Art Review: Depictions of a World Most of Us Forget

  • "Working Model for Drop Drop," a 1988 sculpture by Richar Artschwager, is on view in "The Solace of Amnesia," a new exhibition at the Hall Art Foundation in Reading, Vt. (Hall Art Foundation)

  • "Iguazu, Argentina/Brazil," a 2007 photograph by Olivo Barbieri, is among the works on display at the Hall Art Foundation in Reading, Vt., in a show titled "The Solace of Amnesia." (Hall Art Foundation)

  • "Corner," a 1992 sculpture by Richard Artschwager, is one of four of the artist's works on view in "The Solace of Amnesia," a new show at the Hall Art Foundation in Reading, Vt. (Hall Art Foundation)

  • A 1999 photograph from the "Rapture Series" of Shirin Neshat is among the works on view at the Hall Art Foundation in Reading, Vt. (Hall Art Foundation)

Valley News Correspondent
Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The late Richard Artschwager, who is represented by four works in the show “The Solace of Amnesia,” which has just opened at the Hall Art Foundation in Reading, Vt., said in a 2008 interview that artists should be wary of being easily identified as “the school of.”

The same is true of Artschwager himself, whose pieces at the Hall Art Foundation show an artist who didn’t seem to care much about swimming with the rest of the fish. Two sculptures, Corner, dating from 1972, and Working Model for Drop Drop, 1988, call attention to the space in a gallery that’s often overlooked — the corner of a room.

They’re elegant, clean and somewhat mysterious in the way ancient cairns or stone sculptures are mysterious. What are they accomplishing? Are they sly visual jokes? Is the form itself the point?

Artschwager seemed to have a knack for finding the right materials and shapes to efficiently resolve issues of design and intention. In that way his works strike you as being architectural, and to the point. And his subjects, a tree casting a precise shadow, a pig, the wooden sculptures shaped like exclamation points which Artschwager called “blps,” (pronounced “bleeps”) have a Lewis Carroll quality of surreal logic, with an integrity all their own.

That quality of not being immediately definable, not obviously part of any movement, sets them apart from the other works in “The Solace of Amnesia,” which was curated by artist Alexis Rockman and independent curator Katherine Gass Stowe, both of New York.

The exhibition, comprising 30 works from the Hall Art Foundation collection, centers on the environmental damage wrought by humans, and the specter of irrevocable climate disruption. The brochure describes the exhibition as recognizing our human estrangement “from the ecosystems in which we evolved.”

In the past two years, the Hall has staged the 2016 exhibition, “Landscapes After Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime,” curated by photographer Joel Sternfeld; and last year’s show “Hope and Hazard: A Comedy of Eros,” curated by the painter Eric Fischl. The latter, which is still on view, is a rambunctious, bawdy throwback to the flash and glitz of the 1980s New York art scene, at least in spirit.

The exhibition title “The Solace of Amnesia” seems to suggest that the works in the show speak to a collective forgetting, as if we all prefer to live in some halcyon bygone era. There are certainly works that are more oblique, referring by implication to the transformation the climate and Earth are undergoing. And there are others which we imbue with that interpretation. But just as many seem to refer directly to looming catastrophe. I’m not sure that, as a whole, the exhibition quite sustains its given theme, although individual works within it do.

In the camp of direct allusion is Italian artist Olivo Barbieri’s 2007 photograph Iguazu, Argentina/Brazil, taken at the world’s largest waterfall system, spanning the border between Argentina and Brazil. It is part of Barbieri’s “Waterfall Project,” which took him also to Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Khone Papeng Falls in Cambodia and Laos.

Barbieri travels the world, taking pictures from above as if he were an astronaut or, more apt these days, a drone, speeding over the Earth’s surface, recording data and sending back spectacular, sometimes ironic images of the collision of nature and humanity.

Many of Barbieri’s photographs are characterized by selective blurring and fogging so that one area becomes dominant while others fade and recede. In Iguazu, dozens of people, looking like miniatures, crowd onto a viewing platform which juts out over the water.

The section of platform directly over the falls is in sharp focus, but the falls, the background, and the rear of the platform, which is attached to solid ground, are hazy and indistinct. There’s an air of impending catastrophe. The platform looks flimsy and unstable, as if it might give way, plunging the visitors into the churning falls. The systems of nature inevitably overpower the systems of humankind, the photograph suggests.

Alexis Rockman’s Fire, from 2006, shows a conflagration overtaking an empty baseball field in a rural area, like a tornado approaching fast from a great distance, eating up the landscape as it comes, or, if you’ve watched Stranger Things on Netflix, the Shadow Monster that hovers over the small Indiana town of Hawkins.

Ed Ruscha, one of the leaders of the Los Angeles art scene and a dean of the American art world from the Pop Art movement of the 1960s to the present day, is represented by two of his word paintings, We Few and America Has Three Climates: Cold Hot Moderate. Ruscha’s use of the American vernacular has staying power. The pith of his language is matched by a similarly laconic visual style, in which it only takes an epigram to call to mind the vacuousness, absurdity and the extremes of American culture and politics, in which there is little middle ground. Is Rusha alluding directly to climate change? I doubt it, given that America Has Three Climates was made in 1977, and We Few in 2003. But, given the cryptic nature of Ruscha’s work, they could stand in for nearly anything.

Particularly striking is a series of three somber black-and-white photographs, the 1999 Rapture Series, by the Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat, which show women dressed head to toe in the black burqas worn in public by some Muslim women. The women are seen only from the back, and they either stand in silent contemplation or prostrate themselves on the ground, in this case a beach, looking like a breakwater that holds back a surging tide. We read their bodies as we would a memorial or cairn, pregnant with meaning, strength and purpose. But they are also hidden by their clothing, and whether that is their choice, or a sign of oppression, seems less an indictment of environmental neglect and more a statement on feminism in Islam.

It’s odd that Neshat is one of only three women whose work is in the exhibition.

Katherine Bradford is represented by Large Ocean Painting, made in 2016, which depicts large fuzzy amorphous creatures floating in a deep purple and pink ether.

And there is Hilla Becher, who with her husband, Bernd Becher, (both are now dead), took black-and-white photographs of German industrial and post-industrial landscapes as if to emphasize how transitory these technologies were, and how quickly abandoned, although their builders surely thought they were there for decades to come. Among other questions, the Bechers’ photographs raise the issue of what to do with these industrial relics strewn across the landscape.

But, three artists out of 30: not a great ratio.

Given the scope of the Hall collection, which is exhibited also at Mass MoCA in North Adams and in Derneburg, Germany, it’s hard to believe that only three works by women were judged suitable for the theme. By contrast, the Fischl show has a rough parity of works by women and men, which, given the swaggering machismo of the 1980s New York art world from which Fischl emerged, might surprise you.

The curators of “The Solace of Amnesia” could have, for example, made room for works by women and more artists of color (or artists who are both) by omitting two works by Damien Hirst, the showman and mega-moneymaker people love to hate.

His two pieces here, The Martyrdom of St. Andrew and Rehab is for Quitters, exemplify the shallowness of his enterprise. There’s no there there. In the former, Hirst takes a glass cabinet, fills it with empty medical vials and inserts a cross on one of the shelves; in the latter, he stretches a plastic skeleton on a glass cross and arranges it with arms outstretched, in a gesture of supplication and crucifixion.

They’re empty of feeling, and the way they’re slung together seem hasty, ill-considered, and vaguely provocative without actually delivering a substantive criticism or point. The poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud used the term, épater le bourgeois, or shock the bourgeoisie, to describe the savage compulsion they felt in taking a hammer to the foundations of 19th-century French Catholic society. They were true iconoclasts.

But Hirst gets to have his cake and eat it, too. He makes noise about crossing boundaries and being a bad boy, but also appears in the society pages and commands huge sums of money for his work, which means either that he has co-opted the bourgeoisie or it has co-opted him.

And if one of the challenges, and pleasures, of being an artist is to put across the sensuality of material, the joy and challenge of working in paint or steel or stone, Hirst’s pieces don’t do that, either. They look cheap. Maybe that’s his schtick — anybody can drop by the Dollar Store to pick up plastic stuff to make art. More to the point, his work strikes me as being irredeemably lazy, with little care and thought given, only he makes millions off it. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, as they say ...

So I go back to Artschwager, whose pieces have a vital, individual eccentricity, or the wonderfully vibrant painting, Deep Purple, by the late British artist Howard Hodgkin, which really does evoke an existential nightmare. There’s Robert Rauschenberg’s prescient Meta Meta Glut, a 1987 wall sculpture that uses scrap metal and discarded car parts — in his words, “souvenirs without nostalgia” — to deftly sum up an entire culture of waste and planned obsolescence strewn across the American landscape.

A bonus for visitors to the foundation is the small show “Made in Vermont,” which features six artists working in the state. They are: Mark Barry, Mildred Beltré, Terry Ekasala, Richard Jacobs, Sara Katz and White River Junction-based painter Patrick Dunfey, who is also the exhibitions designer at the Hood Museum of Art and had a solo exhibition last summer at White River Gallery in South Royalton. The outdoor sculpture program includes work by Richard Deacon, Marc Quinn and the fantastic Waterfall by Olafur Eliasson.

The Solace of Amnesia continues through Nov. 25 at the Hall Art Foundation in Reading. For further information go to hallartfoundation.org or call 802-952-1056. Admission is $10 per person, but you have to sign up for tours. On First Fridays, admission is free from 5 to 8 p.m., and you may wander through on your own.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.