. The nominally interactive "game," then, turns out to be merely a stage set on which its creators can demonstrate their own erudition. In place of any meaningful engagement with the audience, the designers have opted for rehearsing their cleverness. Unsurprisingly, during my several visits to the exhibit, people seemed largely to ignore this work, save for the bored museum guards who took to building houses of cards with the little squares.
Yet even worse, a large sculpture by the Mexican artist Mariana Castillo Deball, Klein Bottle Piñata, 2009, hangs gracelessly from the ceiling. As its title states, it is a papier-mâché piñata in the shape of a Klein bottle, a sort of impossible flask in which the inside forms a continuous surface with the outside -- the Moebius strip of glassware. Veneered inexpertly with wrinkled blue paper, it means to wow us with the mystery of its form as well as the terribly urgent enigma of what it might contain. The Museum has even made a big deal of the upcoming piñata-breaking, scheduled for Jan. 3, when, presumably, candy and other treats will rain from the belly of the beast.
Now, I am in favor of educational programs for all ages at our museums, but to pretend that we can somehow construe this facile and vacuous transposition of a children's party pastime as serious art for grown-ups is both preposterous and offensive. One devoutly wishes that the Museum would not reconstitute this particular element when it sends the exhibit on tour.
In fact, "For the Blind Man ..." will travel to four more museums in the United States and Europe, representing a huge coup for the Contemporary Art Museum and for St. Louis, as well as for Huberman. Yet this opportunity for sharing a local take on contemporary art with the world proves disappointing in the end.
Despite the promise of the exhibit's theme and several stellar works, much of the art in the show seems to ask far more of the viewers' time and attention that it can ever repay with aesthetic pleasure or intellectual revelation. And far too often, in place of existing in the state of "not-knowing" that the show postulates as one of art's effects, we find ourselves distracted by trying to figure out why the curator has made particular choices, miring the exhibit in the contemplation of institutional intention instead of art. One longs for a more cogent uncertainty -- without piñatas.
To reach Mr. Wolin, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.