@ the Museum of New Art (MONA)
Unearthed camera reveals origins of 20th-century art
When the first press release showed up in my inbox from MONA about this exhibition I laughed out loud. Here are two excerpts from that statement that characterize the show:
Picasso’s camera? Its cracked lens and warped pictures served as the genesis for Cubism? I’m laughing just typing these words now.
For those not in the know, the Museum of New Art (MONA) is the 10-year old brain child of director Jef Bourgeau, and fluctuates between showing hip contemporary works by emerging and established artists both local and international, as well as serving as an ongoing performance venue for Bourgeau himself, taking on the identity of fictional artists and staging exhibitions of work he’s created. This time Bourgeau truly goes all out: this is not just some fictional artist – it’s freaking Picasso! And to read the extremely detailed and factual seeming press about the show (especially the ones written in German!), complete with quotes from important sounding people historically as well as scientists “reconstructing” the work, it’s all quite credible. For those who might be (at times perhaps justifiably) irritated at Bourgeau’s play of identity – this is so far over the top as to make it clear that he’s at a different game than one of his own ego – but to play at what art is, what it means, and where the art world might be headed. And what better way to do so than through the lens (cracked as it might be) of the titan of creativity himself? This is a thorough tour de force from Bourgeau from the writing to the varied and solid artwork itself.
(And from the little bit that I paid attention to on blog/forum chatter – as preposterous as the reality of the show premise seems (to me at least) many folks were more than a bit surprised that Picasso had not actually taken these pictures with a camera with a cracked lens.)
So what is inside? A series of portrait photos – clearly taken recently – altered so as to have a cubist look to them, or perhaps as if the camera lens was cracked. Beyond a few actual photos of Picasso and company used in the PR, there’s no attempt to hide the fact that these were not taken by Picasso. But the idea of it still rings true. Picasso was inspired by everything around him and was a tireless creative dynamo his entire life. Why could it not be possible for him to have invented cubism in this way?
But the show isn’t just photographs – Bourgeau’s Picasso dabbled in everything, as did the real Picasso – and we see a variety of bodies of work apparently predating similar artistic movements credited to other artists. There are “ready-mades” – assemblage sculptures most famously championed by Duchamp’s exhibition of a urinal. Here, we discover that Picasso made such objects first and like the cracked lens, provide material for his paintings. In one instance, the handlebars of a tricycle become the horns on Picasso’s iconic and recurring bull. On display are large digitally sampled palette swatches – not unlike the color field paintings of the mid 20th century – identifying various periods of his work as well as the emotions behind them. An old typewriter has pages and pages of Picasso’s poetry (of which we learn much is actually his poetry.) There is even a collection of quite convincing cartoonish sketches, all of which are labeled “reconstructed” which in a way is certainly true.
Some of the more lyrical moments in the exhibition come in the form of video integrated into sculpture, which are more about Picasso than by Picasso. In one, a tiny video player is placed within a bird cage. On the screen a smiling woman lifts her head and arms to the sound of a bird flapping its wings. Text on the wall discusses the fate of Picasso’s lovers. A similar piece fits a video display into one end of a cat carrier – with Picasso’s eyes looking outward. One of Bourgeau’s greatest strengths as an artist in his own right (and not in playing another) is in video art – and these are two stunning and powerful examples of this. He shows a command of image, object, sound, timing, and understanding of the attention span of his viewer – an all too rare talent in this discipline.
Where this show goes awry a bit, is including within this exhibition photos that we’ve seen before (and have been attributed to other artists) now renamed and claimed as Picasso’s. That they’ve been seen before, and don’t really seem to fit as tightly with the narrative established with the rest of the show, spoils the illusion somewhat. Bourgeau overplays his hand. The show is already quite full and complete with an amazing array of creativity on hand, and this takes the viewer out of that mythical place he worked so hard to create. It’s not a show stopper, but does seem quite unnecessary.
Bourgeau points out something important: “95% of what’s here IS true.” And without haggling over percentages – there’s a lot of Picasso in this show and one thinks he might appreciate the homage and the spirit behind this show. It could definitely serve to reawaken the image of the artist in young artists today who may think of him as nothing more than a much shorter Wilt Chamberlain. But this exhibition reimagines the man much as Steve Martin’s play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” depicted Picasso (and Einstein) as the progenitor of ideas of the 20th century. We find ourselves at the beginning of another century, and on the verge of something new. And who better to look to for inspiration than Picasso? Perhaps Bourgeau has got it – that sampling (think the artist as DJ) is the new art of the 21st century – something apparently Picasso already knew when he was making ready-mades long ago. This is a fitting, albeit curious, tribute to the man and an ambitious wealth of creativity on the part of the man behind it all.
– Nick Sousanis for The