Art in the ‘Nati
A trip back to the midwest to visit family and friends over the Easter weekend turned into a veritable feast of art, beauty, and culture. In Cincinnati? Who’d-a-thunk-it?!
First stop: Contemporary Arts Center. I was fortunate to have been in design school at the University of Cincinnati, College of DAAP when the infamous Mapplethorpe exhibit (1990) opened in the old CAC location.That controversy embodied the art vs. obscenity argument. In hindsight, the indictments and trial were a good thing, as they raised consciousness about our First Amendment rights (the ones we clearly can’t assume are always protected), and connected people to their deep, but perhaps latent opinions about art and its role in our society.
I still have etched in my psyche particular pieces from that exhibit. The image of the black and albino man (Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, ’84) is practically an icon for a generation. And, I will never forget the sexual charge, and accompanying social implications of Man in a Polyester Suit, an image of a black man with his ample willy freed. I had never seen such potent imagery in a museum context. Thanks to conserv- atives labeling his work “dirty pictures”, it was able to find a much larger audience.
I recall when CAC’s new building was announced with much fanfare, and then completed in 2003. The selected architect, Iraqi Zaha Hadid was a somewhat controversial choice. This would be her first American work. Its raw concrete and desconstructivist forms offer a much needed freshness to the downtown civic landscape. Once inside, the criss-crossing black stair ramps, which can be followed all the way to the top floor, cut across each open atrium like shafts of night sky, and offer precarious and exciting vistas on all sides to the floors below.
CAC has no permanent collections, only rotating ones. The current gem of their collections is the work of Tara Donovan (open til May 3rd). She was born just a year before me (’69), and is clearly capitalizing on the hot botton issue of all the trash we create as a society, and our need for a greater consciousness around sustainability and refuse reuse. In this she also elevates the ordinary to art. However, unlike any work I’ve seen before using such materials, it stands on its own, even apart from its meaning, as visually impactful and singularly beautiful.
Since I have young nieces and nephews in Cincinnati, I was sharing with my sibs that this exhibit has easy appeal to all ages, and would provide a great opportunity for a young person to be really provoked and fascinated by contemporary art. I really believe that about Tara’s work. (Not to mention the UnMuseum which occupies the entire top floor, and was created for children.) Even more than most artwork, her work must been experienced in person to really be absorbed, and believed! The subtlety of it relies so heavily on the contextual lighting, and subtle spatial and tonal shifts. The scale of some pieces is so grand that photographs just can’t do them justice.
This is especially true with the wall of drinking straws, which in person looks like a portal to another dimension, a wall of haze and smoke, a suspended cloud, but upon further inspection reveals the true media.
Each of the pieces seems to call to mind something familiar in nature: a coral reef, a bacteria colony on an agar dish (that was one of my mom’s fabulously memorable interpretations!), an animal egg colony, or natural terrain or topography. And, all of this conjured up with scotch tape, styrofoam cups, adding machine tape, mylar, and other odd industrial materials. The monolithic cubes of silver pins, wooden toothpicks, and green sheets of glass were held together by gravity alone, NOT any internal filler or binding, as you might suspect. Amazing!
Donald Sultan’s “The First Decade” was notable for the use of the linoleum floor tiles that I remember so well from my grade school floors. Yes, that mundane, ordinary, industrial material has been turned into something truly beautiful in his work.
He employs the “less is more” approach, creating workers in a field (in Cantaloupe Pickers), a single Streetlight (at left), or smoke stacks out of a few simple forms, and often using gestalt concepts. The inherent patterns in the media become a part of the visual story (ie: ripples of water, or clouds). He also uses black tar in his work, creating rich matte black voids, often to contrast the colorful linoleum, or the smooth purity of white plaster.
Carlos Amorales’ “Discarded Spider” hit closest to home for me, as a graphic designer. He uses overlapping digital silhouettes (ie: black lines, and connective vector anchor points), so familiar from Adobe Illustrator, as the art itself, creating essentially simple forms of spider webs, skulls, birds, and nudes. He draws from inspiration in the urban environment of his Mexico City home and studio. From stark black prints to giant physical structures that reached from floor to ceiling, this is the sort of art that triggers the familiar “why didn’t I think of that?” reaction. Each piece, although based on the same elements, feels as if it’s a unique and custom expression all its own.
Next stop, I’ll blog about the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center…