The Way We Are Now at Cincinnati Art Museum

The Thomas R. Schiff gallery at the Cincinnati Art Museum hosts a selection of work from the collection of the 21C Museum Hotel, the boutique hotel (soon to be chain) that has been open in a repurposed set of warehouses in downtown Louisville for the past several years and which will soon occupy the former Metropole Apartment Building in downtown Cincinnati next to the Contemporary Arts Center. This exhibit brings together two major names in the regional art scene in a somewhat unlikely manner. This show with a heavy emphasis on contemporary art made within the last few years would have been much more at home at the Contemporary Arts Center than the Cincinnati Art Museum, but there it is, a few steps and a “mature audiences only” warning away from the conservative fare of the American and European wings. The show presents both institutions with a good opportunity for stretching boundaries. The CAM gets a shot at presenting a body of work by today’s “art stars”, many of which haven’t shown there before, and 21C gets a chance to strut in front of its target audience for its new hotel scheduled to open in the Fall of 2012. The brand building motivations behind the show are evident in the timing of this exhibit and in the somewhat forced nature of the stated curatorial mission.

Anyone who has visited the 21C in Louisville has seen several of the works included in the CAM show in one of the many exhibition spaces in that hotel. There are several lobbies and walled off gallery spaces on two different floors and, true to its promise of showing art in every room, works are displayed in a variety of nooks and crannies throughout the complex. The motivations behind delivering on the promise of showing art in every space of the hotel, however, do not necessarily translate into a thoughtful and cohesive body of work in an art museum. Part of the allure of 21C’s Louisville exhibition spaces is the surprise at their discovery and the resulting wonder of seeing art by some of the biggest names in the contemporary art world in such unlikely spaces. The space for contemplating the meaning of a body of work as a whole which is skillfully created by good curators in good museum shows simply doesn’t exist in the form of a collection built to fill a series of hotel corridors. Perhaps this explains the generic title for the show and a curatorial statement which sticks to the universal. The wall signage tells the viewer that this body of work represents “The Way We Are Now” in that it touches on ideas of religion, sexual identity and popular culture among other topics. This descriptor seems a slightly dressed up way of telling viewers that they are about to see a contemporary art show.

Hotel expansions aside, this exhibit presents a few gems amidst a field of generally high quality work. Visitors who enter the exhibit from the balcony off the atrium are treated to a series of delightful suspended pieces. The best among these is Shih Chieh Huang’s EX-C-FW, a mixed media kinetic sculpture which “breathes” by inflating and deflating a set of ephemeral looking plastic “lungs”. This futuristic oxygen tent seems to have been cobbled together from a variety of sources including vintage medical devices, industrial robots and short wave radios. It hints at the convergence of human life itself and the increasingly complex substances and devices which are being used to sustain it. It presents the viewer with an interesting opportunity to reflect on the awkward relationship between the troubled health care system and the current state of human health itself. Fat Bat, Virginie Barre’s rendering of the archetypal superhero as an overly paunchy rescuer is a wonderful meditation on American consumerism. The more successful we are, the more we consume, the more we consume the more successful we are.

Other successes on the balcony off the Great Hall include Gottfried Helnwein’s Untitled (Portrait of Child, 2005), a larger than life photorealistic painting of a young child. This ultra-detailed rendering shows every pore and strand of hair in painstaking likeness and also incorporates all the mechanical transformations inherent to photographic description which surely was the source for this work. These mechanical alterations include exaggerated shadows and highlights and a short depth of field which has the impact of increasing spatial depth beyond that normally seen by the human eye. The exactitude with which these hallmarks of mechanical description have been reproduced by the hand of the artist beautifully raises the question of how mechanical devices increasingly pervade all forms of visual representation, even those made purely by hand.

The collection includes two series of stunning photographic works by artists Dinh Q. Le and Pieter Hugo. Le’s self reflective works incorporate mixed media including photography, found objects, and traditional grass weaving. Le’s delicately woven photograph Untitled #17 (Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness) presents the viewer with a collage of images including one of traditional far Eastern decorative objects overlaid with an image of shadowy human figures which emerge in rough form as a result of Le’s selective weaving process. The fragility of the construction of the work suggests the fragility of this culture—overwritten and interwoven with others which have occupied, ruled, or destroyed it throughout the recent past.

Pieter Hugo’s series of large portraits of West African animal handlers are dazzling in their style of photographic description and strikingly tragic in their choice of subject matter. In each image of this series, a single animal handler is shown with their possession—in most cases a muzzled hyena kept as a trick pony by the handler. The photographer describes these beasts as disproportionately larger than their human owners, set against vast arid backgrounds of the West African landscape. The broken and hobbled disposition of these animals is inapposite to their stocky muscle bound appearance, suggesting the awesome power of humankind to subdue even the most wild and powerful of natural elements. The hint of reverence for these beasts on the faces of their owners gives these images a mythical quality, tying them to the long history of artistic narrative(Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf) which draws its inspiration from the uneasy coexistence of man and beast.

In keeping with the somewhat “grab bag”nature of the curating of The Way We Are Now, the show includes some low points in addition to the superior works mentioned above. These include Marguerite Cabrera’s Vocho (blue) a version of a Volkswagen Beetle made from roughly stitched together swatches of thick fabric and Thomas Wesskopf’s Cut Series. Both works suffer by existing primarily within oft traveled modes found in recent contemporary art without adding any new meaning to the conversations they join. One such mode, the reproduction of objects with unlikely techniques and materials; dresses from meat, skulls from platinum and the like, and another frequently used contemporary mode, the deadpan photographic portrait—unflinching faces before the camera – are not used by Cabrera or Wesskopf in any fashion which piques much curiosity. Other works in the show which successfully introduce ideas frequently found in contemporary art without adding anything to the mix include Dave Cole’s Memorial Flag, a large scale flag made of toy army soldiers, Pierre Gonnord’s large scale deadpan portraits of unkempt youth and Mickalene Thomas’ Oh Mickey, a naked Karaoke performance which loosely hints at but fails to explore ideas of racial and/or feminine identity.

– David Rosenthal

The Way We Are Now: Selections from the 21c Collection at the Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202, (513) 639-2995. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through May 15, 2011


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