First Impressions: Viewing a Traditional Medium Through an Untraditional Lens

Posted in art by Anna on August 6, 2009

Yesterday I had the opportunity to quickly pop into the MCA and check out its new exhibit, Constellations: Paintings from the MCA Collection, and was pleased to discover the MCA’s approach to presenting paintings by recontextualizing them.

Most art exhibits showcase one artist or genre of artists in a safe, contained, chronological manner.  Constellations rebels against this traditional layout almost combatively, by opting to group paintings in “constellations” based on a common subject or stylistic decisions rather than by reducing them to their genre or time period.  This provocative creative decision makes for an original, conceptual, and academic exhibit in the best way possible.  By approaching curation from such an unconventional angle, the show’s curators highlight the futility of attempting to categorize art.  The show’s title, however, while clever, doesn’t necessarily fit what is presented in the galleries.  Constellations work together to cohesively present a larger image, but often these grouped paintings seem to exist as free-floating entities sharing a space rather than a collection coexisting diplomatically.  While the artists’ concept, subject, or idea in a given constellation may have been similar, their varying artistic interpretations differ greatly, and in doing so, do not reflect the unity, so much as the diversity that exists in painting as a medium.

Vasell's turbulent, pensive interpretation of a forest.

Vasell's moody, pensive interpretation of a forest.

For instance, in a gallery thematically centered on depictions of landscapes, Laura Owens’ “Untitled” is displayed next to Chris Vasell’s “Untitled,” a creative decision which highlights the two works artistic differences, rather than their thematic similarities, as their drastically contrasting interpretations of a forest scene rips the common thread of subject apart at the seams.  Vasell’s darkly gnarled and knotted forest of piercing sharp plum-maroon tree branches (some of which are textured like bark) are placed against a starry eggplant tinged night sky.  This small, intimately tight knit work seems to leap away from Owens’ enormous canvas of cast white fog through which peeks one fleeting glimpse of tree trunk.  Together, these two pieces encapsulate the epitome of small vs. large, open vs. cluttered, and pitchy, mysterious dark vs. insane-asylum white.  They create drastic opposition, fighting each other rather than intermingling calmly through their common subject.

There are, of course, moments where similarities stitch works together.  Paintings integrating popular media, for instance, knit a more overt thematic yarn, creating a sense of artistic unity in form and intention.  This kind of togetherness also exists in the gallery displaying non-representational art, which gives the immediate impression of a common agenda, of several artists speaking in unison.  Nevertheless, for the most part, the MCA’s Constellations rarely blend together to present an image as clear as Orion of the Big and Little Dipper—instead, presenting a wide range of artistic visions which together create a diverse artistic canon of wildly different visions, stories, and messages.  When grouped together, contemporary paintings do not present the overt connect-the-dots clarity of the images found in the stars—nor should they.