With “remix,” Amy Brandt, the Chrysler Museum’s new McKinnon Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, demonstrates that she is a mixologist of the first order, not to mention a visionary curator, and a welcome one on the arts scene.
Museum-goers are familiar with the chronological organization of most collections. The logic and efficacy of this framework is undeniable. But how much more engaging to subvert expectations, look beyond the “isms,” and reshuffle the deck conceptually as Brandt has done here.
On view are more than 80 never- or rarely-seen pieces from the Museum’s modern and contemporary holdings installed thematically under six headings: Identity Politics; Tell Me a Story: Art and Narrative; Mirror, Mirror: Reflections of Self; Remembering History; Inversing Reality; and Mediation. Such a strategy might sound didactic, but the opposite is true because, in large part, the reasons why works are included under each heading are not necessarily obvious. Trying to figure out the connections is one of the most rewarding aspects of this museum experience. Similarly satisfying is “listening” to—nay, even participating in--the dialogues that are created when particular pieces are juxtaposed causing us to make new and deeper connections to and between the pieces.
Including both Maya Lin’s “Caspian Sea” (Bodies of Water Series), 2006, and Whitfield Lovell’s “Freedom,” 2001, under the rubric “Identity Politics” brings into focus heretofore unrecognized relationships between these artists and the ideas that drive their work. Lin’s cool, elegant, cantilevered sculpture constructed from strata of Baltic birch plywood is a model of the volume and particular form of the Caspian Sea. At first, it seems completely at odds with Lovell’s portrait. How is it that her hybrid architectural and landscape forms have anything to do with Lovell’s warn and warm image of an anonymous 19th or early 20th century African-American male drawn in charcoal on reclaimed floorboards to which a rifle has been attached ? One answer lies, obviously, in the heading: “Identity Politics,” leaving viewers to grapple with the multiple meanings of the terms “identity” and “politics” in relationship to place and personhood.
In the next gallery, Willie Cole’s “Untitled” may at first seem out of place within the “Tell Me a Story “grouping, for he is, undoubtedly, not the first artist that leaps to mind within the narrative genre. But this kind of jarring incongruence is effective. Being asked to attend to one of Cole’s characteristic images created by burning canvas with the bottom of an iron shifts our focus from the formal qualities of the symbol to the many stories embodied therein: stories of African slaves (who came to America aboard slave ships, the diagrams of which look uncannily similar to the designs on the bottoms of some irons, and who were also branded by their “owners”) and African-American domestic workers.
Would that there was space here to compare Nam June Paik’s, “Hamlet Robot” with Andy Warhol’s iconic image of Marilyn Monroe from 1967, mining each for their complex relationships to media under the heading of “Mediation.” Or comparing early 20th century surrealist Salvidor Dali and contemporary multimedia/installation artist Tony Oursler for how both stand reality on its ear—or rather eye, in the case of Oursler—within the “Inverting Reality” gallery. Or, finally, how Larry Rivers, Daniel Rozin, Lucas Samaras, and Joan Semmel explore the concept of self through their divergent uses of photography.
Instead, let us conclude with what is surely one of the richest of the “remixes”: “Remembering History.” Gwen Akin and Allan Ludwig’s, “The Women Series” commands this gallery by filling an entire wall, floor to ceiling, with black and white photographic portraits of famous and utterly anonymous women, all presented identically in nostalgic-yet-modern black oval frames of different sizes. The images, culled from yard sales, junk stores and the like, raise questions about persona, that is, who all of us are beyond who we appear to be.
Nearby, Christian Boltanski’s sculptural installation, “Reserve of Dead Swiss,” 1990, makes use of anonymous portraits from obituaries in a Swiss newspaper for a different purpose: creating a tension between both presence and absence and individual vs. collective history, while indirectly referencing the Holocaust. Four columns of biscuit tins stacked 18 high, each bearing one of the small photographs, call to mind containers for the personal effects of the deceased, or even columbaria. White cloths neatly folded and stacked on top of the wall of tins, above which is attached a desk lamp, are rich with associations from shrouds to interrogation lamps, respectively.
Both pieces are powerful presences that deal with memory and history in multi-faceted metaphors.
And that is, come to think of it, not unlike how “remix” deals with art history.