VISUAL ARTS | “Abstract Resistance” is not futile, argues new exhibit at the Walker


When contemporary artists get political, it’s often not pretty. Not only because the work itself is gory—sometimes, it is—but because to get political is to raise a specific real-world issue about which one would presumably like some specific set of actions taken, and that kind of explicit argumentation is at odds with contemporary art’s self-assumed mandate to defy form and bugger expectations. That’s the tension that curator Yasmil Raymond explores in Abstract Resistance, the major new exhibit opening Saturday at the Walker Art Center.

Conveniently, a cautionary example of the dangers I’m referring to is to be found right upstairs in the Medtronic Gallery, where Haegue Yang’s Integrity of the Insider is on display for a few more days. Yang has volumes of political and personal meaning to communicate, but as one museumgoer with whom I’ve discussed the exhibit put it, “If she thinks that meaning is coming across in the work itself—it’s not.” A helpful brochure explains it all, but it left me wanting to read Yang’s (unwritten) memoir, not revisit the exhibit.

Abstract Resistance, which began its gestation while Raymond was on the Walker’s curatorial staff and continued after she moved to the Dia Art Foundation in New York, has a couple of tough acts to follow in Galleries 4-6: Peter Eleey’s epochal Quick and the Dead and Dan Graham’s engaging career retrospective Beyond. Both of those exhibits showcased brilliant conceptual work, and in a media preview of Abstract Resistance on Thursday morning, Raymond made no secret of her bone to pick with conceptual art. The “semantics of materials,” she said—of figure and substance and body—have fallen into the shadow of the blinding ideas that drive the conceptual movement.

Drop in, kick back, bliss out

Through March 20, 2011 (!) in the Burnet Gallery, the Walker is displaying companioned pieces by Hélio Oiticica and Rirkrit Tiravanija, each of which invites the viewer to do something more than simply view.

Tiravanija’s untitled 2006 (pavilion, table, and puzzle representing the famous painting by Delacroix La Liberté Guidant le Peuple, 1830) is an installation at which patrons sit at a table in an open pavilion and work together to complete a ginormous jigsaw puzzle of the Delacroix. (I’m guessing the boob will be the first portion completed.) Oiticica’s 1973 CC5 Hendrixwar/Cosmococa Programa-in-Progress is installed in a darkened room in which visitors may recline in deep hammocks while listening to Jimi Hendrix and watching projections of the cover of the Hendrix album War Heroes, the surface of which (per curatorial fellow Camille Washington’s catalog notes) “has been decoratively overlaid with thin lines of cocaine.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that neither jigsaw puzzles nor hammocks are really my friends, and I think I’d rather sit on the “It’s a Small World” ride in endless loop than check in at a resort at which the primary activities are hammock-lounging and puzzle-doing. That said, it is certainly unusual to situate opportunities for both activities inside a major center of contemporary art, and if the artists’ political digs don’t quite come across (I didn’t catch the cocaine, nor did I realize that the puzzle pavilion was inspired by a proposed design for an affordable Pan-African housing system), you can’t miss the novelty—and importance—of the invitation to kick off your shoes and relax. -J.G.

So Abstract Resistance is a show of things—not things you’re allowed to touch (see sidebar), but things you can smell and sense and walk agapely around like Bob Dylan reportedly did when he first met Johnny Cash. A longtime Walker patron in attendance at the media preview said that it reminded him of shows he saw at the Walker when he was a kid, encountering dramatic and deeply strange objects in the wide, white galleries.

The show makes its strongest impression in Gallery 4, where the viewer is greeted by Anthony Caro’s Sculpture Three, 1962 and Charles Ray’s Unpainted Sculpture. The former is a red-painted assemblage of scrap metal; the latter is a grey fiberglass cast of a wrecked car. As Raymond pointed out, both pieces defy expectations: the Caro is abstract, but it’s also “real” in a sense that the authentic-looking car is not. In that gallery, Raymond spent some time remarking on a de Kooning drawing (Woman, 1952) that lies between abstraction and representation, but I think an even cannier inclusion in that collection is Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale-Attesa (Spatial Concept-Expectation), a slashed white canvas. The gallery also includes an element from Lynda Bengalis’s Adhesive Products, a 1971 action in which she poured black polyurethane down the side of the Walker’s then-new brick building. The polyurethane is mounted so that it seems to be pouring out of the gallery wall, like—Raymond noted—a kind of modern-art tar monster.

The collection of work in Gallery 4 is a provocative set of pieces exploring material and form, and I wanted to see more in that vein; instead, the defiled child mannequin in Andro Wekua’s Spectator Standing represents the show’s transition into more explicitly political terrain…and that’s where things get rocky.

Abstract Resistance, the exhibition, takes its name from a 2006 immersive sculpture experience by Thomas Hirschhorn; it’s installed in the corner of Gallery 5, and it’s what most visitors are likely to remember most strongly. Hirschhorn pairs images of brutalized bodies from conflicts as recent as the Iraq War with copies of geometric figures by Swiss artist Emma Kunz, a mid-century figure who called herself a “researcher,” was revered as a healer (she “discovered” a magical rock she called AION A, the powder of which is now officially recognized as a “medical device” in Switzerland), and is today best known as an artist. Another element in the Hirshhorn piece is wooden trunks and planks into which thousands of nails have been driven. Raymond sees it as a brave political statement, a New York critic saw it as an “adolescent crapfest,” and you’ll have your own reaction. As for me, I found it a memorable but depressing meditation on futility.

After the Hirshhorn, the show becomes more diffuse. Some pieces are similarly political (Ellsworth Kelly’s proposal for a non-memorial at Ground Zero in Manhattan, Rachel Harrison’s effigy of Mel Gibson), some pieces are unmistakably corporeal (Bruce Nauman’s Poke in the Eye/Nose/Ear 3/8/94 Edit, a film the title of which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about it), and some occupy a vague middle ground. Gallery 6 was home (more or less) to Irish artist Cathy Wilkes for a week while she constructed a series of pieces, centering on earthy human figures, that give the space an intentionally lived-in feel; the gallery’s back wall is occupied by Kara Walker’s (take a deep breath) Search for ideas supporting the Black Man as a work of Modern Art/Contemporary Painting. A death without end: an appreciation of the Creative Spirit of Lynch Mobs—. The 2009 work, a new acquisition by the Walker (the art center), is a series of 52 sheets of paper on which Walker (the artist) has inked obscure expressions like oxtail stew long enough to choke on finding sustenance in recounting the harrows of youth in theory and in practice a great lay.

Of course, practice is considerably more important than theory when it comes to sex, and Abstract Resistance makes a similar argument about art—but I don’t entirely buy it. Both The Quick and the Dead and Beyond were full of wonderfully interactive objects that used the body to stimulate the mind; in comparison, Abstract Resistance feels inert. It’s worth seeing for its many notable pieces, but Raymond’s provocative argument (that a seemingly conservative focus on material media vs. grand aesthetic theories can also be a progressive focus on actual human beings vs. grand political theories) doesn’t read as clearly in the exhibit as she’s able to express in person. The whole of the show ends up being equal to—but no more than—the sum of its parts.