Get Visual: MASS MoCA, At Last
A recent survey reported that just 13% of Americans are happy – the other 87%, may simply need a visit to MASS MoCA.
A lot of people hear the words “contemporary art” and immediately think they can’t relate (why they seem to think they can relate better to 19th-century art – i.e. Monet – is beyond me). But the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams is so friendly, and the art there so fresh and varied, that I believe it could make many converts of those stodgy grumps.
On a recent (much delayed) foray, my wife and I viewed nine exhibitions (among many others), and we really had a good time doing it. Need I explain that the place is huge, with nine buildings and some spaces so vast they might be better measured in acres than square feet? So it requires stamina, and a lot of time, if you want to try to see it all.
The primary temporary show, entitled How to Move a Landscape, features several monumental works by Blane De St. Croix, an eco-artist committed to battling climate change by making art about the effects it can have in far-flung places, such as above the Arctic Circle. It also includes a great deal of smaller-scale work, covering a range of media from drawing to sculpture, installation, animation, and video, in addition to a research section that offers sketches, photographs, and other ephemera.
Unlike most political artists, De St. Croix hasn’t lost his sense of humor – much of his work is quite playful, even as it confronts our pending global disaster. Notable in this regard is an electric train set that runs in a circle near the entrance to the exhibition, piercing a wall tunnel-like twice as it goes round and round. Its cars are loaded with modeled tranches of tundra, neatly offering a solution to the show’s titular problem.
This witty miniature is balanced by a massive, tilting construction in the huge gallery beyond that looks for all the world like a life-size swath of melting glacier, which you can perambulate and walk under, and even poke your head up into (via some of its melty craters). Technically, De St. Croix’s sculptural illusion is effective, yet it’s also obviously a physically challenging bit of installation. Entitled Hollow Ground,I found it very likable and, frankly, far more interesting live than it looks in pictures.
Underscoring De St. Croix’s emphasis on scale is a “monumental miniature” entitled Broken Landscape IV that depicts a long, deep slice of the U.S./Mexican border. The meticulously crafted sculpture stands eye-high, and is dozens of feet long, with tiny details of grass, telephone wires, and, of course, the barrier fence marching along its surface.
Near the sprawling St. Croix exhibition is a relatively small one-room installation by the Argentine artist Ad Minoliti that more than makes up for its size by deploying great swaths of cartoon-bright colors. Indeed, Minoliti is something like Disney for the cultural elite (that’s us, dear reader!), and served on this visit as a delightful palate cleanser as we moved on through the museum.
Ledelle Moe, whose massive concrete heads and figures occupy the famously football field-sized Building 5, is another sculptor utilizing scale to powerful effect. Entitled When, the installation seems to impose silent contemplation on its viewers, similar to the awestruck effect of standing in a vast temple or cathedral.
While this collection includes works from as early as 2005, the show’s central piece is current. 2019’s Remain is an 18-foot-high kneeling female figure that evokes the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. In addition to the figure, Remain incorporates a complex scaffolding of metal rods that support innumerable small concrete forms of uncertain identity. The sculpture is deeply impressive even while remaining rather mysterious, as is the rest of the work in this show.
Another sprawling exhibition currently at MASS MoCA, entitled Kissing through a Curtain, engages with questions of communication, crossing borders (its 10 artists come from all over the world), and – obliquely – our current crises of COVID and racial injustice. Unfortunately, I found the work simply didn’t engage my interest, much of it seeming to try too hard.
In one example, Justin Favela’s painstaking paper and glue renderings of numerous landscape paintings by Jose Maria Velasco, which are provided as a starting point for the show, come off as merely colorful kitsch. In another, Kim Faler has suspended a panoply of enlarged sculptural renderings of chewed wads of bubble gum. Are you kidding me? In the end, I couldn’t find the inspiration to care about any of these artists’ obsessions.
On the other hand, the Them and Us/Ellos y Nosotros exhibition by the Mexican-American artist ERRE (aka Marcos Ramirez), communicates and engages effectively across languages and and borders, using varied media while literally straddling the frontier between Tijuana and San Diego.
I loved this show for its audacity in making art out of common materials such as printed metal signs, cloth fabric, wood, neon, and kernels of corn, and for its liberal incorporation of the Spanish language (significantly, there are more than 50 million Spanish speakers in the U.S., though it is still not an official language here).
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