Published: June 11, 2002
By Carol Sims
RIDGEFIELD, CONN. — Located in suburban Connecticut on the Main Street of a town that predates the Revolutionary War, The Aldrich Museum is known for showing only contemporary art. Whereas many museums have a contemporary department, The Aldrich does nothing else. Neither do they collect art, having deaccessioned the last of the Aldrich collection in the mid-1980s. Consequently, they do not have to curate a collection, conserve a collection, lend a collection, or seek acquisitions. Instead, they spend 100 percent of their resources showcasing contemporary art in a meaningful way. Their summer exhibition, “Family,” breaks new territory and is a case in point.
In the contemporary cutting-edge art world, artists’ work (and the Bohemian lifestyles expected of the artists themselves) is often the antithesis of the notion of “family,” especially of the cares and responsibilities of raising children. This museum makes the point that nothing is off limits, not even admitting that somewhere along the line artists have had or have familial ties, and that these ties can provide inspiration for their work.
In fact, in our day (cloning prohibited) everyone has parents, whether they like it or not. No self-generated artistic entities here. Contemporary artists have all sorts of familial ties: siblings, parents, spouses/mates or children of their own. With this show the Aldrich has taken on a very complex topic. “Family” as a theme for 37 contemporary artists provides us with a thought-provoking experience. Just do not go expecting anything warm and fuzzy.
The exhibition was curated by two artists, Claudia Matzko and Matthew McCaslin, as well as three museum staffers: director Harry Philbrick, assistant director Richard Klein, and curator Jessica Hough. The five curators worked together to bring an artistic acknowledgement to the Art World at Large that cutting-edge artists not only have families, but they have something meaningful to say about them. They started out with 100 artists in mind, and narrowed it down to 37. Some of those artists are internationally known, others are emerging, and one is just out of grad school.
On view through September 4, “Family” includes painting, sculpture, works on paper, photography, video and installation art. The works examine marriage, children, sexuality, gender roles, social class, aging, disease and loss, fertility, infidelity and sibling rivalry. “We didn’t want this show to be [just] about kids,” said Hough.
Much of the show revolves around human generation. A Laura Dunn film entitled Baby was converted to a DVD installation. It records a young man and woman discussing whether or not to have kids. A large fascinating Cibachrome print by Margi Geerlinks shows a white-haired man in a white shirt at a sewing machine apparently sewing the skin on a young blond boy. Entitled “Pinocchio,” it makes you wonder about our basic need for generation and desire for children. Will we try any technology to create them? Does it take two to tango?
“Chrissy’s Caviar” is a technically appealing but gut-wrenchingly vulgar presentation of a woman’s desire to procreate, and to be valued for her ability to procreate. The artist Chrissy Conant underwent medical treatment to harvest more than a dozen of her own viable eggs and packaged 12 of them in attractive, labeled glass jars. The 12 jars were placed in a refrigerated glass and stainless steel display case, such as one might find at the neighborhood delicatessen. Each jar was signed and numbered and for sale. Spaced evenly on the shelves, the piece had the impact of repetition that we find in Warhol’s soup can imagery, only much more sterile.
Conant was just polishing up the display when the press tour came through. She explained that each collector would also get a ten-minute DVD when they purchased one of her now-past-their-expiration-date eggs. “I absolutely want to have children,” said Conant, who has not gone as far as to say “buy one egg get one free.”
Probably the least kid-friendly work in the show is Robert Melee’s “Mommy and Me.” A collection of photographs assembled in a montage showing the artist’s mother (and sometimes him with her) in shocking nonmotherly situations and poses. According to Hough, the artist intends to stretch the maternal stereotype beyond social norms. How did he ever talk her into taking off her clothes, wearing burlesque make-up and wigs and letting her grown son sit on her lap nude? His mother has become his collaborator and has relished her new role as artist’s inspiration; both the artist and his mom attended the opening reception. In this work, Melee has intuitively covered the photos under a garish film of yellow cellophane.
Louise Bourgeois created a smaller-than-life figurative sculpture of an embracing couple. She used golden brown terrycloth for the surface of the bodies. It has a mossy organic look. The woman is positioned higher than the man, as if floating as she hugs him in their vertical embrace. He has no arms. One gets the feeling that this couple has been together for a very long time. It has an aura of comfortable love.
Nan Goldin mounted 24 Cibachrome prints in a 60- by 100-inch testament to motherhood entitled “From Here to Maternity.” Intimate images of nursing babies and pregnant women capture the joy and fulfillment of close private moments. Rather than feeling like a voyeur, the artist achieves a sense of innocence and enjoyment of these moments. Attorney General John Ashcroft definitely would not like it.
Two pieces in the show stand out as metaphors for modern family life. Jonathan Seliger’s stack of pizza boxes (all painstakingly fabricated out of oil, alkyd, acrylic, modeling paste, varnish, on canvas on a lacquer and steel table) and Barbara Pollack’s “Perfect Dark” video installation showing the transfixed gaze of her 14-year-old son playing a video game next to a screen of the game as he played it. The pieces are telling. Families have less time to cook and frequently let children occupy themselves for hours on end with mesmerizing and sometimes violent video games. The game used in “Perfect Dark” was the shoot-and-kill variety.
“I Am U R Me” was created by Tony Tasset in 1998 with the help of a technician. The 30-second DVD loop was very clever. A family of three sat at breakfast with the father, mother and son morphing into each other as they ate. The artist and his family were the subjects of the video. It was done with a nonlooping soundtrack of birdsong and spoons hitting the cereal bowls. As a member of a family, individual identity is sometimes usurped with family identity. Like picking up an accent from the locals, we pick up characteristics of our immediate family. It was easy to watch this piece for several minutes.
Ginger Krebs also morphs identity. Her untitled piece takes a woman’s and man’s shirts and interlocks them by way of sewing together the slightest of fabric strips cut from the bottom of the two shirts. The shirts look as if they are growing out of each other and have become one. The rocking chair on which they were placed carried the metaphor further, hinting at the effects of time on a couple and their joint identity, as well as comfort.
The explosive creativity of a child’s mind was exemplified in Sean Mellyn’s huge 96- by 60-inch colorful oil on canvas with 29 installed objects filling a good portion of one of the exhibition spaces in the show. It was entitled “It’s a Beautiful Day.” A preschooler with bright eyes and wide-open mouth throws her or his hands in the air. Animate nonsensical objects try to crawl into the already full head of the child. Or are they crawling out? Too much stimulation? The piece embodies the uncontrollable energy of a two-year-old. The artist intended for the piece to express a generic universal experience. “I have no interest in children per se,” said Mellyn. “It is a creative playful thing.”
John Corbin abstracted his family ties in his installation. Colored plastic spheres were suspended in an overhead sculpture. Each globe represented a member of his family, with his father at the center and top. The globes were connected with copper tubing and were lit from within. On the carpet of the house-like structure containing the installation was a map of Girlmandy, a mixture of Germany and Ireland. Corbin’s five brothers and two sisters and many nieces and nephews were represented according to how they voiced their geographic ethnic heritage. “What they say is what they are,” stated Corbin. The room was cozy and celestial at the same time.
Similarities within the middle class in spite of different racial backgrounds was one of the themes of an outdoor installation by Sanford Biggers for his “Racine de Memoire.” The piece was built on site using a storage shed on museum property that used to belong to Larry Aldrich (1906-2001). The shed was placed up in the trees on an angle. The artist originally wanted to use an old tree fort, but was pleased to be offered the museum founder’s shed. The “roof” (floor of the shed) was decorated with spirit bottles, a tradition that stems from the South to ward off evil spirits by trapping them in bottles. Inside was a video projection of super 8 film converted to DVD of a black family and a white family as they went through the same middle class experiences, such as birthday parties and Disneyland. The public can climb up into the structure, which has been heavily reinforced.
A classically beautiful sculpture is the cast and carved plaster figures of the artist and her female companion in “Memorial to a Marriage.” The figures of two women in a sleepy embrace are expertly rendered. Folds of fabric drape over the lower half of the figures. Artist Patricia Cronin wishes to honor her relationship in the form of mortuary sculpture of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. “Cronin’s ambitious sculpture celebrates and makes official in death her ‘marriage,’ which cannot be made legal in life,” wrote Hough in her introduction to the show’s catalog.
While the art speaks eloquently for itself in the museum, the catalog fails to speak eloquently for much of the art in the show. In spite this, the catalog is sprinkled with outstanding poetry chosen by Steven Henry Madoff. It also has a good “acknowledgement” essay by Harry Philbrick and a strong introduction essay by Jessica Hough that touches on about nine of the 37 artists in the show. The poetry extends the theme of the exhibition, but does not shed any light on the intent of the artists in creating their pieces, nor does it include any descriptions of the pieces (other than title, date, medium, size and photo credits), or artists’ statements. The installation pieces and multimedia pieces would have especially benefited from a little elaboration, since one still photograph of them is hardly even a reminder of the impact of the work. This is all of the more reason to go and see it in person before it closes on September 4.
The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, 258 Main Street, is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 5 pm. For information, 203-438-4519 or visit www.aldrichart.org.
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