Alfons Koller: Imagine That!

at Tough Gallery, through February 15

Inigo Manglano-Ovalle: Balsero

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through April 6

Kara Walker

at the Renaissance Society, through February 23

By Fred Camper

Installations are hardly new. Ancient cave and rock drawings were surely “installations,” and Renaissance panel paintings were often part of altarpieces meant to fit into the architecture of a church. The idea of a separate painting or sculpture as aesthetic object is newer than installation art, yet museums tend to exhibit all art in isolation: frescoes are detached from their walls, African masks from the rituals for which they were made. Twentieth-century installation artists seem to be reacting against this form of display, exhibiting works together in a calculated context; such artists challenge the concept of a single precious object by spreading their work throughout a room or making it specific to the site. They reconnect art and life.

Alfons Koller, a German artist who used to live in Chicago, has cast some of his pieces directly from the concrete floor of the main gallery of Tough, which is in the basement. Concrete Replica of the Gallery Floor is his title for a large number of one-foot-square slabs of concrete, which he’s imprinted with his own “logo”: a simplified chair with the word “art” beneath it. These slabs lie in individual plastic bags in a grid on the floor. (There are also plastic bags full of gallery air for sale at $10 each.) Art in the Corner consists of two concrete pieces shaped to fit smoothly into the corners where they’re displayed. The Three Steps of Art, placed together on a section of the floor that slopes down, are shaped to fill the depression, making the floor more even.

Koller emphasizes that all these works are for sale–most have price tags on them–and that fact seems a part of their meaning. Here one is invited to buy a piece of concrete that levels a floor or fills a corner. But if it’s installed in one’s own home, it’s riven from the context for which it was made. Koller critiques the very act of collecting.

Koller also challenges the preciousness of art directly, playfully, humorously in some works here that are not part of an installation. The Fake and the Original Together in a Box is a large, shallow box lined with cork: on one side is mounted a van Gogh postcard labeled “Original” while on the other is the same van Gogh postcard labeled “Fake.” Of course both are fakes, but the elaborate frames around each card and the oversize box that contains them add to the joke. DŸrer’s Bunny Went for Plaster Into a Box, in a similar case, presents two plaster casts of a cartoony rabbit on the left and two molds for the bunny, also in plaster, on the right. By giving cast and mold equal emphasis Koller equates process with result, negative with positive, image with its inverse. He isn’t quite saying that all art is created equal, but he’s coming close.

In Tough’s smaller room–a vault with rough, splotchy brick walls–Koller has installed Red – Blue – Green – Yellow, 340 small acrylic-on-paper abstract paintings with titles like “Yellow/Blue/Blue/Yellow” (the titles refer to the order in which the colors were applied). An audiotape intones the names of colors in what sounds like a list of the titles. The delicate patterns of these small paintings are at odds with the vault’s bumpy walls, the antithesis of smooth, white gallery walls. But while the paintings look at first like elegant little abstractions, they’re displayed as if they were sample color swatches. And that perception is closer to the truth: the longer one looks at these pretty splotches the more random and unrewarding they become. With their delicate color combinations, they seem to fit the heroic tradition of modern abstraction–at first they look like some strange combination of paintings by Mark Tobey and Gerhard Richter. But ultimately the colors don’t do much and the paintings start to seem more like mass-manufactured objects–or actual paint samples–than expressive images.

But Koller isn’t trying to make inspired and original images. While many of his pieces are nice to look at, his primary aim is conceptual. Red – Blue – Green – Yellow critiques the whole idea of originality and inspiration in art; patterns that at first look seductive and calculated are soon seen to be repetitive and random. He parodies a familiar scenario in the art world, in which original works spawn increasingly lifeless imitations. An inspired artist may offer a precious object at a high price, but this artist offers 340 uninspired pictures at a bargain rate.

Koller continues his critique of originality in Chair Pop-Inns in Plaster Frames, 98 small, simple acrylic paintings of chairs rendered in various colors and styles. It almost seems as if the artist were appealing to the varied tastes of his public. Each is mounted in a white plaster frame quite a bit larger than the picture itself, which gives it an oddly self-important look.

Once again, these works do not succeed as aesthetic objects. Koller’s various styles are not expressive, the apparent variety disappears, and by extension all art styles start to seem alike. And while the frames may suggest that these paintings are precious, each has a small paper price tag marked $100 dangling from it. Adding to the aura of a thrift shop is a large table strewn with small, low-priced plaster casts of bunnies and chairs near a receipt book.

Koller’s show is fun, a kind of post-Dada mini mart of somewhat flat-footed artistic efforts. Yet it has a serious point too: his repeated images and sculptures take the viewer beyond imagery, suggesting that for this artist thinking is more important than seeing. Unfortunately Koller’s debunking of the idea of the original masterpiece will not likely be new to visitors at out-of-the-way Tough. The people likely to be unfamiliar with Koller’s message, the ones at this moment “investing in” mediocre flower paintings being hyped as the next van Goghs, remain in the galleries at shopping malls.

If Koller’s exhibit is perhaps fighting the last war, returning to issues explored by Dada and Fluxus artists, Chicagoan Inigo Manglano-Ovalle’s installation Balsero at the Museum of Contemporary Art is up-to-the-minute. A raft draped in plastic–“a U. S. Coast Guard raft used to intercept would-be immigrants,” the museum tells us–hangs from the ceiling. In a corner of the room a monitor placed within a life buoy shows close-ups of a torso, but the figure seems more imprisoned than saved. On another monitor attached to one end of the raft at about eye level another video shows the bare backs of four men, seen one at a time. We look beyond their backs to the sea and the suspended raft; the camera tilts as if following the rocking of the waves. (Balseros are immigrants who travel to the United States on homemade rafts, balsas.)

Clearly Manglano-Ovalle’s sympathies lie with the immigrants. Together the videos and the actual raft seem to imprison the human figure. The rocking motion is clearly caused by the camera; frames within frames insert close-ups of a traveler’s clasped hands, or of the ocean–sometimes seen upside-down atop a man’s head. The men’s brown and black skins remind us that most undocumented immigrants are not white. The tape seems intended to produce frustration: looking over the back of a traveler we never seem to move, and the apparent destination of any implied movement is the entrapping Coast Guard raft to which the video image leads. A flashing light at the other end of the raft injects a disturbingly irregular rhythm. The paradoxical combination of video image and actual raft creates a conceptual complexity that prevents the work from becoming too preachy; it also makes the video figures somehow more “real,” more convincing, projecting them into the three-dimensional world of the raft.

If Manglano-Ovalle sympathizes with the balseros, Kara Walker’s installation at the Renaissance Society is so over-the-top it can hardly be reduced to a simple argument. The exhibit includes 20 small watercolors that center on African-Americans and their troubled history in the United States–in one, a black man seems to have an American flag piercing his groin. But the strongest elements are the huge black paper cutouts with which Walker has covered several walls. These silhouettes of human figures, plants, and animals–a variation on a popular 19th-century art form–create sprawling mural-like scenes that don’t necessarily represent actual African-American life in the 19th-century south but an “inner plantation,” in Walker’s phrase.

One of the figures, apparently a young woman, has a large mass below her that on closer inspection seems to be a horse, which on still closer inspection she seems to be fondling. Another woman seems to be about to insert a cotton ball into her vagina: Is she menstruating? A child stands atop a hill of what is apparently human waste, because she’s in the process of depositing a turd. Hamza Walker (no relation) in his excellent essay in the Renaissance Society newsletter calls these figures “a freak scene a la de Sade…a psycho-sexual mess of Looney Toons proportion.” Such figures go beyond parodying racial stereotypes by embracing them: by evoking chaotic, extreme reactions in the viewer, they may cause one to reflect on, even make metaphors for, the ultimately undepictable spiritual depredation of slavery.

At the same time Walker’s powerful silhouettes, their gentle curves frequently meeting in small cusps, have a rhythmic, almost choreographed strength and beauty. Women seem to be dancing; trees and clouds are dynamic and alive. Her choice of a 19th-century form emphasizes our conception of African-Americans as Other. Walker both parodies the idea of African-Americans having an animal nature and celebrates that nature: these figures proudly going about their business are depicted boldly. Faceless, expressionless, and unvaryingly black, they exaggerate the racist idea that African-Americans are indistinguishable even as their outlines individuate them, giving each a different kind of movement and apparently different emotional state.

But the walls are white–no small point here, however unremarkable in other exhibitions. Early in my viewing one image stopped me short: a large, round tub or bucket (in which a boy’s head bobs near a toy boat) depicted by a black outline surrounding an oval white area. I realized I’d been looking at the silhouettes as objects and the white walls as a kind of neutral background. But that’s incorrect: throughout, the white walls are part of the depicted objects–the panes of windows, the white of cotton balls, the strut of a banjo.

In this way the world of Walker’s silhouettes expands to incorporate the entire gallery, becoming a sprawling black-white visual field that suits the magnitude of the subject. At the same time, if the black silhouettes stand for the skin color of Walker’s subjects, one is tempted to identify the white walls with the largely undepicted oppressor. While this is not the only or even primary reading of Walker’s use of white, she does lock these two opposite absolutes in a perpetual struggle, or dance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Red-Blue-Green-Yellow” by Alfons Koller photo by JB Spector/ Installation by Kara Walker.