Whither the Museum?
Recent shows raise the question of what museums do
Published: August 14, 2013
Art museums are in crisis. Of course, the city’s museums are still suffering from the economic collapse in 2008. The Contemporary Museum suspended operations last year (though they are happily reopening without a permanent location and a super-low budget); the Walters laid off a number of employees in 2009 and reduced its budget by over a million dollars; and the Baltimore Museum of Art laid off 14 employees this spring after its government grants dropped off by 43 percent and its endowment shrunk by 39 percent (the endowment has recovered some since).
But there is also a crisis of identity and ideas, which has both positive and negative effects. At the same time as Gregory Vershbow’s Walters Art Museum show Site Unseen “invite[s] us to wonder why we care about these objects in the first place,”—as Bret McCabe, our reviewer, put it—the Walters also transformed itself into a thumping, throbbing disco for a recent party, complete with buxom blond Stoli girls with impossibly long legs and impossibly short red dresses. (It is not hard to imagine what the Guerrilla Girls might say about that.)
But one of the main changes is coming from the art itself: Artists aren’t necessarily making the kinds of work that are best viewed in museums anymore. Gabriela Bulisova’s Sondheim-winning work at the Walters was positively hindered by the museum’s presentation of it: the documentary, better seen at a theater, was nearly ruined when the sound became impossible to hear over the unfiltered voices of other visitors and guards.
Gaia, the street artist, was the first local artist chosen by Kristen Hileman, the BMA’s contemporary-art curator, for a show in the BMA’s new Contemporary Wing.* As happened when graffiti art first moved into galleries, Gaia’s untitled piece in the BMA’s Front Room was not well-served by the museum space—except that the BMA lent him institutional authority while he lent them street cred. When Hileman first chose him as the first Baltimore artist to highlight in the new wing, he was incontestably hip. Now, after a bit too much attention to Open Walls and the disappointing BMA piece, there might be a bit of Gaia backlash.
Jimmy Joe Roche, the Wham City/Dan Deacon collaborator, is the second local artist to be shown in the space, and with the exception of his sculptures, the museum setting does not serve him well either.
Like his Wham City colleague (and City Paper comic artist) Dina Kelberman, Roche made his name with art that is naturally seen on a computer screen. His quirky videos, such as “Rooster Bob’s - Caffeinated Chicken,” “Freedom was Made in 7 Days,” or “Gather ’Round,” are products of Youtube. They star Roche himself playing over-the-top characters (who are essentially the same, despite their different costumes and settings).
His BMA show—shared with England’s Nathaniel Mellors—uses three of these videos, but unlike Kelberman, who took her “Smoke and Fire” site and made it massive for her show at the small Nudashank gallery, Roche, or Hileman, was content to have his videos shown on small screens on the BMA wall. I am watching “Beamsplitter” on my screen this very moment, and it comes across better than it does at the museum—partly because I do not have to wear headphones to hear its squishy soundtrack.
Whatever the format, these videos are especially disappointing. It feels as if Roche were trying to chose the works from his oeuvre that he felt were the most “arty”—but all three still come across like disconnected clips of David Lynch’s most abstractly ominous movies. “Beamsplitter” features a bespiked and made-up denizen of the Deathfest crowd morphing into weird digital swirls that signal the Lynchian uncanny with no actual danger. (It would be impossible to guess at the number of artists ruined by Lynch’s aesthetic, but Roche’s is at least the second generation derailed by the meditation master.) The morphing process seems reminscent of Roche’s live performances, where he attaches electrodes to his face to distort video, but here they are without context, abandonded to feel like images best viewed between emails during the slower moments of the work day.
“Peacing Out” features Roche in character, his face tinted, flashing a peace symbol as he sways back and forth woozily, almost in and out of consciousness, until he is engulfed by bursts of light. The whole thing would make a cool music video for Jonathan Richman’s song making fun of Hippie Johnny if it were channeled through Portlandia (the video brings out the slight resemblance that Roche shares with Fred Armisen).
If you’ve seen anything from this show, however, it is probably Roche’s photographs “Baseball” and “Whoops,” both of which feature the artist with tall hair and a contorted face. The images are, apparently, related to a series of photographs on the artist’s Tumblr page, where a crying face of, say, a baby is manipulated to look like it is smiling. But, on the museum wall, it just looks like Roche is doing a cheap Cindy Sherman by making a goofy face. It feels like these images derive all of their value from the name of their creator rather than their own aesthetic power.
That cannot be said of the tremendously impressive “Greater Black Astral Dipper,” a giant, Rorschach-like sculpture of tin and aluminum hanging on the wall with a weird glowingly psychedelic pastel sheen. Not only do the sides of the sculpture mirror each other (as if the metal was folded and cut), but they mirror Warhol’s giant Rorschach painting in the next room. Along with the similar sculpture, “Great Alaskan Meta-Dripper,” they are the highlights of the show, not necessarily because Roche’s sculptures are better than his videos, but because the museum actually adds something to the medium, rather than detracting from it. One wishes that either Roche or Hileman would have insisted that the show consisted of more of these works, instead of following the already-cliched idea that the more mixed the media the better. There could have been a truly great show here—and a great showcase of Baltimore art.
Instead, neither Roche nor Gaia have been shown in their best light at the BMA, as if the museum itself is no longer sure where its strengths lie (as I finished this piece, the New York Times published an essay by Judith H. Dobrynski about the inordinate push to make museums interactive rather than contemplative). Surreal Selves, a show featuring three out-of-town painters, has, so far, been the best Front Room show, because it filled the space so well.
Nathanial Mellors, who shares this show with Roche, is best known for Ourhouse, a series about an eccentric father and his family—think the British version of Shameless mixed with The Royal Tenenbaums. The episode on display is funny, moving, and pointedly aimed at the art-crowd.
“Of what use is an experience if it goes unrecorded,” the father says to his two sons before dunking himself beneath water to time himself holding his breath. The daughter talks about a pile of junk on the floor in an empty gallery as an “assemblage” and an “energy system,” and creates a sculpture out of a Q-Tip sticking from a wall.
And yet, there is still no reason for it to be in the museum, where, when one walks into the black box, it is already in progress, you have no idea how long it will last (34 minutes) or where you are in the loop as other viewers pass in and out, distracting you. Sure, one could say this is all part of the experience (and for some pieces, like Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez’s installation in 2012’s Gran Prix, it makes for a great experience), but it would be hard not to argue that this show would be much better at the Charles than the BMA, or, perhaps better still, while kicking it on the couch with a cold one.
There is another video, “Saprophage,” that somehow reminds me of Chris Elliot from the 1980s, and scenes from the making of “Saprophage” are projected onto the vase of a wooden sculpture. All of which, once again, feels like a desperate attempt to make what is essentially a film project “multimedia.”
Then you see the gorgeous Venus of Trusson series, described as “prehistoric photogrammic originals,” which present lovely Rauschenbergian blurs, the coolest one of which actually uses the darkness of the black box, lit by a glowing crystal on a pedestal. It is the best use I’ve seen of the museum’s new black box.
People will say that the black box is one of the triumphs of the BMA’s renovation to the Contemporary Wing, but the conversation feels reminiscent of those in my own industry talking about paywalls: a temporary solution at best to the real challenges that the digital world will present. When a reproduction is not even a reproduction but the work itself, and when the work is actually better served by being seen somewhere other than a museum, what is the role of the museum in relation to contemporary art? If the Front Room is any indication, the answer may be obvious: to house paintings and sculptures, while hosting digital works on their websites.
The Front Room: Nathaniel Mellors and Jimmy Joe Roche is on view at the BMA through Sept. 29. For more information, please visit artbma.org.
*An earlier version of this article stated that Gaia's work appeared in the Front Room, whereas it was actually a site-specific installation that was not considered part of the Front Room. City Paper regrets the error.
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