Fun and Flatness at the Corcoran by Sidney Lawrence
"Beyond the Frame, Impressionism Revisited: The Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr.," Sept. 13, 2003-Jan. 5, 2004, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 Seventeenth Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 200006
Peter Schjeldahl's one-time observation of Red Grooms -- "He dares to make art that is fun" -- is a mantra that a lot of us should keep in mind. Seriousness defines our field too often, and every once in a while, well, frankly, we need to lighten up.
Grooms' walk-in pictoramas abound with fun. Chicago Imagists, Bay Area Funkers and the graffiti generation "did" great fun, too, and a personal favorite of mine, Tony Oursler, makes no end of it. Combined with "downer" subtexts like mortality, psychosis, physical decay or impossible love, these artists give you mirth, wit, wonderment and zaniness. I'm all for fun if it's like this. Fun is good.
But now something new -- and very troublesome because it doesn't seem to work -- has entered the field of fun. It's an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art this fall entitled "Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited -- The Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson."
Most of us would be embarrassed to set foot in this exhibition. Enterable, touchable 3-D dioramas of Impressionist "masterpieces"? Errrggh! Figurative art by a born-rich sculptor of questionable reputation? No thanks! In what he called "the most negative review" he'd ever written, local critic Blake Gopnik called the show a "travesty." Glenn Dixon uses the term "adulteration of art."
You'll have to read the reviews to understand fully what these critics are talking about, but better yet, dare to visit the exhibition and see how some sacrosanct icons of painting are being plundered. The Corcoran is on 17th St., N.W., near the White House (tip: Mondays are free).
Good news! The show provides a modicum of fun. For instance, Manet's Olympia is in a whorehouse room so opulently "whorehouse-ish" you can't help but giggle. You actually pass through a Victorian-era beaded curtain to enter the boudoir. There, sharing the famous view of the nipple-less nude and her blue-black servant, is the ghost of a leering, horny client in the form of an empty couch and half-smoked cigar.
And then, although Van Gogh was not an Impressionist but close (so I guess that counts), we have painted bronze tableau of his Arles room and his Mme. Ginoux at a table. These works come off as earnestly literal in a penny arcade sort of way (shingle-sized slabs of paint, Dr. Caligari furniture, acid blow-up colors) that you can't help but be charmed.
The most chuckle-inducing element of all -- and since I went alone, I didn't have the nerve to "pose" myself -- are the video cams that enable you, the visitor, to "enter" a picture and show your friends and others how you look as part of a brand-name Monet or Renoir. It's virtual reality run amok, and I was mesmerized by both the concept and the crazy, digitized "canvases" with kids and grandmas enjoying themselves immensely.
Eventually, however, when you realize that full-scale sculptural reproductions of flat Impressionist "masterworks" are as much of a schtick as any one-note, second rate art, you begin to ask yourself, what am I learning about here? And the inevitable comparisons come, sorry to say, with theme parks.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. "Beyond the Frame" does reflect an entertainment-oriented, hyper-real, theatrical thread in mass culture right in there with theme-parky art presentations ranging from Ron Mueck juicy giants, Bill Viola's tearjerker videos and Jeff Koons' Puppy to orchestrated Metropolitan Museum blockbusters and the installation genre of "ennials." Remember Jonathan Borofsky's messy psycho-spaces of the 1980s? Approaching the Corcoran, I was reminded of Borofsky's enormous clown in Santa Monica as Seward Johnson's outrageous 40-foot Renoir dancers (and get the title: Time for Fun) came into view outside the front door.
If only what was inside fulfilled the promise. The problem with this show, as both Gopnik and Dixon point out, lies not in sincerity but in originality, execution and smartness. To "learn" about Impressionism, don't come here. It just doesn't work, because painting is painting and sculpture is sculpture. To have fun (and get a bit of a Belle Epoque flash), you can come but expect to get fatigued and maybe even irritated because, frankly, the gimmick used to get you there is very, very thin.
To paraphrase a remark made to me by critic Michael O'Sullivan, the show is like a bad movie adaptation of a novel. It's so damned literal. You wind up feeling flat because imagination has been co-opted by imitation.
I used to be a museum PR person, so I feel odd criticizing the Corcoran for its choice of this show -- and therefore I won't. The gallery had its reasons, no doubt, and nobody ever laughed at good box office (which, by the way, the show seems to be getting).
Still, the implications are chilling. My own "chill" is that this show could easily be moved and remounted almost anywhere. Permanently. Impressionism has become so popular that it doesn't even need a museum.
SIDNEY LAWRENCE is a writer and artist living in Washington, D.C. Until recently he was press officer for the Hirshhorn Museum, where he also organized exhibitions of works by Ron Mueck, Tony Oursler, Alison Saar and others.
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