Saturday, November 10, 2007

Death Is Becoming On You: Chelsea’s Heavy-Hitters Check In With Mortality

Cheim and Read’s current installation I Am As You Will Be, which runs through November 3rd, features forty-four different artists’ incarnations of the modern memento mori in thirty-three similar pieces. Partially curated by Xavier Tricot, the exhibit explores both a human and an artistic obsession with death and the skeleton through a wide chronological range of artists. More of a historical show than a presentation of new works or artists, the content borders on transforming Cheim and Read into a mini-museum with its largely secondary-market pieces. A parade of who’s who in modern and contemporary art history, the exhibition uncovers the more obscure work of household names, drawing on the notion that death is a pervasive topic every artist addresses at one point or another.

The show opens with the dynamic Jenny Holzer piece, Lustmord Table (1994), unquestionably an intelligent decision on the part of the show’s organizers. The organically mortal work consists of 149 bones, 50 teeth, and 17 engraved silver bands encircling select bones, all neatly on an antique and rustic wooden table. The skeleton is gendered female through statements inscribed on the silver bands such as “I step on her…To suck on her…Her breasts are all nipples…” placing it in a more personal and approachable context as a work of art. Along with Holzer’s sprawling bodily remains, the first room of the gallery features mostly small drawings and etchings of well-known artists such as James Ensor, Paul Delvaux, and Salvador Dali. The work of James Ensor and Paul Delvaux appear several times, reflecting an obvious bias of the contributing curator, who is an Ensor scholar and Belgian national.

The second room of the gallery contains more sketches and small works dispersed among larger and stronger pieces, all by noteworthy artists. A lithograph by Pablo Picasso, Le Pichet Noir et la Tete de Mort, and a graphite sketch of skulls of Leon Spilliaert are amongst this grouping of undistinguished works by blockbuster artists. More formidable art such as a rare bronze sculpture by Lynda Benglis, daguerreotypes by Adam Fuss, and Damien Hirst’s Male and Female Pharmacy Skeletons (1998/2004) provide a greater framework and cohesion alongside the mediocrity of the comparatively minuscule pieces by modernist mammoths.

It is in this second room that one may begin to question whether the curator randomly chose famous artists and researched whether they had ever quickly sketched a skeleton. It seems that their presence is used more to fill up space between the dominating work and as a way to showcase Cheim and Read’s staple of master artists rather than an attempt at curating a show with initially interesting pieces. The choice of using art as filler is purely practical and aesthetic on the part of Tricot, placing an emphasis on visual cohesion rather than an overarching potency.

The third and fourth rooms of the exhibition are the strongest in that they feature little "filler" art, opting for pieces that can stand independently as interesting works of art. The monumentally sized collaborative painting of Lady Pink and Jenny Holzer, Tear Ducts Seem to Be A Grief Provision (1983-84), along with the intricate and life-size multi-media painting of Angelo Filomeno are highlights of the third room. Filomeno’s embroidered silver-on-silver The Philosopher’s Woman (2007), subtly adds a reflective dimension to the other equally notable surrounding works through its monochromatic tones and glistening rhinestones. The adjoining fourth room also exhibits show-stopping pieces such as the heart wrenching sculpture Arched Figure No. 2 (1997) by Louise Bourgeois and an installation by Katharina Fritsch, Pictures With Mirror and Skull (1998). Bourgeois’ sculpture, a straining figure arched in the final moments before death, is at once intimate and monumental with its small stature and emotionally charged rendering. It is one of the few pieces in the show that successfully delve under a hard and academic exterior of mortality into an affecting and tangible realm. Fritsch’s installation, which features a skull facing a large mirror, literally reflects the contents of the room along with the face of the viewer, adding an inclusive quality to the surrounding paintings and sculptures, and the room in general.

In its totality, I Am As You Will Be is an incredibly cohesive and beautifully rendered display of a variety of greatly accomplished artists. Tricot organized the show with thought and care, the individual pieces feeding into one another’s strengths and universal message of the transience of human existence. The presentation of the show is successful in that it allows each piece its own breathing room, which is perhaps the main function of the small drawings and etchings, the weakest elements in the exhibit. The show is also consistent in its aesthetic approach, with nearly all work undertaken solely in neutral tones and matching wall texts in a complimentary bone color. The overall effect is very pleasing to the eye and lends an extraordinary flow that detracts attention from the exhibition’s shortcomings . One such weakness being that the historical elements of the show, mainly the pre-war works, were a bit of a distraction from the function of the show as a display of contemporary memento mori.

The exhibit could easily transfer into a larger, museum-based context where it could then include a plethora of historic works, rather than a spattering. The retrospective of the skeleton could outline the history of the tradition through a large span of periods and even cultures. Or, on a simpler scale, it could be more successful by excluding all non-contemporary work and, therefore, function in its original environment of a smaller, gallery-oriented exhibit. As a result of leaving out the historic art, the problem of using small (and largely uninteresting) drawings as connective filler would be solved as well since nearly all of such works were pre-war. Admittedly, even without revision, Tricot along with Cheim and Read have presented a visually satisfying blockbuster to start off the busy fall season in Chelsea. A natural critic and crowd pleaser, I Am As You Will Be feeds upon a collective fascination with the only certainty, and the greatest mystery, of life.

No comments: