It is a wonderful curatorial feat - this selection of such disparate artists and disciplines. There are seven artists and three architects all wildly varying in their approaches to their work. But they are united by a desire to reflect and affect social, cultural, political, or ecological changes. It is bold and uneven and powerful. Walking into this show is an immediate and wonderful shock. From the staid neoclassical facade you enter the world of Betty Saar(b.1959). You are surrounded by free-standing assemblages and collages incorporating cages, ritual and shamanistic objects from Africa and African-American folk traditions. They initially seem somewhat whimsical until you engage with them and then their power comes across. All of the objects have deep symbolic meaning. They are informed by her background as an African-American, Irish and Native American, and her gender. They are full of references to bondage, slavery and exploitation.
Bill Viola’s(b. 1951) video Tempest (Study for the Raft) is riveting viewing as the group of ordinary looking people who are very static slowly begin to move singly and subtly and then to interact with one another and then heavy lashings of water come at them from the sides and all the while their poses and groupings morph into images which bring to mind old master and Renaissance paintings.
Vik Muniz(b. 1961) work also references classic works of art in the poses he uses for his portraits in the Pictures of Garbage series. There are seven large scale photographs of the catadores, the workers in Brazil’s largest landfill who labor picking out the recyclable items from a mountainous landscape of smelly garbage. The images are comosed of the objects from the landfill arranged in a painstaking and fascinating way and produced with the help of the catadores themselves. The individuals are rendered with much sensitivity and monumental dignity and the portraits are richly beautiful.
The self-taught artist Thornton Dial (b. 1928) represented by three elaborate assemblages also uses cast-off items to render evocative semi-abstract images which address the issues of his time and place such as poverty, racism and war in a very raw and powerful way.
The three Soundsuits of Nick Cave (b. 1959) never fail to amaze and amuse. They are both sculpture and performance pieces as they are meant to be worn and danced in. They completely cover the head and body therefore depersonalizing the wearer and becoming symbols. There is a vividly-colored one made of human hair, and others of fabric embroidered with mixed media, buttons, sequins and beads. Mr. Cave is a dancer, musician and a choreographer as well.
A Dragon Kiss Always Ends in Ashes by Kenyan artist, Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972) is a
complex collage of of a serpent and a nude women entwined floating in an undefined space enhanced with mysterious and mythological elements. It both sensuous and ominously fraught with danger. The Untitled (Styrofoam Blocks) sculpture of Tom Friedman (b. 1965) bridges the gap to the architecture which is also featured. It is a mound-shaped form built up of blue styrofoam blocks intricately arranged to suggest a densely designed city on top of a city which is actually either spreading around the lower perimeter or coming apart. It is a thought provoking piece.
The work of Greg Lynn (b. 1964) and his architectural firm FORM are represented by drawings and a model of Lynn’s RV Prototype, a futuristic modular living space with maximum utility of every surface. It is both sleek and charming in it’s pod-like shape.
Moshe Safdie’s (b. 1938) U.S. Institute of Peace Headquarters in Washington D.C. is shown in drawings and photographs as an example of his innovative designs and materials dealing with urban issues as well as his interest in toroidal forms. It is a sublimely sophisticated and beautiful structure.
Kate Orff (b. 1971)and her firm SCAPE are engaged in sustainable, affordable and attainable landscape architecture. The drawings and model for her innovative “Oyster- tecture) are a wonderfully low-tech contrast to the other architectural selections. This is a concept which uses eco-friendly natural materials (including oysters) to solve a problem (water pollution) and simultaneously produce a human-scale recreational area. It is a community project in which everyone can participate and we can all look forward to it’s future.
Images Courtesy of The National Academy Museum