Always a pillar of the local contemporary art scene, in recent years the Walker Art Center has been expanding its reach in a Googlesque quest to become all but synonymous with that scene.
The Walker has been aggressively expanding its programming in music and theater—last fall hosting the world premiere of Jay Scheib and Anthony Gatto’s opera The Making of Americans—and in film, where its thoughtful bookings are increasingly important as other independent film venues stumble. Besides hosting the primary online hub of Minnesota artists and artlovers—the editorially independent mnartists.org—the Walker has its own bourgeoning internal blogosphere. It’s hard to believe that all this activity isn’t coming at the expense of the Walker’s core strength, its world-class collection and exhibition program, but its new show The Quick and the Dead demonstrates that there too, the Walker has all cylinders firing.
At the center of The Quick and the Dead is the Walker’s savviest and most impressive recent acquisition—visual arts curator Peter Eleey, who was hired amid fanfare in 2007. The Quick and the Dead is the first major exhibition curated by Eleey, and it doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. At a media preview on Thursday morning, Eleey led guests through the sprawling show with a palpable pride that was entirely justified. As he turned to walk down the hall into the dramatically darkened gallery, his laconic grin recalled Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: he was going to blow our minds, and he knew it.
It’s very much to the credit of the Walker’s leadership that Eleey was allowed to get away with curating such a big, expensive show that isn’t based on a pat, attention-grabbing theme. Broadly speaking, The Quick and the Dead is a show of conceptual art, largely from the past 50 years, but Eleey is adamant that he doesn’t see it as a survey. If that’s a dodge, it’s a smart one, since a conventional survey of conceptual art would be a near impossibility. Conceptual art as an articulated aesthetic movement reached its peak in the late 1960s, but the movement’s central premise—the necessity of deconstructing the art object and acknowledging the centrality of the idea behind the object—has since become pervasive in contemporary art. Though not every serious work of art produced in recent years ought to be considered “conceptual,” nearly every work now demands to be interpreted as the manifestation of an idea rather than as a purely self-contained object. In this way, conceptualism has forced us to see art works as existing and extending beyond the gallery walls; in The Quick and the Dead, Eleey’s central preoccupation is with work that explicitly or implicitly engages this premise.
And yet, you need to have something to hang on the wall—even if it’s just a sentence typed on a piece of paper, alluding to an unspecified idea that may occur to the artist at some point in the future (just such a piece by Robert Barry is part of the exhibit). The term “conceptual art” has a barren sound to it, but The Quick and the Dead is a madhouse of visual delights, each one engineered to stretch the viewer’s imagination. In a work by Michael Sailstorfer, a motor spins a Porsche tire, which gradually wears itself away against the gallery wall. Tobias Rehberger’s multicolored lights reflect the illumination level outside the Walker exactly one week previous to the moment of viewing. Rivane Neuenschwander’s clock counts away the minutes, but each minute is displayed as simply 00:00. Steve McQueen’s film of a horse lying dead in a field loops itself on endless repeat, the immobile carcass ironically preserved in suspended animation.
Thursday morning, Eleey appropriately cited Sol LeWitt: “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists.” Each artist represented in The Quick and the Dead shares the mystic’s aim of reaching for realms beyond the here and now. A blue sky painted, by Simon Starling, on the gallery ceiling was sprayed there using batteries charged by solar power in the Spanish desert; the sky is meant to represent that Spanish sky. A gleaming silver skull by Kris Martin turns out to be Martin’s own skull, replicated through the use of imaging techniques. A mirror signed in reverse by Marcel Duchamp, godfather of conceptual art, puts the artist’s stamp on images of subjects who survive him; who may, indeed, have been born after his death. The Quick and the Dead should really be experienced at least twice: go once for the sheer fun, then go again to really think about it.
As Eleey has observed, artists in the classic conceptual art movement failed in one of their central self-appointed tasks: to make the art object obsolete. The art world was, and remains, based on physical objects. A collection of exquisite tokens of the ultimately ineffable, The Quick and the Dead perches more steadily on the ledge between concept and object than any other show I’ve recently seen. Eleey is dauntingly erudite, but he has a gift for choosing and presenting work that will tickle your fancy even if you haven’t read Michel Foucault or Walter Benjamin (both of whom Eleey mentioned on Thursday). In fact, if you never want to read Foucault or Benjamin, I can’t blame you—but if you miss The Quick and the Dead, I can and I will.
Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
Top: Rivane Neuenschwander, 00:00, 2007; metal, plastic, vinyl; edition of 3, 1AP; 4 3/4 x 13 3/4 x 3 in.; Collection Curt Alan Conklin, Chicago; courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; photo by Fabian Birgfeld. Bottom: Steve McQueen, Running Thunder, 2007; 16mm film (color, silent); 11.41 min.; ©Steve McQueen; courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman, New York/Paris, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London
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