Blame it on Duchamp. If he hadn’t cracked open the art world—and aesthetic, critical and cultural notions about what art is—with his readymades (specifically, Fountain) we probably wouldn’t have had the Walker Art Center’s Lifelike, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness and, currently, the Weisman Art Museum’s Reviewing the Real.
The obsession with what constitutes “art” is ever shifting, with criteria and context often productively clashing (or intersecting) with what we know (or suppose) to be true here and now. The same holds for what we consider “real.” Put those two elusive concepts together as guest curator Christina Chang (curator of engagement at the Minnesota Museum of American Art) has, drawing exclusively from WAM’s collection, and the result is a rigorous, expansive, immersive exhibition — one that also reveals just how deep and broad WAM’s collection truly is.
Chang assembled the works by 64 artists into a show consisting of six sections. In “Documentary,” there’s Duchamp with La Boîte-en-Valise (The Box in a Valise), a resume of sorts he assembled out of 68 reproductions of his works. Breathtakingly detailed, the box presents even Large Glass in evocative miniature. There’s a “real” valise in the section “The Thing Itself”: Marilyn Levine’s School Bag of crafted earthenware. And throughout “Pictures of Pictures,” “Traces,” “Uncut” and “Utopia/Dystopia” the work ranges from Richard Hamilton’s prescient screenprint of Mick Jagger and his art dealer shielding their faces to Mason Williams’ Actual Size Photograph of an Actual Bus stretching along the length of one wall; from Duane Hanson’s “hyperreal” sculpture of Mary Weisman (now across the gallery from her husband, who resides in the permanent collection) to Keith Haring’s Inflatable Baby.
More indelible, however, is Julio de Diego’s painting Meeting in the Unknown, in which a tribe situated in a murky, liminal reality — between earth and sky, heaven and hell — confronts intruders: they may be from outer space, or figures from the depths of some collective nightmare. Haunting in an altogether different manner is Simon Norfolk’s inkjet print of war-ravaged Afghanistan, Teahouse, in which the skeletal remains of a former place of refreshment and respite are juxtaposed with a man selling balloons—an item banned during Taliban rule. In his conceptual piece Kiss Off, Vito Acconci “preserves” the ephemeral nature of performance with a print work that documents a series of actions.
What one finds of the real in any of these works can be at once obvious and extremely, elusively subjective. The back story a viewer brings to the act of seeing is colored by their knowledge of, experience with and immersion in art and other simulated worlds, screens and projections — including, well, most of 21st century online life. That the Twin Cities’ three major museums have recently mounted shows examining “the real” speaks to American culture’s psychological state: a zeitgeist of anxiety and excitement about what lies ahead. Or, as this description of Reviewing the Real in the WAM newsletter puts it, “The contemporary hunger for reality—or perhaps a grasp on reality—in the public sphere is a telling yet somewhat enigmatic sign of our times.”
Reviewing the Real will be on view through September 8 at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis. Find more information online at http://wam.umn.edu.
Camille LeFevre is a Twin Cities arts journalist and dance critic.
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