It’s impossible to enter the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) current exhibition “Rewind: 1970s to 1990s, Works from the MCA Collection” without first encountering Kay Rosen’s new work Yours/ours, 2010. Rosen’s language-based works explore the significant shifts in meaning that can happen to words or phrases when seemingly insignificant shifts in their presentation are made. At the MCA, Rosen presents the word “YOURS” divided by the entrance to the galleries in such a way so that when one encounters the work it reads, “Y” and “OURS”. This is a signature move by Rosen to provoke a myriad of meanings, even opposing ones. In a first-ever move for the artist (according to the wall text), Rosen has allowed the letters of “OURS” to touch, indicating the significance of that word within the larger construct. Visually, the work asks the visitor a question in the newspeak of text-messages “Y OURS”? The title of the work overtly asks a viewer to decide between YOURS or OURS, implicating the kind of cultural history is told in the galleries located behind the work. Is it “your” culture, something you recognize and relate to, a history from the bottom-up, if you will, or is it “our” culture, the vision of the institution, a top-down history? Is your culture the same as our culture? These questions need to be asked by any contemporary art institution and provide a great framing for “Rewind,” as the answers varied from gallery to gallery.
Matthew Barney, The Cabinet of Frank Gilmore, 1999. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, gift of the Sara Lee Corporation. © Matthew Barney
While the title of the exhibition seems to indicate a survey across the decades, the MCA seems to be following its program once called “Artists in Depth,” a not very thrilling title for a nonetheless interesting series of presentations that showed a number of an artist’s works. Entering the MCA’s galleries as most do, on the right side, one first encounters an entire gallery devoted to the work of Matthew Barney. Containing works that mostly relate to the Cremaster series of video pieces that the artist is best known for, this gallery definitely felt like an institutional presentation of “our” culture, art that we are told we should admire. Seen above, Barney’s creepy vitrines held more creepy stuff (the best word for it), loaded with overwrought symbolism. A couple of his Cremaster works may be very smart, but the artworks that accompany them usually strike me as refined commodities that are extrinsic to the meaning of the work. This encounter was no different. Matthew Barney’s profile and visibility as an artist requires his inclusion in such a survey, but his artwork here showed how much better the video pieces are.
Installation view of Lorna Simpson's Wigs (Portfolio), 1994, in Rewind: 1970s to 1990s: Works from the MCA Collection, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, March 13 - September 5, 2010. Photography © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photographer, Nathan Keay
In the next gallery was presentation of work by Lorna Simpson. This was a presentation that felt totally opposite of Barney; this is relevant culture. An African-American woman herself, Simpson investigates the role hair plays in identity construction and as a race signifier. Seen above, Wigs (Portfolio), from 1994, depicts different hairpieces and presumable wigs along with text, including one text that details an enslaved man’s plan to have his wife wear a wig in a subterfuge that would allow them both to escape to freedom. She, 1992, consists of four color photographs of sitting figures with a text plaque that bears the word “female” in the middle. At question is gender assumption, since the heads have been cropped out and the figure is clothed in a masculine four-button suit, the text is the only indication of identity. The posture of one of the figures bears a striking resemblance to Frida Kahlo dressed in Diego Rivera’s suit as seen in, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).
Installation view of work by Richard Artschwager (left) and Tony Tasset (right) in Rewind: 1970s to 1990s: Works from the MCA Collection, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, March 13 - September 5, 2010. Photography © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photographer, Nathan Keay
Beyond Simpson were galleries devoted to a pairing of Tony Tasset and Richard Artschwager. I’m not sure that the pairing of Tasset to Artschwager was wholly productive, since Tasset’s satire of the commodification of modern art reduced Artschwager’s work to just that, commodities, since they do not seem to possess the self-aware edge that Tasset’s works do. Artschwager’s Triptych, 1962, is an oil on Formica on wood construction that looks exactly like a nasty counter in a run-down diner. Facing that are three of Tasset’s works each titled Domestic Abstraction, with two from 1986 and one from 1987. Tasset’s abstractions are also a kind of nasty, being framed squares of animal furs. The constructions bringing together the luxuries of fur, fashion and abstract art in glorious excess that only the ‘80s could have spawned. The critical dimension of Tasset’s work buoys it in time and meaning, even as it was trying to end up in a luxury apartment with the kinds of artwork it was gently mocking. Using its ugliness as stylishness, Artschwager’s work just looks like it's ready to blend in as whatever domestic decoration you might need.
The pièce de résistance of the entire exhibition was located in the next room, Richard Long’s Chicago Mud Circle, 1996, seen at left (image credit at bottom). Installed by the artist in 1996 and made using local mud, the work has been hidden behind a temporary wall since 1999, making this occasion the first time it has been viewable in over ten years. Utilizing the shape of the gallery and the entire end wall of it, the work occupies over 24 feet of space, with mud splashing onto adjacent walls indicating the action itself. Long’s practice is a productive hybrid of East-meets-West thought, this piece in particular indicates that. The circle, or enso, is a highly significant aspect of Zen Buddhist painting practice, produced in a singular movement done in a way that, when successful, should show the unity of mind and body. Long’s was executed over the course of three days, but in its swift gesturalism and unity it seems as though it could have been done in a moment.
In contemplating Long’s version of an enso I realized what had been missing in the previous galleries: beauty. Though intellectually interesting or socially relevant, preceding works hadn’t reached this aesthetic dimension. Beauty is a contested site in art now, but it also binds the viewers together in a visual experience.
Following Long was a gallery for Richard Prince’s work. Two works of Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy), from 1987 and 1980-1986 respectively, salvage beauty from the language of advertising, turning Marlboro ads into art. Of course this begs the question about the advertising industry’s conditioning of the public perception of beauty, using it as a means to sell a product, that in turn Prince co-opts to sell his product, the artwork. Prince allows us to enjoy the beauty of a Marlboro advertisement and simultaneously recognize the way the advertisement operates and preys on beauty.
While the final galleries were dedicated to showing the work of Mike Kelley, Gillian Wearing and Sharon Lockhart (work by Alfredo Jaar were also shown), the initial galleries and artists drew productive comparisons. The question posed by Kay Rosen at the outset of the exhibition, of “ours” or “yours,” proves to be an overarching question for recent art production. While satisfying as a survey of art production since the ‘70s, though painting was notably absent, this exhibition indicated the deeper problematic aspect of culture that is increasingly someone else’s, not ours.
(uncredited images, from top: Installation view of Rewind: 1970s to 1990s: Works from the MCA Collection, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, March 13 - September 5, 2010. Photography © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photographer, Nathan Keay. Richard Long, Chicago Mud Circle, 1996. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, gift of David Meitus. © 2010 Arists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London.)