Sunday, March 25, 2012

Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through May 13, 2012

Believe it or not, this is an exhibit at the Hirshhorn I really liked.  Usually, I'm fed up with their shows of pretentious non-art - pieces I could have created in my garage, given a 2x4 and a gallon of paint.  This show, however is really good and well worth seeing.  It consists of the works of several Latin American artists, rarely exhibited, that were originally created in the 1950s - 1970s.  Although they came from different countries and worked in different time periods, they all tried to give viewers an experience beyond passively looking at art - in each piece, in one way or another, you become part of it - you "walk into" it.

It's several large installations, so although it covers a lot of ground, you're only seeing a few things.  I find I take my time more if I'm only looking at a half-dozen items and have a much more thoughtful experience.  Usually, I've got lots to see and only a limited amount of time, so I'm rushing through shows, perhaps having time to go back and look at something I really liked, but perhaps not.  This show allows you to spend plenty of time with each piece, so you really see it.

The first piece (not my favorite) is actually displayed over the top of the escalator.  It's a set of illuminated tubing arranged in a circular pattern on the ceiling.  Although it's neat to ride up the escalator looking at the tubing emerge and neat to ride down and see it vanish, I think the location is more impressive than the art itself.  Illuminated tubing doesn't really do much for me.  Lucio Fontana created this piece of neon sculpture for the IX Triennial of Milan in 1957.  It was refabricated in 2010.  I don't know what that means - refabricated - but I have a sneaking suspicion that someone found the tubing in a box and reassembled it as best they could.  Perhaps I'm too cynical.

The same artist, in the next exhibit space, painted monochromes and then slashed them open.  I gather this is supposed to bring the viewer into the work, but it leaves me cold.  Monochromes, really?  How is this art?  I can do this.  And, if you give me a box cutter, I can slash this stuff open too.

In the same space, is a far more interesting piece entitled Three & One by Jesus Rafael Soto.  It's really difficult to describe; I tired looking for images on the web, but none of them really convey the work.  It's 3-D - a grey background with black stripes with strings in front holding strips of nylon.  It sounds like nothing, but is great to see in person.  Another of his works, Eight Silver is in the same room - it's boxes that project from a background - as you look at the piece, it seems as if the boxes are moving - again, I can't describe it - trust me, it's very cool.

The next installation is Light in Movement, which was originally done in 1962.  I can see that this would have been interesting then - it's a room with a mirrored wall with lights reflecting off moving pieces of metallic material (paper, maybe?) that you walk through.  If you remember the disco balls of the 1970s, you've seen this before.

The next installation is Chromosaturation, which was a bit of a disappointment.  I walked past three rooms that were filled with color - one room was red, another yellow and the other was either blue or green.   I then realized that you could walk through the color saturated rooms, after putting special footwear on so as not to dirty the floors.  I thought I'd be walking into a room of color, but no such thing.  When you're in the room, you just see it as white - it's when you're outside looking in that the colors are really visible.  My rule: if you're going to make me look ridiculous in oversize slippers, I better get something out of it.  If you go to the show, skip this part.

The exhibit completely redeemed itself with the final two installations.  The first was another offering from my new enthusiasm, Jesus Rafael Soto, called Blue Penetrable BBL.  It's pictured above, so I won't describe it, except to say that you get to walk through it - it's really okay to touch the art.  As you walk through, you feel surrounded by "blue-ness" meaning not sadness, but simply by the color blue.  Watching other people walk through is also part of the fun.

The last installation was Cosmococa - Program in Progress, CC1 Trashiscapes which means I know not what, but is a room filled with big cushions and pillows on which you sit or lie down.  In the room, video images flash on the walls and music is playing.  It's not so much that the images themselves are of any great interest; it's watching how other people react to them that makes this so great.  When I was there, I saw a young couple holding hands and an older couple, making use of the room to rest from what I assume was a long day of museum visits.  The person I remember best, however, is a young girl - maybe 12 years old, who was dancing to the music.  Clearly, she had studied ballet, as her movements were very precise and her exuberance was quite contained.  Every time the music changed, her dance changed slightly, as well.  I enjoyed watching her very much - it's a pity she's not there all the time.

Verdict: Rare as it is for me to recommend a Hirshhorn show, I'm going to recommend this one - great fun.

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