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Adam Brooks: DeNaturalized

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through July 5

Margo Mensing: Red Bibs/Playing Baby

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through July 5

By Fred Camper

The idea of “recontextualizing” artworks by altering the usual manner of display–part of a shift away from purist aesthetics, giving art a social context–is all the rage. Both Adam Brooks and Margo Mensing, in exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chicago Cultural Center, have been given the opportunity to present art in a fresh way. But though these exhibits are provocative and engaging up to a point, both are also sorely disappointing–I even ended up longing for the much maligned standard-format museum-style exhibition.

For “DeNaturalized” Brooks selected 24 works from the MCA’s collection, 16 of which are jammed into a small room complete with computer terminals programmed with information about the art. The other eight works (not all on view at the moment) have also been listed as part of the show, but I never saw a visitor to Brooks’s room seeking them out. The main problem with the exhibit is conceptual, however. In a booklet for the show Brooks, a Chicago artist, argues that “throughout the history of art-making, depictions of nature have, in reality, been pure artifice. A bucolic landscape is, after all, merely pigment pushed around on a flat surface.” Brooks then says that all the works he’s selected “address, either directly or obliquely, our expectations of the natural world.” But “obliquely” must cover a lot of territory for him, since the show includes Larry Clark photos of on-the-edge youth and a Cindy Sherman film still. Brooks did tell me that in his view nature has come to include the urban landscape, and if his point is that we’ve lost all awareness of nature, his selection of Clark and Sherman and the like might make some sense. But instead Clark’s 1980 photos are near a work much more directly tied to nature, Julia Fish’s Cumulous (1990), a delicate painting inspired by subtle variations in the sky’s light. If this is the sort of range covered by “obliquely,” I find it hard to imagine what art would not qualify for inclusion.

“DeNaturalized” is the first of four projects “designed to build connections with Chicago-area colleges and universities in order to increase and diversify the museum’s college audience,” says an MCA press release. The two computer terminals, displaying a program Brooks designed with the MCA’s Joe Hoy, are in keeping with this educational goal. Brooks calls the program his “artwork.” I don’t know if it’s art, but as museum-sponsored computerized info goes, it’s better than average. Some sections further advocate Brooks’s ideas that nature now includes culture and that our complex, chaotic society has destroyed any fixed standards by which situations and objects can be judged; the section “Natural Behavior” includes a quote from Nixon that “when a President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” There are sections on each artist, some of which include a video of the artist speaking. There are a number of short statements or queries about each artist, a significant portion of which were written by Brooks. Some of these are interesting; others read too much like textbook questions. “How much visual information,” we’re asked in the Fish section, “must an artist provide in order for us to engage with the work?”

These programs contain useful information, but given the technology available the presentations are surprisingly sparse. Why not include a huge number of works by each artist, with many detail views? Why not give extensive bibliographies? There are videos of the artists talking but none showing other artworks–a walk through a Gordon Matta-Clark installation would make a wonderful supplement to his photograph in the show. Nor are the videos even fully interactive: once begun, they cannot be stopped.

But to me these are much less serious flaws than Brooks’s “culture is nature” thesis. I’m always baffled when someone espouses this argument, now common, saying for instance that there’s no more wilderness so we don’t even have to think about it. At the rate we’re going, soon there may be no more wilderness, but at this point the Amazon rain forest is not totally cut down and our only hope of saving it begins with acknowledging that. And just as we must view actual artwork, not reproductions, to understand art, so appreciating nature requires an unmediated, unacculturated experience of it–wandering in the wilderness, perhaps.

When Brooks was a boy he did go to Africa with his family and was impressed by such sights as a cheetah killing an antelope, which they saw from their VW bus. But he admits that he was hardly able to go off alone, and that the trip “was framed within a notion of tourism.” The reason people think that nature and culture have merged is that the only nature they’ve seen has been subsumed by culture. It’s true that a trip to northern Canada or the Amazon may be difficult, but still one should not make determinations about–let alone construct museum exhibits around–something he hasn’t really encountered. That Brooks can write of artists presenting nature through “pigment pushed around” and exclude the two works of Richard Long on display in the adjacent galleries, one of which uses actual rocks and the other actual mud, is to my mind a testimony to his underappreciation of art inspired by nature’s raw forms. These have their greatest power when seen in the wild, but the actual leaf Ana Mendieta incorporates in her wonderful 1982 untitled leaf drawing (included in the exhibit) creates an effect far more delicate–and far more mediated–than Long’s “raw” materials.

Brooks may not know a lot about nature, but he does know something about art: there are fine works here, some not usually on view, which he culled after a long period of research into the MCA’s collection. The cluttered display he’s chosen is mostly detrimental to the viewer’s experience, in that very different artworks require very different kinds of attention, but sometimes at least the juxtapositions are interesting. I wouldn’t have thought a Matta-Clark photo of a building “deconstruction” had anything to do with Fish, but seeing it next to her Cumulous reminded me that his documentation of huge, arcing cuts into a building’s floors, walls, and ceilings introduce an organic hint into an otherwise rectilinear space.

Brooks has also done a great service by resurrecting one rarely seen masterpiece, Christopher Wilmarth’s New Ninth (1978), which has not been on view in 12 years. A large piece of glass, partly frosted due to Wilmarth’s trademark etching of it with hydrofluoric acid, hangs in front of a metal plate. Part of the metal is cut and bent to resemble a partly open double door. Though in some ways this door seems inviting, the frosty, hulking mass seems to render entry impossible. New Ninth has an overpowering aura of weight and mystery, of unfathomable form and space, a quality that’s heightened when one knows that the artist killed himself–a fact not included in the computer program.

Margo Mensing’s exhibit, “Red Bibs/Playing Baby,” wryly comments on the pretentiousness of museum exhibitions, purporting to offer a history of the red bib in various cultures. A variety of designs attributed to places like Egypt and Japan, many reported to be quite old, are presented under glass; photographs and a slide show underline the red bib’s diverse purposes. But something is amiss: for every apparently authentic “ethnographic” photo of a person in a bib, there’s another that’s humorous: a bib installed on an empty child’s swing, a bib placed on a heroic public bust of some great man.

The photos fancifully tweak images of authority, bringing them down to the level of the children for whom the bib is presumably designed. Even General Such and Such monumentalized in the park, Mensing seems to say, needs a bib when he eats. The playful photographs of contemporary adults wearing bibs also infantilize them. The slide show’s wide-ranging images seem to reflect a desire to bib the whole world.

The way Mensing undercuts museum exhibition practices is also amusing–up to a point. The bibs on display are all accompanied by wall labels giving dates, countries of origin, and catalog numbers such as “I. 3 – 2 D.a.” The detailed texts describing each object quote scholarly sources. One label accompanying a Chinese bib tells us that “it may be a hoax,” implying that the others are not. Another bib, soaked in dried milk, was supposedly used by a sickly child in 19th-century Nebraska out of a belief “in the power of the red bib soaked with the milk of a year to keep a babe strong.” According to a wall label, all this should help us think about the way “common items which are subsequently recast within a museum setting invariably gain new authority to become rarified artifacts.” The exhibition booklet begins with the statement that a museum exhibit inevitably draws on “the cultural assumptions and resources of the people who made it.”

I have just one small problem: nowhere in the show’s documentation are we told that the bibs were all made by Mensing herself. That fact is hinted at, perhaps, by the suggestions in the wall labels and exhibition booklet that the show is tongue-in-cheek. And at the opening Mensing confirmed my guess. But I also overheard her respond to another viewer with an ambiguous answer that suggested the bibs were accurately described by the wall labels. The exhibit isn’t really a hoax, however, because if the other viewer had pressed her or the Cultural Center staff, or simply looked closely, he would have gotten the right answer. I got it just by looking–whether purportedly from Egypt, Japan, or the United States, the bibs are all similar in style, design, and hue.

Art stunts can be fun, and I suppose in some sense this one is–or would be if the exhibit didn’t defame, through its false claims, not only much greater traditional artifacts but the genuine and vast differences between cultures. The Art Institute, the Field Museum, and other museums around the world contain many “common items” with originally humble uses “recast within a museum setting.” But most of these don’t gain authority from their context–they gain it from the fact that, looked at quietly and carefully, they are incredibly, ecstatically, transcendently beautiful. And this beauty can be see without reading the wall labels, in the uncommonly strange patterns of ancient Egyptian woven fragments, in the unpredictable patterns of Kuba fabrics from Zaire, in the incisive narrow bands of color in Plains Indian garments, in the world-map abstractions of ancient Peruvian tunics. They all speak in incredibly different voices–they seem to have come from different worlds, where there are genuinely different ways of seeing.

By contrast Mensing’s bibs speak in a monotone; for me they wound up having the opposite effect to the one apparently intended. Like Brooks’s exhibit, hers made me appreciate existing curatorial practices, which provide information but also allow the viewer to discover the aesthetic qualities of each object. Beauty always trumps cuteness, and aesthetic power outshines ironic commentary.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Cumulous” by Julia Fish, from Adam Brooks’ “DeNaturalized”; Margo Mensing’s “Red Bibs/ Playing Baby”.