The Henry Art Gallery’s current exhibit, THE TIME. THE PLACE., is a fitting celebration of the museum’s unique role among regional art institutions, and a change from its usual curatorial program. And yet, at least thematically, the curation remains consistent—and it’s a good thing.
Bodies of Work
Over the last several years, The Henry has approached the fundamental idea of embodiment from diverse perspectives. Ann Hamilton’s multisensory, immersive the common s e n s e focused squarely on embodiment and touch. The north galleries were covered with images of taxidermied animals. Visitors navigated a cloth maze to find empty garments, made from skins and hair and bespeaking a body’s absence. A photo booth upstairs captured the visitors’ own bodies behind a screen that rendered them like blurry ghosts.
A retrospective of Franz Erhard Walther featured his soft sculptures, which force one to reckon with the complexity of even simple gestures—body as instrument. Senga Nengudi then brought her own twist to soft sculpture, which transforms stuffed nylons into distended proxies of the body—primal, uncanny, vaguely genital. Chris E. Vargas’ The Museum of Trans Hirstory (MOTHA) assembled narratives, images and artifacts from transpeople addressing embodiment and the ways in which the body is politicized—even criminalized.
The recent Doris Totten Chase exhibit considered the body in motion and transformation, which requires another medium: time. Chase’s exhibit thus unified embodiment with time-based media, which has been another consistent element in The Henry’s curation (notably 2016’s performative exhibit, Six Weeks In Time). In short, THE TIME. THE PLACE offers fellow art nerds plenty to ruminate on regarding the curation alone, but more importantly, it offers fresh, compelling artwork for all audiences.
The Henry’s aforementioned monographic exhibits were curated from other collections. Even Ann Hamilton’s show, curated in-house, drew more from the university’s library and the Burke Museum than from the Henry’s own substantial collection. Much of that collection has not been shown publicly, but in celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2017, THE TIME. THE PLACE. shows select works acquired by The Henry in the last twenty years, most of which were created in the last thirty.
This collection is not an unimaginative, nigh obligatory potpourri of Warhol, Stella, Lichtenstein, Pollock, Koons, et al that one often sees (and blurs with others). The Henry’s curators don’t cram, and the placards are insightful without limiting the interpretive possibilities. Associate Curator Nina Bozicnik is the chief organizer of THE TIME. THE PLACE. and one of the lead thinkers behind The Henry’s focus on embodiment. She and others had to determine their own curatorial constraints, and it is also clear that everything was thought through—to encourage one to do one’s own thinking.
Because the show occupies the full museum but other exhibits will come in gradually, the various sections will close at different times. It is a lot to take in, but this review will give you just a little of the where and when to see the great works at THE TIME. THE PLACE.
In the North Galleries (through April 22)
As one enters the north galleries, one sees a pedestal, on which sits a large, unmarked dial. Titled “Ibi Sum,” it’s an on-the-nose initiation for the show. The artist, Kris Martin, wears a GPS tracker at all times, and this “compass” (and others like it) point at his body, in absentia, wherever he is in the world. Any time. Any place.
Artist Annette Lemieux is also present by proxy in the north galleries. Her movable brick wall (a trompe-l’oiel made of wood, shingles and pumice gel) occupies the dimensions of her own body, spread-eagle. In an adjacent room, Jeffry Mitchell’s installation “The Tomb of Club Z” is a ceramic proxy of the eponymous gay bathhouse. Gloopy, well-endowed figurines cavort in its multi-tiered vitrine behind folding screen that, at a glance, looks fit for a nursery.
Mitchell’s work shares space with Gerhard Richter’s photographed paintings depict members of the Baader-Meinhof-Gruppe. The Stasi-backed BMG were a source of terror for West Germany, and then of shame when their harsh treatment in prison (including a few member suicides) and their trial led people to question the West German authorities’ ethics. In Richter’s work, their ghostly figures seem to be seen in infrared in a windowless cell.
If we allow ourselves to completely abstract what we are seeing between the two dungeons—Mitchell’s consensual, Richter’s carceral—a compelling conversation might arise between the pieces. However, the proximal begins to feel parallel, and knowing the full history, the real suffering on display, the juxtaposition feels jarring to the point of misfire.
Then again, this show does not shy from pieces that challenge complicity and numbness. Around the corner from Richter and Mitchell, a whole wall is filled with digital paintings from Jon Haddock’s Screenshots series. The artist made these images at the turn of the millennium when the game The Sims offered PC gamers a chance to live out suburban, bourgeois drollerie through dim, accident-prone avatars in McMansions of their own tacky design. Haddock was disappointed by what he saw as a missed opportunity—to confront ethical dilemmas through a virtual life.
In response, he used the game’s graphic style to depict key moments of violence and cruelty from the last century. A few are fictional (the chief bankers’ humiliation of Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins; a moment from 12 Angry Men). Most are iconic, but viewed from an unfamiliar perspective: the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis; the Pont d l’Alma tunnel (with crashed black sedan); two young gunmen in black meandering through a school cafeteria. Despite their cartoonish simplicity, they have a way of pinning one’s stomach to the floor. I suspect that every visitor will have a moment of nauseous recognition. For me, it was the otherwise benign image of a sparse, split-rail fence near Laramie, Wyoming.
It’s unpleasant, but effective. The Warhol in the gallery, “Birmingham Race Riots,” looks cheap by comparison, but it’s a comparison that I can endorse. Warhol’s cynicism adeptly flattened the banal, the superficial, the fraught and complex to a uniform, unreal snippet, and thus reiterated popular numbness and complicity. Haddock, conversely, takes the visual idiom of intellectually bankrupt, bourgeois wish-fulfillment and uses it to recharge images that, by their proliferation, have become as banal as the evil that they symbolize.
In the Mezzanine and Lower Galleries (through March 25)
Works like Haddock’s lower barriers to entering contemporary work; they are conceptual, but readily apprehended. There’s a lot of that in THE TIME. THE PLACE. and very little of the hermetic side of the art world talking to itself (which accounts for a lot of postmodern work). Everyone can see the humor in Mungo Thomson’s dig at art market commercialism, The White Album (2008). Displayed on its own in the mezzanine by the museum cafe, this massive anthology contains no essays…just every ad in Artforum from 1970-1979.
In the gallery just below is another humorous metatext: Euan Macdonald’s The Fields, which displays and plays the BBC Sound Effects Library. Interspersed with small photos, the vinyl records and their content face renewed scrutiny and reveal an implicit cultural bias. (Read more about The Fields in our Art in Focus review.)
The Henry’s large, lower gallery has been divided into two sections for THE TIME. THE PLACE., with the eastern side dominated by works inspired by landscape and human relations with it. The centerpiece is Richard Long’s “Puget Sound Driftwood Circle.” The surrounding walls hold a lot of photography: Tracy Moffatt’s documents of hardscrabble life in the Australian Outback; Lewis Baltz’s unorthodox, nocturnal diptych of the Piazza Sigmund Freud; Jack Pierson’s melancholy view of a sunset at Provincetown.
Everywhere, there are throughlines connecting pieces throughout the show. Pierson, for example, was responding to human loss at the peak of the AIDS crisis. His photo ties tacitly to the ACT UP Art Box displayed in the north galleries, but also obliquely to Bill Viola’s Anthem at the front of the museum. One can almost read Anthem as an abstract, thematic guide to so much of what one sees in THE TIME. THE PLACE. (Read more about Anthem in our Art in Focus review.)
What unifies the artworks at the far end of the gallery (and the exhibition as a whole) is the objectification of others—whether they are objects of desire, fear, curiosity or commodity. Miguel Calderón’s untitled installation seems sprightly at first, as a film projector shines on a mirror ball at floor level. But what is the fragmented image on display? The interpolation of an LAPD gun training video and a portrait of the artist himself being riddled with bullets.
Lauren Woods’ (S)Port of San Francisco will induce some giggles as Romantic strings begin to play and the video zooms in on the faces of white women watching with longing and interest as young, black Oakland Breakers perform. However, underpinning the work is a dead-serious critique of sexual and racial dynamics, the othering gaze and the bias of the eye in art and documentary, especially film. Adjacent, the placards and photographs of Lorna Simpson’s “Square Deal” challenges present viewers to look past projected assumptions, cliches and biases of their own.
But my personal favorite among these is Sharon Lockhart’s two photos of a mason, Enrique Nava Medina, at work in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Medina is behind a transparent barrier and repairing a floor in front of a vitrine containing ancient sculptures. The mise-en-abyme renders Medina as object or (simultaneously) reinvigorates one’s understanding that the objects behind him weren’t always detached, without a time or place of their own. They have their own history, their own story, and the institution can be an agent of destruction as much as preservation in this light.
Nothing in THE TIME. THE PLACE. is in situ, either, and usually modern art museums can evade such questions of provenance. Many artists, in fact, vie expressly to place their work in such collections as a matter of prestige. Is this now the primary role of modern art museums in this time and place? That question remains unanswered, but it is to the curators’ credit that they seem to be asking it among themselves here. We should, too.
The full exhibition of THE TIME. THE PLACE. is on display at The Henry Art Gallery through March 25. A partial view will be on display through April 22. See the website for details.