Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Western Ho!

I realize that driving 2 ½ hours west of Boston isn’t exactly reaching the great frontier but in the aptly titled Purple Valley, in the shadow of Mt Greylock, one could find a veritable world full of art treasures. North Adams alone could fill a week – with its vibrant studio scene, street front galleries, and of course, the largest contemporary art space in the US – Mass MoCA. And right down the road is the ever bucolic Williamstown, a theater-haven in the summer, and art haven all year round between the Clark and the Williams College Art Museum (WCMA). 

In a hurried, or as we like to say, efficient, trip, the Biennial team made a number of studio visits this month but also had a few moments to visit both Mass MoCA and WCMA where we were stunned by scale and brilliance in the first and smart art historical thinking in the second.

Michael Oatman: All Utopias Fell, 2010

With galleries scaled to the ginormous size of contemporary art (as well as old, unused New England factories) Mass MoCA is expanding its campus even further with a new installation by the Troy, NY-based Michael Oatman. Known for his collages and collection-savvy installations, Oatman goes 10 steps further in All Utopia Fell – an installation of epic proportions that begins with a precarious climb up a three-story catwalk and ends with an elaborate narrative of an Airstream trailer flying too close to the sun and now holding solar panels.

Katharina Grosse: One Floor Up More HIghly, 2001, installation view

But Mass MoCA’s ode to the epic and monumental begins much earlier on with an entrance piece by Federico Diaz – an abstracted deconstruction of the building’s façade via thousands of computer-generated little spheres. Even more impressive is the Katarina Gross installation, One Floor Up More Highly, in Building 5, Mass MoCA’s famous football field-sized space devoted to single artist installations each year. In this round, Gross has seized the space with grit and boldness – quite literally. Her signature dirt piles spray painted with primary colors are punctuated by enormous styrofoam icebergs and the convenient bench, here and there. The space is converted into the stuff of painting – color and light – in a spectacular new way. Nari Ward’s show Sub Mirage Lignum has a similar effect on the 2nd floor. Connecting the rarely-associated locals of Ward’s native Jamaica and the very New England North Adams, the installation converges on thematics of the sea, tourism, migration, race and poverty with a simply amazing suspended fishing boat and a 30-foot fish trap. We are indeed all lost at sea…

Nari Ward, Nu Colossus, 2011

In the academic enclave of Williamstown, WCMA holds one of the best art collections of any American college. Over the past year, they wisely reinstalled their encyclopedic collection, which is especially strong in contemporary art, under educational themes such as Art about Art, or how an artwork is made and commissioned. In a contemplative space, they’ve even set up a single object – currently Janine Antoni’s timely Deficit, 1991 - for a focused look in a new series called Room for Reflection. There are some wonderful gems of American art from mainstays like Grant Wood, Maurice Prendergast and Edward Hopper that are nicely abutted with contemporary international work. If only we could take the week! But sadly – we rushed back down Route 2 the very next day.

Janine Antoni, Deficit, 1991

 ‘Till next time-