Saturday, December 27, 2014

Art at MASS MoCA: Size matters.

I knew little about the place before we drove into the parking lot on a dreary, wet December day. I had read that it specialized in contemporary art and it was big. I had no idea how big.

The entrance was nowhere to be seen. After asking directions we made our way under a bridge connecting two massive brick buildings, then along a spacious paved yard bounded by more of the same. It all looked very much like what it once had been: a mill dating from the Revolutionary War period.

Turning a corner towards a courtyard surrounded by similar structures it suddenly became obvious that this was no longer a mill and in fact not any kind of ordinary place. A series of six contorted trees were growing from the bottoms of inverted stainless steel planters trussed up on telephone poles. Alice, the White Rabbit and the Red Queen might have felt at home amid what I later learned was an enormous work of art called “Tree Logic,” created by Natalie Jeremijenko. Even though defoliated by winter the trees clearly had been straining to correct the illogical orientation of their planting.

I soon learned that “enormous” could describe without hyperbole much of MASS MoCA. The former mill is a complex of many large, interconnected buildings that cover 13 acres in downtown North Adams, Massachusetts. As an electronics factory that served the military and space industries from 1942-1985 it employed over 4,000 people in a town of 18,000. The mill turned factory has again been repurposed as an interdisciplinary arts center.

Inside, the galleries sprawled from one enormous building to the next. I’ve never been convinced that size alone confers value on art, but moving throughout the MASS MoCA complex and seeing the variety of intriguing installations, the significance of the scale of the place was striking. Considering the history of the place, the scale and interactivity of the art it now contains was made more poignant. The mill, so long so central to the life of this community has once again come alive, this time through the arts. The power of the artworks is imbued with the power resonating within the place.

I can provide little more than a teaser, not only because of the scope of works on exhibit but because so many of them require immersion in the physicality of their presence.

The work of Brooklyn artist Teresita Fernández filled several galleries on an entire floor of the first building we entered.

This site specific installation called Sfumato (Epic) is made up of over 40,000 small chunks of graphite that flowed throughout the long, narrow space like an asteroid belt or a swarm of flying insects.

Black Sun fills a three-story tall space with “thousands of translucent tubes” that create cloud-like formations in colors ranging from amber to black.

An exhibit entitled The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor features the work of 6 artists — Rosa Barba, Matthew Buckingham, Tacita Dean, Rodney Graham, Lisa Oppenheim, and Simon Starling — all of whom favor traditional light-sensitive film over newer digital technologies. None of these can be rendered satisfactorily in a still image, as you can imagine. My favorite was a film projector similar to this one that was dangling from the ceiling by the looping film itself. The machine gently bounced and swayed as it projected a wavering rectangle of white light onto the adjacent wall.

An exhibit by Lee Boroson called Plastic Fantastic filled an entire building with a variety of forms all made of the ubiquitous material. One low-ceilinged room resembling a multi-chambered cavern was far too dark to photograph adequately.

This complex and whimsical installation, called Deep Current, rains ping pong balls from a hole in the ceiling, which then get noisily sucked back up before they fall again.

This piece, entitled Moisture Content, is colossal in scale as well as suggestive of planetary spheres, galaxies and other celestial phenomena.

It’s Only Human, by two British artists named Nick Veasey and Marilene Oliver, is in a gallery called “Kidspace,” although you certainly don’t have to be a kid to be impressed by the work.

I could have spent far more time than we had available in Mark Dion’s Octagon Room. Austere and bunker-like outside, on the inside it resembles a cross between a Victorian cabinet of curiosities and a peculiarly tidy basement. There are jars of pickled animals, carefully tagged sets of keys, shelves full of books and strange juxtapositions of objects. A wall of portraits depicts many famous scientists in odd frames.

Here we see framed compositions of randomly collected pottery fragments from riverside beaches as far apart as the Thames in London and the Seekonk in Providence, RI.

My favorite detail strikes me as a bit of personal catharsis. Jars full of ashes atop a cabinet are labeled “Burnt Archives” containing the likes of “correspondence,” “gallery announcements,” and “press releases.”

The most moving piece for me was quite impossible to photograph. A projected video depicted a leafless tree in graphic white on a stark black background two stories high. White shapes that at first appeared to be leaves accumulated until the tree was full to bursting and did in fact burst upwards as the leaves turned out to be birds that rose and flew en masse down a long, narrow ceiling. The space, called an atrium, must once have been a narrow alley between two buildings. The birds are passenger pigeons. The piece by the artist duo Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris and writer Elizabeth Kolbert is called Eclipse. It mourns the infamous extinction exactly 100 years ago of what is widely believed to have been the most abundant bird species on the planet. You can get a sense of it as well as a thorough description on the MASS MoCA website.

Last, but hardly least, all three floors of an entire building are devoted to a Wall Drawing Retrospective of Sol Lewitt.

The three floors proceed chronologically, beginning with the early linear, monochromatic works on the first floor.

North Adams, in the far northwest corner of Massachusetts, is a little off the beaten track. But if you’re a Lewitt fan you have plenty of time to plan a trip there to see this show. MASS MoCA literature proudly announces that it will remain on view for “an unprecedented” 25-year period.

Stay tuned. After visiting North Adams we travelled the entire length of Massachusetts to Boston (states are smaller in New England than they are out here in the Midwest) where we managed to catch more excellent art. 

Okay, I'm back and here's the link to Boston: Order and Disorder.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In gratitude from the Menomonee Valley

Season’s Greetings from the Menomonee Valley!

As my 2014 Artist in Residency in the Menomonee Valley draws to a close I would like to thank the Menomonee Valley Partners and Zimmerman Architectural Studios for their sponsorship, support, and faith in this project.

I am also grateful for the many people I have met in the Valley during the year and in particular those who agreed to be the subjects of my photographs and stories.

It has been a privilege and honor to document the exciting developments in the Valley and to share the story of its revitalization. My images, essays and narratives now are available on a website dedicated specifically for the purpose of archiving them and sharing them with the public. My thanks also go out to Erin, my MIAD intern, who helped create this website.

I invite you to check it out: click here.

Although my term as resident is near closing I remain dedicated to the ongoing story of the Valley. Look for a at least a couple more posts to wrap up the year.

In closing, I’m happy to announce that I will be an Artist in Residence at the Lynden Sculpture Garden in 2015. More on that later!

Have a happy New Year!