About Place: Recent Art of the Americas

at the Art Institute,

through May 21

For a century now the Art Institute has regularly mounted curated shows of recent U.S. art. But this year, in our expanding post-NAFTA world, the “American” show includes 16 artists of the Americas: Canada, Latin America, and the United States. I approached it with skepticism, but curator Madeleine Grynsztejn has organized her selections around a coherent theme and created something quite different from the usual hodgepodge museum survey of recent art. This exhibit actually encourages the viewer to think seriously about its stated issues: location and dislocation, subjective and objective approaches to locale, and the increasing dissolution of national boundaries.

Grynsztejn’s insightful catalog essay begins somewhat misleadingly with quotations from Wallace Stevens’s poem “Description Without Place”: the lines “Description is revelation. It is not / The thing described, nor false facsimile” suggest the romantic and modernist traditions, in which the artist is given free rein to invent whatever subjective landscape he wishes. The artists in this exhibit are considerably more modest. Almost all give the stuff of physical reality equal weight with the artist’s vision, painting from photographs or using purchased or found objects. These works do not create new worlds so much as engage in dialogue with the real one.

Guillermo Kuitca’s San Juan de la Cruz makes a kind of poetry out of geographical displacement. On a large mattress he’s painted a map of part of Poland: twisting roadways of red and blue connect what appear to be small towns. At each of the seven mattress buttons is painted the name “San Juan de la Cruz” all in caps, indicating a large city. On one level Kuitca seems to be addressing his own identity as the descendant of Russian Jews who came to Argentina; perhaps the map portrays the mind of an emigrant thinking of a New World city while traversing his homeland.

But this is definitely not the triumphant fantasy of a heroic romantic or modernist painter. For one thing, a map on a mattress suggests the pathos or absurdity of dreaming of some other land while lying on the object one can always call home, one’s bed. For another, this particular mattress is heavily stained, its discolorations resembling the relief features of a map. Kuitca’s used mattress is far from the free, open field of a blank canvas; its surface and history deny him the freedom to reinvent the world.

Some think an artwork should be comprehensible without any outside knowledge, but the works here almost beg the viewer to ask questions, leading away from the art object’s self-sufficiency and toward a dialogue with the world of facts. A map, with its implied facticity, suggests the viewer do a little research, and it’s easy to discover that San Juan de la Cruz, unlisted in any atlas, is a fantasy city, apparently of Kuitca’s invention. But why has Kuitca focused on this apparently randomly chosen section of Poland, without coastline or recognizable cities? I thought I’d found the answer when near the bottom of the map I found Oswiecim–the town that, when the Nazis ruled Poland, was known as Auschwitz.

But if one compares Kuitca’s mattress to an actual map of Poland, it turns out that he’s included almost the whole country. The Baltic coast isn’t readily apparent because, rather than switching to blue at the top, he just paints a few inches of land without towns, making the country seem landlocked and self-enclosed. And no big cities are visible because he’s managed to arrange his map so that there are mattress buttons wherever Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, and Lodz should be, all replaced by his fantasy city. Now the story of the work is revealed: the centers of culture in Poland, a country with a long history of anti-Semitism, have in his mind been transformed into the presumably friendlier “San Juan de la Cruz.” But because maps are testable against real geography in a way that more abstract art is not, this map’s obvious falsity acknowledges the impossibility of Kuitca’s wish.

Colombian artist Doris Salcedo’s mysterious Atrabiliarios (Defiant) also calls on the viewer to learn more about its context. It consists of 36 wall niches each of which contains one or two women’s shoes and is covered with translucent animal skin, stitched into the wall with thick black thread. As Grynsztejn points out, the niches are “reminiscent of religious reliquaries; and indeed, Colombian cemeteries regularly contain small niches to hold the body’s cremated ashes.” We might well wonder who owns these shoes, fuzzily visible through the skin, and the helpful exhibition booklet informs us that these were the actual belongings of “the disappeared,” those “abducted and killed by paramilitary authorities in Colombia.”

What makes the work unforgettable is the way it fuses elements that are themselves displaced. The shoes, many neatly buckled, once belonged to someone, but we see them alone. The black stitches recall those used to sew up wounds rather than clothing, and the animal skin evokes human skin–a reference, perhaps, to horrible tortures. It’s as if the artist were trying to heal some wound, to make things whole again; but the black thread calls attention to the seam, and the animal skin visually distances and embalms the shoes. This fusion of different associations and impulses effectively suggests the chaos of emotions evoked by murder.

While for many Latin American artists displacement is geographical, Canadian Jeff Wall’s large photo images address cultural issues more than issues of place. Large Cibachrome transparencies are mounted in display cases with fluorescent lights illuminating them from behind. The compositions often mimic the conventions of European painting, but frequently the action in the foreground has been staged.

In An Encounter in the Calle Valentin Gomez Farias, Tijuana, a rutted, litter-strewn path in a Tijuana slum ascends a hill, creating a depth illusion that draws the eye in. But in the foreground a dog and rooster face off, stopping the eye’s journey before it begins. While such a confrontation is of course possible, this one was carefully staged using trained animals. The flat fluorescent backlighting and the glass sheet covering the image further deny the viewer entry, instead trapping him in several contradictions. This image of poverty is presented in a format generally used to sell products to the affluent: and the hugeness and depth of the image create a seductiveness at odds with the setting, while the foreground animals and backlighting flatten the space. Wall strips away the usual contexts for documentary photography, fine painting, advertising display, and cinemalike staging; the juxtaposition encourages the viewer to see each genre as insufficient and incomplete, perhaps encouraging a search for, in Wall’s phrase, “something better.”

Chicagoan Kerry James Marshall, in his recent series of paintings on Chicago public housing projects with the word “garden” in their names, also wants to make something better. In the painting Better Homes Better Gardens two children walk arm in arm down a sidewalk before well-kept redbrick buildings rendered in a manner that recalls both photography and traditional folk painting. Over this precisely delineated setting, Marshall superimposes a fantasy arcadia of birds and flowers, painted in a rougher, fuzzier style than the rest. The fuzziness identifies the flowers as something hoped for, not yet attained; how this state might be achieved is suggested in Many Mansions. Three well-dressed African American men tend beautiful flower beds at Stateway Gardens; these flowers, also roughly painted, suggest that paradise can be attained through practical human effort. A quotation on a red banner, partly obscured by a cloud, confirms Marshall’s utopian goals: “In my mother’s house there are…sions” refers both to these homes and to the New Testament, in which the “many mansions” in “my Father’s house” (John 14:2) means heaven. But what makes the work effective is not the overt message but the pictures’ overall look: painted on unstretched canvas and hung unframed, they refer in part to a long decorative tradition in African American art. Stand back from each painting and the colors cohere almost abstractly; the whole design is itself like a garden.

The Latvian-born American Vija Celmins bases her paintings on photographs and thus also encourages comparisons with daily seeing, but her work’s inner poetry and exclusion of social reality set it apart from the rest. Her five paintings defy categorization, humble those who would describe them, and elude elucidation. Perhaps it’s that she’s by far the greatest artist in the exhibit; perhaps it’s that her subject, nature, is more rewarding, self-renewing, and suggestive of transcendence than, say, old mattresses.

In the all-gray Desert Surface #2 pebbles and stones cluster together, producing mysterious, almost shimmering light and depth effects. The tactile pebbles seem to thrust out, while the dark shadows behind them seem tiny windows on a void. The whole quivers and glimmers with the illusion of actual earth, yet one is never quite sure what is in front of what.

Night Sky #2 does something I’d always thought impossible, even on film–it captures some of the complex, nearly infinite depth of a patch of stars. Some are bright, some dim; some sharp, some fuzzy; there are dark areas, but most of the painting is filled with the glow of (presumably) the Milky Way. Wherever one looks there are multiple layers: some areas shine out, others draw one in, and others seem endless voids. While Celmins owes much to the methods of northern Renaissance masters, who built up their pictures with multiple layers of glaze and paint, her goal is not to re-create their illusions of a fixed space: she envisions a nature that cannot be pinned down in space or time, immeasurable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago.