December 14, 2010

Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space at MOCA

One of the essential problems facing artists (and art viewers for that matter) is the relationship between the fabricator—the artist—who constructs meaning, and the viewer who passively consumes. This problem was first articulated by Plato, who saw the actor transmitting their illness (pathos) into the empty vessel of the viewer. Things get even worse with Brunelleschi’s painting of the Florentine Baptistery, nailing the viewer in place with one-point perspective.

By the time the 20th century rolls around, the moral implications of inaction became visceral. What’s ethical the difference between impassively standing by as occupying soldiers of the Third Reich cart off your Gypsy, Queer, and Jewish neighbors, and wearing a Nazi uniform and supporting the regime? As Krishna points out in the Mahabharata, one must assume personal responsibility for the ramifications of both action and inaction.

For visual artists of the last century, two possible solutions to viewer impassivity emerge. The image can be made abstract, forcing the viewer to complete the work, closing the gap between the signifier, and whatever the viewer wants to be signified. The other choice is for artists to physically involve the spectator, where some action (taking a piece of candy or poster) completes the work.


Carlos Cruz-Diez' Cromosaturación, 1965/re-fabricated 2010
If you've experienced Flavin, you know the art looks nothing like the pictures.
 At MOCA’s Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space (through February 27, 2011) my personal baggage was my previous encounters with many of the works on view. In Caracas, the city seemed to be infused with the specter of Op artists past, as if some distinguished local had made a name for himself in the scenes of Paris and New York, then retuned home to lay out the path to success (by following the optical footsteps of the master). In my fictitious scenario, the lead could be modeled after Jesús Rafael Soto, friend of Jean Tinguely and Victor Vasarely, and director of Venezuela’s Escuela de Artes Plasticas. I came across a variation on his hanging grid theme at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. Essentially a room-sized grid of plastic tubing, Soto’s Penétrable formalizes the optical effect seen when driving by an orchard of evenly spaced trees. The work is so kid-friendly; it’s enough to make any museum educator precum. The iteration I saw in Caracas (made of white tubing) was a grimy grey at the level of a child’s hands, evidence of a generation of field trips to the museum. At MOCA’s Geffen, Soto’s forest of blue confronts Plato’s conundrum of the impassive viewer by encouraging visitors to literally entangle themselves in the art. Unfortunately, interactivity thwarts the optical intentions of the work.

My short clip of Jesús Rafael Soto's Penétrable BBL bleu. A MOCA staff saw me taking pictures and said, "I don't think photography is allowed." To which I replied, "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission."
The big advantage of the MOCA show is that all the works have been built anew by their fabricators and preparators. For work that relies so heavily on formal and optical properties for effect, clean installations that are shiny and new help reinforce the artistic intent. When seen in Spain, Julio Le Parc’s work—dusty and poorly lit—looked like something from a Tijuana Cineplex lobby. His Lumière en mouvement-installation at MOCA—shiny and new—would be at home next to the museum’s permanent collection of California Light and Space artists.

Jesús Rafael Soto's Penétrable BBL bleu, 1969/re-fabricated 1999
Photo courtesy of MOCA
 Which brings to mind a lost opportunity. While the rest of the Geffen showcases MOCA’s permanent collection, there are few ways that the two exhibitions speak to each other. Crated in the dank of the museum’s warehouse are the works of other Latin American artists and works by the likes of Robert Irwin and James Turrell that could compliment the curatorial efforts of Alma Ruiz. It’s unfortunate byproduct of the Balkanization of curatorial departments that is the antithesis of the cross-pollination occuring when artists talk to, read about, and look at the work of their colleagues.

 
My video clip of Julio Le Parc's Lumière en mouvement-installation, 1962/re-fabricated 2010
Speaking about curatorial inspiration, I thought I’d mention another work I’ve seen before, Hélio Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida’s Cosmococa—Programa in Progress, CC4 Nocagions. For Cosmococa (which I might translate as Cocaine-Cosmos) the artist team integrates the spectator into their work in ways that force the viewer to become part of the piece itself. In many ways it speaks to the Fluxus art being produced at the time. In Cosmococa’s other variations, viewers lounge on pillows and file their nails while viewing images of work by Luis Buñuel that have been augmented by powdered cocaine. In another version, the space is slung with hammocks and the viewer is invited to lounge while listening to Jimi Hendrix and view album covers with more white powder.

Hélio Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida's Cosmococa—Programa in Progress, CC4 Nocagions, 1973/re-fabricated 2010
Photo courtesy of Diane Calder
At the top, your intrepid scribe tries to hit on the hot lifeguard (and fails miserably).
For me, the white powder evokes the hallucinatory nature of artistic inspiration; it represents the subversive element in the best art, and it mirrors the sex, drugs, and rock and roll triad with the viewer, installation, and artist trinity. Oiticica’s work can be seen as the forefather of present day relational aestheticians. Compared to Rirkrit Tiravanija fencing off rice paddies from hungry Thai villagers so it can become art, the swimming pool at MOCA positively shines.

My short clip of Hélio Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida's Cosmococa—Programa in Progress, CC4 Nocagions
My first encounter with CC4 was at Art Unlimited in 2007. The pool wasn’t heated, but it provided welcome relief after the Bataan Death March that Art Basel has become. Putting on my Vilebrequins and swimming in MOCA's tepid waters made me wonder why this particular Cosmococa was selected. Art Unlimited was a convention center full of the best museum-quality installation art available. The escalators were papered by Buren’s stripes, Christoph Buchel’s signature detritus took up the better part of an acre; you get the idea. It’s as if Galerie Lelong did the heavy curatorial lifting, so that collectors and curators can select work with the proper cachet as easily as ordering combo number four at McDonald’s.

Hélio Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida's Cosmococa—Programa in Progress, CC4 Nocagions, Photo courtesy of MOCA
What goes better with coke? Kids!
Of course one can argue that the swimming pool resonates particularly well with Los Angeles audiences. And it’s hard to look at Oiticica’s pool with cocaine and not see MOCA’s director purchase of the former residence of LSD-dropping Cary Grant, or the possibilities of Deitch hosting cocaine-laced pool parties in the future. But if all these inferences and associations were resonating with MOCA’s staff, presumably adding layers of complexity to art that invites participation, why do they send out press photos with children splashing in the glow of blow? It’s almost as if they don’t understand the work their exhibiting.

Empty vessels indeed.

Ecstasy: In and About Altered States

Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space; It almost sounds like Ecstasy: In and About Altered States. The drugs, the funhouse installation style permeates both shows. Can Suprasensorial be read as an Latino addendum to Paul Schimmel's efforts? Perhaps if women and artists of color were included with more regularity and prominence, there would be less of a need for shows like WACK! or the recently censored Hide|Seek.

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