“Order and Disorder” is the title of a magnificent exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) featuring the peerless work of Goya. But it may as well have been a general theme for much of what we saw both there and at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). I’ll return in a moment to Goya and the MFA.
|Ito wa ito Naomi Kobayashi|
From the perspective of hindsight, order seems to have ruled the day, for the most part, in the ICA’s big show called Fiber: Sculpture 1960–present, the museum’s first major exhibition of fiber art in 40 years. That’s because 50+ years on we as audience have grown accustomed to fiber sculptures that don’t lay flat on the wall and because fiber artists generally hew to rigorous craftsmanship even when challenging prevailing norms. But, as this exhibit demonstrates, in 1960 that idea was a radical break from tradition. Before that time fiber art was generally known as weaving or tapestry, not sculpture.
|Élément spatial (Spatial Element) Elsi Giauque|
According to the show’s curators, “This radical shift in fiber from wall hanging to sculpture was played out against a backdrop of social and cultural tumult—the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and antiwar activism—at a time when artists were rejecting prevailing orthodoxies.” Disorder indeed.
With over 40 artists from all around the globe, I was gratified to discover that Wisconsin was represented by Sheboygan artist Jean Stamsta (who died in 2013). Her piece, called “Orange Twist” (above), was lent by the Museum of Wisconsin Art, in West Bend. The museum’s information calls her work “folksy,” whimsical and distinct from other fiber sculptors.
|Carpet Style Tilework on Canvases|
Tensions between order and disorder lie much closer to the surface, literally in some cases, in the work of Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão. Considered one of Brazil’s foremost artists, much of Varejão’s work deals with race, class and ethnicity.
Polvo Portraits (three paintings) and Polvo Oil Colors deal directly with ethnic identity. Polvo is a reference to skin color. The tubes of paint in the vitrine are all shades of skin colors identified with names gleaned from individual responses to census survey questions of ethnic background. Examples include “Sapecada (flirting with freckles), Café com Leite (coffee with milk) and Queimada de Sol (sun-kissed).”
This piece, entitled Folds, is one of a series where the surface of the painting, rendered to look like tile erupts with highly realistic, three-dimensional protrusions of viscera. Again, order and disorder.
|Solo Goya (Only Goya)|
I couldn’t possibly do justice to the Museum of Fine Arts. Even a review of the Goya exhibit will have to be far too brief, a tease really. Like many museums, the MFA has adopted a lenient stance towards photography in most of its galleries. (We have social media and the free publicity it makes possible to thank, I’m told.) However, as expected, this doesn’t extend to special exhibits and works on loan.
|Time and the Old Woman|
Fortunately, much of Goya’s vast oeuvre is readily available online. These few selections were all in the exhibit, which did a good job illustrating its theme of “order and disorder.” I feel fortunate to have visited the Prado and so I was prepared to enjoy revisiting works with which I was familiar. There were plenty. But I was also pleasantly surprised to see quite a few unfamiliar works, paintings and prints.
The most unexpected treat was the side-by-side comparisons of Goya’s studies (known as “cartoons”) for tapestries and the tapestries themselves. The “cartoons” were polished paintings that invariably made the tapestries look flat and ironically cartoonish.
Order was represented primarily by the many prints and paintings that Goya did of the royal family and court, such as the famous, The Parasol.
I’ve always found Goya’s many treatments of disorder far more compelling. It is hard to imagine living through the experiences he depicts so graphically, particularly his horrific Disasters of War series. Harder still to comprehend the compulsion to not only observe the atrocities but to laboriously record them, whether through drawings, paintings or the various printmaking media he employed.
The exhibit opened with selections from Los Caprichos, including his most famous from that satirical series about human folly and foible, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (top) and, tellingly, a self-portrait. Inadvertently no doubt, the exhibit also closed with what I can’t help thinking Goya would have interpreted as a contemporary example of Los Caprichos: As always in today’s hyper-marketed world, we had to “exit through the giftshop.”
In a first-ever comprehensive retrospective the MFA demonstrates that Jamie Wyeth’s professional career followed a perhaps not so surprising trajectory from order to disorder, in my opinion if not the curator’s. While the evidence for my opinion seemed manifest in the works of art, I admit I am speculating about what I interpreted as increasingly disorderly psychological states. Perhaps I was simply over-sensitized by the Goya show. In any case, Jamie, third in a distinguished line of artists, began as a chronicler of the hip and famous, including J. F. Kennedy, Andy Warhol, and (here) Nureyev.
While never renouncing the realism that may have been genetically inherited, his late works display a far looser, more painterly approach. His cycle of paintings depicting the Seven Deadly Sins using seagulls as his allegorical subjects have emotional power that transcends realism. It was a thought-provoking show.
|There were Sunday Mornings|
It wasn’t a complete surprise but it was certainly intriguing how seamlessly Shinique Smith’s work translates considerations of order and disorder into her distinctive contemporary style. I’ve enjoyed seeing the variety of her output over time but many of the works in this show were newer or unfamiliar.
|The Power to See|
The show, called BRIGHT MATTER, “surveys 30 key works from the past decade while debuting more than a dozen new pieces, including painting, sculpture, full-room installation, video, and performance.”
|Breath and Line|
Maybe this is a stretch, but I couldn’t help thinking that if Goya were alive today his work might look something like Smith’s.
Finally, a few random artworks that not only caught my eye and interest, but also suggest a connection with the theme of order and disorder. At least for me.
Pedro Reyes crafted a musical instrument by soldering together steel parts of weapons confiscated and destroyed by Mexican authorities.
Jeremy Deller created a spectacular video installation for the 2013 Venice Biennale. It addresses British society—its people, icons, folklore and history—conflates events from the past, present and an imagined future. I wish I could share a link to the video but the two that a Google search found had been removed from their respective sites (one being Deller’s own website.)
Okay, I suppose if Goya were alive today his work is far more likely to resemble something Anselm Kiefer would make. As with Goya, disorder tends to win out in most of Kiefer’s work. This one, called Rising, Rising, Falling Down, is a curious mix, not only of characteristically unusual materials but of disorderly content neatly framed in a glass case like one might see in a natural history museum.
This is the second in a pair of reviews from my recent trip to Massachusetts. To read the first, about MASS MoCA, clickhere.