VISUAL ARTS | “Lifelike” at the Walker Art Center: The strange in the familiar


Last Thursday at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, artist James Casebere was pressed to explain his relationship to the suburban landscapes he depicts in his work: photographs of models of pristine subdivisions on rolling hills. Casebere—an MCAD graduate—mentioned a flurry of thinkers and theories as he batted various ideas around, but he had no definitive answer. The post-modern incongruity of residential lanes featuring Tudors next to Greek Revivals is odd, he acknowledged, but it makes people happy, and he’d like that happiness—that “joy,” he said—to come through in his work.

One of Casebere’s photographs appears in this year’s Whitney Biennial, and another is currently on display at the Walker Art Center as part of the exhibit Lifelike. Curator Siri Engberg has assembled a large assortment of pieces with a common theme of the uncanny: though “special effects,” as Engberg said, aren’t a significant part of the work on display, every piece in the exhibit somehow plays with the viewer’s perception. Through (more or less) subtle distortion, the everyday is rendered strange and new. The pieces, Engberg said during a media preview on Thursday, “introduce the strange into the familiar.”

The exhibit’s point of departure—both theoretical and, in the progression of objects, literal—is the moment in the 60s and 70s when artists started to really play with replications of familiar objects. Andy Warhol’s iconic Brillo boxes are here, as are a giant paper bag and cash register slip by Alex Hay. Deeper in the galleries, things get stranger and more fascinating. There’s Duane Hanson’s lifelike statue of a janitor, Thomas Demand’s video “rainstorm” of candy wrappers (soundtracked by a frying egg), and Keith Edmier’s room replica of the kitchen in the house where he grew up—a detailed recreation that’s both touching and creepy.

Introducing Engberg on Thursday, Walker curator Darsie Alexander complimented the exhibit by saying that it contains a lot of pieces “you can stand in front of for a long time.” That’s true, intriguingly so given that many of the pieces so literally represent ordinary objects. I was most fascinated by Gavin Turk’s Nomad, a sculpture that seems to depict a figure huddled in a sleeping bag in the middle of the gallery floor but is actually made of cast bronze. The fact of its heaviness, its permanence, lends the object a melancholy poignance.

On the way out, one passes Matt Johnson’s American Spirit, a blue box of the hipster-luxury cancer sticks replicated in the same scale as a sculpture that floats in a vitrine, suspended by hidden magnets and caused to rotate slowly. How is one to feel about the piece? I expect that Johnson doesn’t have a ready answer to that question any more than Casebere does, but one might be readily excused for feeling at least a hint of joy.