With Moby-Dick, the Wattis presents the second of three shows rousting the spirits of great American literature. Although painted like a Nautica bedroom set with navy walls and white text, each room conjures the salty atmosphere of a heaving ship with alternately droning and ranting snippets from Orson Welles's recitation of Moby Dick. These elements (whale, walls, and Welles) attempt to interlace work from thirty-three international artists—no small feat.
Of course, I don't envy the curators of their titanic task on such a subject, with such a cast. (It's hard enough to write the review!) But if the cuts made aren't exactly surgical, they at least comprise skilled butchery—again, no small feat. I'm bothered a bit by how little is done to explain the point-by-point narrative of Moby-Dick to someone unfamiliar, as I was up until a year ago. A more realistic exhibit for most visitors would've included the Cliff's Notes on Melville's masterpiece, I reckon. Cliff's Notes or not, no fewer than 10 editions of Melville's classic appear in scattered display cases, including adaptations for small children and graphic novelization for big children. The cultural weight of the book looms here, as the wall text declares, in "art, artifact, and historical document."
The trouble with agglomerating a theme show from each artist's solo piece is dodging thematic repetition. Is it the megalomaniac side of artists that draws them to the grandiose? The tendency, in this show, is to smash on the same salient points till they're blunt. Drawn from a 600+ page book, surprisingly little of the lovely soliloquy and the weaving metaphors appear here. One novel (if impossible) approach would involve the curator's assignment of chapters or minor themes to artists to address the book in whole. That would at least bypass the sameness of mind awkwardly encountered in both Henrik Oleson's Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian and Brian Jungen's iPod engraving with the same text. (For the record, I really liked Oleson's rendition of Ishmael's first night with Queequeg, on a modified Daily Mail from October 21, 2004.)
Surprisingly similar to Wattis's rendition of Moby-Dick is the Titanic exhibit I recently saw at the Minnesota Science Museum...a science museum. It relied heavily on artifact, re-creation, and dramatization of the Captain's plight—pretty much the same, barring a musky Ahab impersonator that might've changed this review entirely. Regardless, there is plenty of the vulgar romance of the sailor present, including tattoos of island girls, pin-up style, and an homage to Brad Davis (who lived the life in Querelle). Richard Serra's powerful black strokes, titled after Ishmael, summon the rawness of a whaler's life (or simply rawness in general if you skip the title).
Consider Marcel Broodthaers piece "the one that got away": a projector black-out caused one of two technical hiccups during my visit. Moby-Dick is the original big fish story, not simply a metaphor for Faustian pursuits (i.e. art). Life on the infinite bounty of sea demands a record, a log, a tale. Hiroshi Sugimoto's yin-yang sea horizons appropriately appear here, but benign if not for the placement across from Susan Hiller's turbulent coastal wave breaks. Angela Bulloch's tiled night sky, aglow like Lite-Brite, charts a path off the placid silver sea below. Felix Gonzales-Torres might sum it up best with his infinite stack of free wave prints. (Take one; they'll make more.) I already have one of these from a show in Minneapolis--no doubt a lot of waves made in between!
Elsewhere, Colter Jacobsen's spiky wave painting on denim makes Barbary fashion a backdrop for gouache. Marcel Dzama's surrealist fancies seem rickety and weird as before, but now with a whale in the picture. Well, except for his surprising and icy whale eye painting upstairs--very cool and unusual. Mark Bradford's piece is maybe my favorite of all: A rubber boot, pasted over with electric blue paper, upright on a wooden stool. It's Ahab's old leg atop of his new one, so to speak, and the fuel for his revenge. Remover of boot and foot lies upstairs, a nearly full-size (HUGE!) white whale with spikes blown out of its ventral side, tongue out, teeth barbaric, eye milky-white. Adrián Villar Rojas really captured the hulking abstraction of such a large organic presence. Authentic harpoons are stacked points-up not far behind, hinting at the chase's deadly outcome. Carved ivory (for luxury) and illustrations (for edification) lend a historic solemnity.
I feel old-fashioned for loving the Rockwell Kent illustrations upstairs, but I had to gush when seeing the original illustrations from my book. (Originally, they appeared in the 1930 edition but have since found their way into reprints.) If there's any primer to the story of Moby-Dick amongst the din of sea metaphor, it's in Kent's bold lines, framed and laid out sequentially. Even ink sketches of unused scenes are included in Kent's wall of fame.
Adjacent, Mateo Lopez provides a masthead's view of the sea, day-in day-out, as a pencil-drawn musical score. Whole notes indicate sun position, and staves wiggle like waves sometimes, with maybe a whale head or tail on occasion, but mostly it's a maddening float. It puts the misadventure in adventure. After all, Moby-Dick is a tale of the quixotic, the passionate drive for the unachievable. Once in a while though, you see that white whale and, yes, you catch Newman's backfiring Caprice.
- Andy Ritchie
All images courtesy the CCA Wattis: Rockwell Kent, The Carpet Bag, 1930. Proof from the Random House 1930 edition of Moby-Dick, 9 x 6 in. Rockwell Kent Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ''Untitled'', 1991. Offset print on paper, endless copies. 45 1/2 x 38 1/2 x 7 in. (ideal height). Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1991. © The Felix González Torres Foundation. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.