Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hey MCA, Why so serious?

by Stephen Cummings

Rodney Graham

Currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago is a show called The Artist's Studio (or something like that). It's a collection of, um, contemporary work that deals with — surprise! — artists' studios. So, points for straightforwardness. A decently interesting sampling, the media ranges from painting to a galleryfull of laser-etched glass. Also prominent are a performance (now the remnants of a performance) by Indian artist Nikhil Chopra, and a room of videos by William Kentridge. It's definitely the best work I've seen by Kentridge; a little lighter, not quite so Oh, this is so profound. Not quite. That self conscious gravity is by no means absent. Chopra's performance, likewise, while potentially funny, was pretty heavy, and created a rather imposing space. And given the way he talks about the work, I doubt if he means to wink in our direction.

Actually the whole show is pretty serious. But unnecessarily. The driving force behind the insistently sober intellectualizing of every element seems to be more the museum than the work on display. To illustrate this point, I'll take as examples the two artists who bookend the exhibition.

At one end — the end end — there plays a video piece by Justin Cooper. It's not the only work in the room, nor the biggest, but its ferocity ensures that it is absolutely the focal point, overpowering the artist's large-scale drawings. Produced at Skowhegan, Cooper's video begins outdoors, a hand-held shot that soon moves into the studio where what can most closely be described as a tantrum ensues. The camera, or the cameraman, perhaps the viewer, proceeds, after examining and struggling with the place a bit, to tear apart the space with all the savagery of a Scottish terrier, furiously flailing about the room in an effort to displace the contents of seemingly every surface, small-animal grunts and snorts included. The point comes across pretty quickly, and it's silly. (Yep, sometimes people come into your studio, and yep, sometimes they rip you a new one.) This kind of poor-me artwork is the height of self absorption. Nobody cares. It's possible this piece is meant to be ironic, but the heavy-handedness of the snarling destruction produces a bizarre earnestness. And the museum presents it straight-faced, as if this is a profound statement about studio experience, as opposed to simplistic whining. A similar video might feature a group of painters talking about how they can't keep the pigments off their clothes. Nauseating.

Better work is to be found at the entrance to the show. There, a couple of photographs by Canadian artist Rodney Graham strike an undeniably humorous note — a note the museum utterly fails to acknowledge. Let's first consider Artist's Model Posing for "The Old Bugler, Among The Fallen, Battle of Beaune-la-Roland, 1870" in the Studio of An Unknown Military Painter, Paris 1885. Now one might suppose that with a title like that the jig would be pretty much up. But loathe to admit the absurdity of such a thing, MCA's analysis has Graham "propos[ing] the artist's studio as a site where history is perpetually restaged and reconsidered." Then there's Artist in His Studio (which appears above in the context of book cover). Says MCA: "Artist in His Studio alludes to Graham's other role as a musician, with a subtly offensive hand gesture perhaps betraying a conflicted sense of the kind of studio artist he would prefer to be."

Or it's a joke. "Subtly offensive hand gesture"? Where I'm from we call it the finger. Graham's work — as well as that of some others in the show — is funny, and for MCA to just ignore that fact, seems to me to be missing out on a large part of what's there. Plus, it perpetuates the problem of alienating a lay audience by insisting that there's something they're not seeing. Sometimes work is just funny. Why don't we embrace it already?


  1. Serious as the show may be, I'm glad you can write about it with humor. nice work

    on another note, I feel it is kind of pathetic that it has taken me until today to find out about this blog. =_+ blahh... need to work on my observation skills


  2. Not sure I completely agree with your analysis of the video piece. I see something else in it entirely: at once hilarious and strangely autobiographical (or is it biographical since it's about my life and not his? What if it's both?).

    Now, I did not see the piece in the context of the show nor any writing associated with it, but it seems to be more about the artist's efforts within that confined space than the critic's intrusion (in a way). What do you think?

  3. Hm. Good point. After another viewing I concede that my initial analysis as to the identity of the actor was completely wrong. (I guess I couldn't be bothered to stay in the gallery long enough to catch all the details.) It is KIND OF funny, though First Date (which you can see on his website) is much more so. (That one I like.) I maintain however that Studio Visit is a 'poor me' piece. (And maybe, yes, poor you, or poor us, artists.) It is hard to make things sometimes . . . oftentimes. But should we complain about it?