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Let’s Gauguin again

Two of the city’s hottest young artists riff on the post-impressionist and each other

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Cunningham’s “Teva Sylvian” (top) and Gaia’s Untitled BMA installation

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Cunningham’s “Be Mysterious”


Caitlin Cunningham has had a good month. She was chosen as one of the six finalists for the Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape prize only days before her first solo show opened at sophiajacob. The show is billed as “an inquiry into the mythology of Paul Gauguin and the venerable choke-hold of tourism in the area known as Tahiti,” and a parody of “misogyny in modern art and its relationship to perpetually consumed depictions of idyllic landscapes and escape-fantasies.” The gallery space is festooned with tropical plants, bright colors, and tourist brochures and videos. The large, mockingly imperative centerpiece, “Be Mysterious,” is a long white table, about a foot high. A fluorescent light runs down the center, on either side of which are tropical plants and small clay sculptures. There is something simple, perhaps even simplistic, in the sculptures, but they come together with the plants and the light to create a relatively effective and interesting tableau.

Cunningham often uses plants in her work, and others are placed around the room—especially prominent in “The Greenhouse of Captain Bligh,” where red and blue LED lights create a purple glow that suffuses the gallery’s back room, which is filled with breadfruit trees. The glow produces an otherworldly effect and mimics Gauguin’s use of color in a sophisticated and clever way—with no paint at all. When she does use paint, the result is less clear. In “Rainbow Warrior” she has painted a simple green boat with rainbow stripes on its side, mocking, perhaps, Gauguin’s presumed primitivism. But for all of his tremendous flaws as both an artist and a person, Gauguin makes a magnificent use of color that is entirely absent in Cunningham’s child-like painting on plexiglass. The next painting, “Teva Sylvian,” is far more effective, placing a cutout photograph of a topless Tahitian women of the sort Gauguin was so drawn to (actually Gauguin’s Tahitian brides were generally way underage, and this woman is old enough to keep the photo from counting as child pornography) on a simplified version of Gauguin’s colonial-utopian images of unspoiled nature.

Beside this we find “He Sought Greatness and Found the Soul of the World,” a painted sculpture made to resemble a “primitive” totem. In addition to wood and paint, Cunningham lists “Tahiti Secrets lotion from Victoria’s Secret” as one of the materials she used.

The point she’s making with the Tahiti Secrets lotion is hammered home by the next couple pieces. One is a collage-type piece made of postcards and the cover of a book on France’s nuclear tests in the Pacific. The postcard’s text is particularly funny and disgusting: “Greetings from Tahiti. How do you like that bird? They are all like that here but unfortunately don’t go around bare breasted.”

“M/s Paul Gauguin,” a video mounted on the gallery’s bathroom wall, is a virtual tour of a cruise ship (with a strange, warping visual effect in the center that is mesmerizing, but which I don’t understand)—an obvious continuation of the critique of colonialism.

Art should raise questions, but leaving Cunningham’s show, my primary question was: Why Gauguin? I mean, who, outside of graduate school is interested in a serious critique of 19th-century French colonialism? And Gauguin is hardly the most popular artist today.

When I got home and Googled “Paul Gauguin” to look for clues in images of his paintings, I found that the very first result is for “Paul Gauguin Cruises,” which will take you to Tahiti aboard the “m/s Paul Gauguin.” Looking at the revolting images of the overly happy bourgeois bohemians and very-white tourists lounging deckside or shoving food into their grinning mouths, Cunningham’s final piece—a blown-up frame from CNN of the HMS Bounty sinking—becomes rather more pleasant.

But the show still felt slight for an artist as talented and ambitious as Cunningham. Her room full of plants at the 2011 Baltimore Liste and her massive, chlorophyll-painted, wall-sized piece “Jack/son Torrance,” which riffs on The Shining and Jackson Pollock at Nudashank’s Gran Prix, was of such physical scale, artistic skill, and intellectual scope that the works here felt slight, like “You want to give your solo show to picking on a romanticized artist and some stupid cruise line? Really?” It would be one thing to smash Gauguin if all the young artists were emulating him, but who is emulating Gauguin?

Then I recalled that the first locally commissioned piece for the BMA’s new Contemporary Wing is actually the street artist Gaia’s riff on “Vahine no te vi (Woman with a Mango),” a Gauguin painting in the museum’s collection. Suddenly, in conversation with each other, both Cunningham’s and Gaia’s pieces become far more pressing and interesting.

Gaia’s work, and street art in general, is suffused with a certain kind of romanticism that goes back to Gauguin. “They want to hear you slept on the street. They want the vulgar language and lifestyle. They want to take a photo of you with a mask on. They want you in street art videos with intense music and shots of police cars passing,” the artist told the Washington Post when his installation went up at the BMA. (Gaia openly admits his Upper East Side roots.)

For his BMA installation, Gaia painted portraits of 11 residents of Remington, the neighborhood surrounding the BMA, in Gauguin-esque hues. Across from them, he painted a large image of a dark-skinned woman holding a mango, which is based on Gauguin’s “Woman with a Mango.” Played off of Cunningham’s critique, the BMA’s stated intent to bring the community into the museum seems like a colonial misadventure which exoticizes the community. Kristen Hileman, the museum’s contemporary curator, told the Post that “Gaia was interested in the idea that Gauguin was a French artist who traveled to Tahiti and produced a body of work about a culture that wasn’t his own. And lived in a culture that wasn’t really his own,” echoing precisely the sentiments that Cunningham so forcefully critiques.

I am not claiming that Gaia was the true target of Cunningham’s criticism, only that the comparison is inevitable when we find two of the city’s most prominent young artists both making diametrically opposed work based on that of Gauguin. But there is also a lot that Cunningham could learn from Gaia. For while it is always possible to find fault with people who go out of their own environments and interact with the “natives,” the insular grad school environment of so much of the art world could stand to take a risk and get out of its own sphere of comfort, even if it risks not remaining “pure” in some sense.

This is clear in Cunningham’s show, which seems to be clearly intended only—or primarily—for other artists and the curators of the other galleries around town. Would a regular person walking down West Franklin Street take anything away from Cunningham’s show? Or would such a viewer see only a simply scrawled ship, some houseplants, and a web video? In the end, Cunningham’s criticism produces an extremely safe show that risks nothing. Who could possibly criticize her for knocking Gauguin, this sexist, colonialist pig who is not popular among the artists in her set?

For all the problems with the romanticism attached to street art, Gaia actually did go out and interact with the people he painted. (I happened to bump into him twice as he went around the neighborhood looking for subjects.) He risked being moved by one of Gauguin’s paintings, no matter how unhip it may be. And both learned some lessons from Gauguin’s use of color.

Each of these works shines a negative light on the other: Cunningham’s work makes Gaia’s work—and the institutional BMA’s commissioning of it—seem slightly exploitive, while Gaia makes Cunningham’s work and the small gallery scene seem insular. It is as if each channels Gauguin in order to ask the other questions that could come from his titles: “Aha Oe Feii? (Are You Jealous?)” and “No te aha oe riri? (Why are you angry?).”

But this is exactly the kind of tension and synergy the city’s art scene could use. The small galleries and the larger museums should push each other, and artists should both question and echo each other (whether intentionally or not). While each of these takes on Gauguin is individually lacking, together they give Baltimore a hell of a show.

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