MassMoCA Always a Showcase of New Delights


In the last post I spotlighted the Clark Institute of Art. If you're headed for Williamstown,  be sure to pop over to the adjacent town of North Adams to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as Mass MoCA. I visit the Clark to see old favorites, but I go to Mass MoCA see things I've never seen before. #massmoca

A word on the campus and the town of North Adams: Mass MoCA is located on the 24-acre site of what was previously Sprague Electric. At one time, Sprague employed more than 4,100 people and its 1985 closure ripped the guts out of a town that was already on the downward slope. In the first four decades of the 20th century, North Adams was home to about 22,000; today there are fewer than 14,000. Mass MoCA opened its doors in 1999, a gutsy move in a fading blue-collar town where locals much prefer lager to LeWitt. Naysayers predicted that Mass MoCA would be a taxpayer-subsidized flop. They were wrong. Mass MoCA will never replace all those lost Sprague jobs—not with a staff that's more in the order of 50, not thousands. North Adams is still pocked by empty red brick factories and substandard housing, but Mass MoCA does generate around $10 million each year for the local economy. Score one for art.

Here's the deal: You won't like everything you see there, but the stuff that does grab you is likely to be stuff you've seldom before encountered. Contemporary art differs radically from classical art in that it's more speculative. Collectors may spend a lot of money on pieces, but it's as big a gamble as Mass MoCA itself whether the investment will pay off.  Curators, critics, and collectors think they have discriminating tastes, but they are often spectacularly wrong—as evidenced by the kind of art that today hangs in conventional museums, much of which was denounced in its day as rubbish. If you see things at Mass MoCA that strike you as landfill, you might end up being right, but maybe not! 

To show my own cards, I'm not a big fan of visual word art; that is, pieces that are supposed to blow me away with the juxtaposition of words—often too small to read when on the wall—with other media. I find such works too personal to resonate broadly and, frankly, I find a lot of it nonsense dressed in pretentious explanations. I also lose patience with most video installations—mostly because I don't want to waste my time and energy on them. (I also see film as a different form of mental stimulation.) My final admission is that I can't stand the aforementioned (Sol) LeWitt. I think he' was the P.T. Barnum of art. Others love him; thereby proving art is, in the end, subjective.  

When Mass MoCA scores, it scores big. Two exhibits playing this summer fit that bill. The first, Radical Small by Elizabeth King, borrows from Walt Whitman the idea of the eidolon—projecting human likenesses onto inanimate objects. The monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a form of this; ditto Pinocchio. Eidolons show up elsewhere: carnival automatons, androids, the golem of Jewish folktales, homunculi, shape-shifters, the folkloric fetch, wraiths, the White Walkers of Game of Thrones…. King serves them to us visually, through uses of film, poppets, masks, small machines, photographs, and representations of body parts like floating heads that are stripped from the overall human physique. It's at once fascinating, disturbing, visually stunning, and creepy.   

Even more fascinating is an installation by Nick Cave, an African American artist not to be confused with the Australian musician of the same name, though the two share morbid fixations. His Until appears at first a riot of pleasure: thousands of dangling glittering objects that look like a forest of scored CDs with cut-outs. Then you walk among them and revelation dawns. Those beautiful 'sunbursts' aren't at all what you thought; they are the flashes from gun muzzles, which we see in the profiles of weapons and bullets that appear when we 'see' instead of merely 'look.' Cave is also interested in representations of race and what these mean in society. His video installation is one of the few for which I did sit still. (Admittedly, the projected wave pattern upon the floor is so hypnotic and vertigo inducing that I needed to sit!)  This smart, provocative exhibit is biting social satire.

Sadly, the sculptures of Fererico Uribe are now gone, as his Here Comes the Sun was a perfect companion to Cave. Amidst his whimsical assemblages of animals are some that stop you in your tracks: a porcupine made of hypodermic needles, a sheep constructed of sharp scissors, rabbits and fawns fashioned from bullet cartridges….

But that's how it is at Mass MoCA. It's a place where you can wander in old factory corridors and then into a multi-colored tube. There are some permanent displays, such as  Michael Oatman's stunning all utopias fall, but mostly we go there to see what's new, hip, and perhaps a classic sometime in the future. A new building has just opened, nearly doubling the gallery space and featuring works by a few names you might recognize: Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, and Don Gummer (Mr. Meryl Streep). I can't wait to return to see what's new. 

 Rob Weir

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