If you ever wondered…

These days  it’s not enough for art  to just sit around looking pretty. To be noticed in a world exploding with new  digital stimuli vying for our attention ever minute, art has to grab you by the short and curlies in order to gain a precious nano second’s attention. An exhibition that delivers just that and more, is the Wonder exhibit at the Smithsonian’s newly renovated Renwick Gallery in Washington DC.

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Tara Donovan’s monumental towers created from styrene index cards

The exhibition perfectly conveys the textbook definition of its title, Wonder: a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Each of the jaw-dropping, logic-defying, inspirational installations has one wondering a) how on earth the artists thought up and actually produced these creations and b) what on earth will artists think up next?

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Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus, recreates a stunning rainbow out of woven thread, wood, hooks and steel

My favorite installation was Patrick Dougherty’s Shindig, an installation made entirely out of willow saplings. The large gallery space was tansformed into a wondrous world of fantasy where for a fleeting instance, one could forget one’s human origins and imagine an alternate existence nestled in a natural world of inexpressible beauty.

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I am awed and diminished by the scale and intricacy of Dougherty’s masterful creation
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Wonder is the perfect art experience for all ages

Another dazzling spectacle was the room decorated by artist Jennifer Angus. But like all the works in this exhibition, the intricate design patterns on the walls are not what they seem at first glance….

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On closer inspection the wallpaper is made of thousands of bugs!!!!

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What all the works in this exhibition have in common is the immersive, experiential  and multi sensory adventure that they offer museum visitors. This is the new wave, the new frontier in art and the museum goes a step further by embracing our ubiquitous image sharing culture…

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The Renwick is experiencing an unanticipated flood of visitors. And no wonder (pun intended) – the lady at the information desk told us that this is the happiest museum exhibition she can ever recall!

Visit Wonder at the Renwick through July, 2016.

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Art lights up my life: Bernardi Roig and others

Dan Flavin installation 1996, Menil Collection, Houston

Contemporary art chafes against constraint of any shape or form. This manifests itself in many ways, from seeking out unexpected and alternative venues for exhibiting art, to experimenting with new media and materials that until recently were not part of the artistic lexicon. Light is one of those relatively new mediums that has been harnessed and embraced as a legitimate art form, successfully championed (see above) by the minimalist artist Dan Flavin (1933-1996), James Turell and Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson to mention a few. 

On a recent visit to The Philips Collection in D.C. I was introduced to the dazzling works of Bernardi Roig, an artist from Palma de Mallorca whose installations combine the power of light with figurative sculpture. 

ROIG 8Several of Roig’s works were spread throughout the museum – inside and out. The image of a life sized figure dragging a long train of light like penance was startling. There was something absurd and meaningless about this activity yet one felt that the figure was committed to this journey and accepted his fate. I responded deeply to the work despite the ‘artspeak’ text provided by the museum: “Roig’s work addresses existential dualities of blinding and illumination, absence and presence, memory and temporality as well as entrapment and liberation.” Sometimes it’s best to just look at the art and let it speak for itself.

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Another artist who works in a most extraordinary new medium is German-born artist Wolfgang Laib. His medium of choice is beeswax. The Philips Collection commissioned him to create a permanent installation within the museum. The result is a small chamber, not much larger than a closet, that is totally covered in burnished beeswax. 

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For this particular work, the artist was inspired by Rothko and I see the connection in the subtle play of color tones created by the wax. Entering the space one is assaulted by a heady aroma of honey warmed by a single light bulb. I don’t know if I was imagining it, but I thought I could even hear the murmur of the hive….

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(f you’re fascinated by the way artists can use beeswax, check out another up-and-coming artist who works in the same medium – Jessica Sanders.)

HEADS UP EVERYBODY! SHARING IS IN ORDER – CHECK OUT THE BLOG  POSTED ON THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS, FEATURING MY PERSONAL ILLUSTRATED JOURNAL!!!!!

Private art made public

Lyon Housemuseum, Melbourne
Lyon Housemuseum, Melbourne

Contemporary art is intriguing partly because it is often impossible to define, crossing boundaries and mixing mediums to create ever-changing hybrids. The works themselves are increasingly reliant on digital technology and seem to be growing exponentially in size. It is one thing to admire this new art in a public place and quite another to experience it within a home.

Before leaving Melbourne, I was fortunate to have visited the Lyon Housemuseum, at once a private house and a private art museum.

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The Lyon Housemuseum is modern, light-filled, and spacious, serving equally well as a family home and a repository for the Lyon collection of contemporary Australian art. It opens its doors to the public on designated visiting days when the lady of the house, Mrs. Yueji Lyon, graciously offers a glimpse into what it is like to live intimately with some monumental and complex artworks by artists such as Howard Arkley, Patricia Piccinini, Kathy Temin and Linda Marrinon (whose work I saw at the National Gallery of Victoria the previous week).

Looking down into the white cube from the second floor
Looking down into the white cube from the second floor

Corbett Lyon’s vision integrates the art seamlessly with the architecture, making the most disconcerting works appear quite mundane as if, for example, there was nothing unusual about making sandwiches at the kitchen’s expansive marble counter while artist Piccinini’s streamlined, oversized pink and blue baby trucks squat a few meters away watching a bank of video screens in which teenage girls talk about the rules of the road in a foreign language.

Patricia Piccinini's (Tender) Creatures courtesy Artium Musuem, Spain
Patricia Piccinini’s (Tender) Creatures courtesy Artium Museum, Spain

The immense black cube at the other end of the house is for viewing videos projected to a height of 20 feet or more. The space also transforms into the family’s party room or private media center. I was particularly tickled by several series of works cleverly hidden behind wooden walls that revealed their treasures when swung open with the slightest touch of a hand. So elegant!

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It was a treat to see the way in which contemporary art can make itself right at home when given the correct environment.

Howard Arkley's interior panels line the dining room walls
Howard Arkley’s panels line the dining room walls, expanding the space further into a fictionalized interior

Throughout the house, the family’s own written histories and stories were subtly engraved in text art covering much of the ceiling, reminding visitors that at the end of the day, this was an intensely private collection. Both inside and out, the art made its presence felt – sometimes quietly and sometimes violently. I think it is both noble and generous to share with the public a private collection that has been acquired with such an obvious love for the art of the here and now.

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Images courtesy of the Lyon Housemuseum, Melbourne, Australia.

Reporting from Down Under

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I arrived in Melbourne, Australia at the perfect time to get a snapshot of what’s going on in contemporary art in this bustling, cosmopolitan city. Two of Melbourne’s premier art institutions – the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and the Ian Potter Center were dedicated to the Melbourne Now exhibition “celebrating the latest art, architecture, design, performance and cultural practice to reflect the complex cultural landscape of creative Melbourne.”

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A colored-mirror skyline fragment greeted visitors at the waterfall entrance to the NGV. Once inside, a cleverly designed igloo-like structure demonstrated what one could do with plastic planters filled with plants at different stages of growth (below).

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I followed the path of the exhibition into a very large video gallery where Aussie humor was on full display. Take George Egerton-Warburton’s video entitled Why are you wearing athletic gear if you’re not playing any sport today?  In a Calder-like mobile,  a screen displayed the artist’s feet in sneakers walking through the streets of Melbourne, while on the other end of the mobile, the artists suspended his sneakers by their shoelaces.

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I was also mesmerized by Charlie Sofo’s video ‘33 Objects that can fit through the hole in my pocket’. I watched as combs, lighters, pens, snakes, keys, notebooks, etc. slithered down the artist’s pant leg. I can’t explain it, but I really liked this work!

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There were several contemporary Aboriginal artists represented as well, and the shield as object was evident is several works. One of the Melbourne Now exhibition workshops offered to the public was a native demonstration of how to make a cloak out of possum skins!! You can hear possums scampering about on urban rooftops  ever since they were placed on the endangered species list several years ago.

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I enjoyed several interactive works such as a wall of  postcards printed with the public’s suggestions for how to develop Melbourne in the future, and another installation that comprised a circular wall  that from a distance looked like trees and nests and flocks of birds. On closer inspection the entire scene was created by tiny blackbird stickers that the public were encouraged to build upon. I even got to relive my youth with a fabulous remake of a disco-era dance party (see images of these installations below).

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Linda Marrinon’s plaster and cast figures referenced Hellenistic and Roman sculptural periods, but her individual figures were most decidedly anti-heroic Winter bride, Twins with skipping rope and Voltaire were some of the titled sculptures.

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There were few paintings on exhibit, Linda Forthun’s Bright Lights being among the few: A large canvas of Melbourne’s skyline painted in her signature style using stencils, and overlays.

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In case one starts getting too serious about the art, that Aussie humor will turn up again when least expected, like when I was looking for the Ladies room…

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Blown Away in New York City

The sheer genius of this blog entry’s title describing my reaction to an exhibition I recently saw in NYC will soon become apparent! The exhibition was hosted by the Museum of Art and Design (MAD). Don’t overlook this wonderfully innovative institution when planning your museum quota on your next visit to the Big Apple.  If you’re thinking boring dinnerware or furniture, think again.

The exhibition in question is entitled Swept Away: Dust, Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design. I thought that I had been exposed to most materials which artists use in their creative endeavors but I was wrong. Who would have thought that the dirt you try to sweep under your carpet could produce such powerful, lyrical and poetic works of art? Hence my title ‘Blown Away’ 🙂 !

Take for example the the intricately stenciled traditional pattern which artist Catherine Bertola used to decorate a significant portion of the top gallery. Her designs resemble oversized flocked wallpaper. But in fact Bertola swept up the daily accumulation of the museum’s very own dust and dirt, added water to create a pleasantly grey ‘ink’, and stenciled this mixture directly onto the museum walls to delightful effect.

Jim Dingilim’s row of illustrated bottles defies the imagination. The artist begins by placing empty bottles over candle flames till they fill up with black soot. With his custom-made tools he then laboriously wipes away the soot from the inside till he arrives at breathtaking miniature illustrations depicting nature scenes or bridges with passing cars. The glass allows the back and front scenes to overlap, creating an unexpected dimensionality. One wrong swipe and the entire work would be ruined. Truly a testament to the guy’s talent and infinite patience.

A very beautiful piece by Phoebe Cummings was entitled Flora. Cummings created a magnificent and intricate vase of flowers out of clay. This monochrome floral arrangement was set into a recessed alcove, resembing marble sculptures found in 18th or 19th century architectural detailing. However, the clay was not fired, ensuring that the blossoms dry out, crack and crumble away into oblivion. The artist has claimed that her interest is in the process; what happens after that is of little interest.

Adjacent to Cummings work was an incredibly moving installation Ashes to Ashes by Antonio Rielli. Rielli turned to his own library of books and chose several candidates to burn. He then incarcerated the ashes of each separate book into the stems of individual wine glasses complete with the book’s title etched into the glass. These silent literary urns speak volumes about  destruction and preservation of culture, not to mention the deafening commentary on the fate of books in our e-world.

Rielli’s installation struck a real chord with me, no doubt because it resonated with my own book-based installation Living Without Them exhibited at the Katzen Center at the American University in Washington DC.

There were too many superb works to mention but I have to slip in just one more spectacular piece on another floor. It took my breath away – possibly one of the most perfect installations I have ever seen in terms of the perfect marriage of concept and aesthetics.

Javier Peres shipped over an enormous, exquisite, blood-red Murano glass chandelier from Venice and had it dropped and broken in situ. He then placed stuffed crows over the bleeding mass of broken glass. The effect is startling. Peres is making his point about the craft of glass blowing which had been passed on from generation to generation but is now rapidly disappearing and in danger of becoming extinct. I was speechless. Let me know if anyone else thinks this work is beyond gorgeous…