Tag: Institute of Contemporary Art Boston

Exhibitions: “Arlene Shechet: All at Once” at ICA Boston

shechet-IsandIsNot-2011Arlene Shechet: Is and Is Not, 2011 (detail). All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Within the realm of artistic genres, the area of sculpture has perhaps become the most elastic in definition. Installation is sculpture. Performance is sculpture. Assemblage is sculpture. For many the word still evokes the traditional figurative carvings of Michelangelo or the rounded bronze castings of Henry Moore, but ultimately the term is endlessly pliable. For New York-based artist Arlene Shechet, sculpture is about action as well as form, about painterly experimentation as well as material. Her abstract, textural work is on view now at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a comprehensive retrospective that has introduced me to her art for the first time.

Spread across three galleries, the exhibit’s aesthetic reflects Shechet’s own inclination for playful display tactics. Her more recent abstract sculptures are typically mounted on pedestals of her own making, rendered in wood or brick or plexiglass, and the show’s organizers extended this idea to the entire layout. The first room features a large multi-leveled shelf unit (made by the artist) at its center, with her early forays into Buddhist figures and pottery clustered throughout. The walls are lined with loose architectural drawings of stupas, inspired by her visit to Buddhist monuments in Indonesia. Western artists are drawn to Buddhism and Buddhist imagery for various reasons, sometimes appropriative or ethnocentric; Shechet’s primary interest is in the way Buddhist sculpture was used as a language, as well a way to communicate the concept of transience. The loss of a close friend prompted her to pay more attention to life’s preciousness, and the process of working with plaster allowed her to “maintain a consistent state of awareness in the studio” (Arlene Shechet, 13). The works here are quite varied, combining blue and white pottery, contemplative seated Buddhas, and goopy abstracted messes. Their arrangement forces the viewer to always be moving around the room, taking in first the whole and then, gradually, individual pieces.

shechet-buddharoomArlene Shechet: All At Once installation view at ICA/Boston.

shechet-buddhasArlene Shechet: East Buddha, 1999 (left) and Collective Head, 1996 (right).

shechet-Building-2003-2Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-Building-2003Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-InTheBalance2004Arlene Shechet: selections from In the Balance series, 2004-05.

The second gallery moves into the 21st century, with a deceptively simple sculptural installation titled “Building,” from 2002. A commissioned work for the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, it was put together with students at the University of Washington, who threw different pottery shapes and made molds based on Shechet’s drawings. She stained the molds with black glazes, so that the resulting casts came out with dark exteriors that became progressively lighter as the molds were re-used. The final piece features a large grouping of these pottery forms, cut and stacked and placed at eye-level, resembling a miniature city that literalizes curator Jenelle Porter’s description of Shechet’s work as “equally sculpture and architecture” (Arlene Shechet, 11). The ashen coloring subtly hints to the artist’s experiences as a New Yorker after the 9/11 attacks, evoking imagery of fallen buildings, burnt-out ruins, and urban debris. Alongside Building is a small series of glass sculptures titled In the Balance. As the only offering in glass on view, they stick out as an elegant side-note, with shapes that recall the smaller pottery pieces in Building and a theme related to breath that carries over into future works. To me the appealing aspects of all the works in this section is how they reference traditional craft shapes, but remain completely non-functional.

shechet-ANightOut2011-MyBalzacArlene Shechet: A Night Out, 2011 (left) and My Balzac, 2010 (right).

shechet-LollandAirTime-2006Arlene Shechet: Loll, 2006-07 (left) and Air Time, 2007 (right).

shechet-NowPlaying2015-Tattletale2012Arlene Shechet: Now Playing, 2015 (left) and Tattletale, 2012 (right).

shechet-NoNoise2013-Stories2013Arlene Shechet: No Noise, 2013 (left) and Stories, 2013 (right).

shechet-NotToMention2013-NoMatterWhat2013Arlene Shechet: Not to Mention, 2013 (left – via CFile) and No Matter What, 2013 (right).

shechet-Absolutely2012-Away2012Arlene Shechet: Absolutely, 2014 (left) and Away, 2014 (right).

shechet-ParallelPlay-2012Arlene Shechet: selections from Parallel Play series, 2012-2014.

The meat of the exhibition is in the third gallery, a long stretch of freestanding sculpture that highlights Shechet’s interest in texture, form, and color. Several pieces are inspired by lungs and breath, relating to her father’s death from lung cancer, their lumpy grey shapes inflating and deflating, their random circular orifices painted blood orange. Others are comical, with droopy appendages and colorful splotches. Still others are architectural, or even monumental, with jutting windows and dark loops, leaning every which way like a surreal Tower of Pisa. Most are primarily made of ceramic, and all are placed atop stands of varying material and size, some matching and some contrasting their passengers, some including kiln bricks as a reference to the act of firing clay. The work is remarkable in its totally freeform look, so far from the seemingly meticulously-planned aspect of most carved and molded sculpture. In her process, Shechet drips and stacks, presses and pulls, attacks and retreats, leaving traces of her movements like the strokes of an action painting. Though abstract in both form and title, the sculptures evoke different emotional responses in each viewer, intimate in their tactility, strange and funny and unavoidable in their presence.

In a partially-enclosed wing off the main gallery are several large-scale wall paintings that tie in closely with the freestanding pieces nearby. Their blotchy application of color and thick, three-dimensional shapes reflect the forms found in her sculpture. In fact, the compositions are created by applying molds of different sections of the sculptures to create textured paper, spreading out and flattening her favorite visual motifs so they can be viewed in a new element. The process is detailed in this short Art 21 video, which also offers a glimpse of the pieces on view at the ICA.

shechet-raspberrytwistArlene Shechet: Raspberry Twist, 2012.

ASBreakingtheMold01Arlene Shechet: Dancing Girl with Two Right Feet, 2012. via Arlene Shechet

shechet-artwork-040-split-blockArlene Shechet: Split Block, 2013. via Art 21

The final space, a small enclosed room with black walls, is the most indicative of Shechet’s interest in display, functionally presenting the artist as curator. Here, works from her residency at the celebrated Meissen porcelain studio in Germany are arranged like so many knick-knacks on shelves of varying height and size. She mixes her own uncanny experiments in with actual historical ceramics, highlighting the kind of aesthetic that was treasured in the 18th century–most notably orientalist tropes and delicate courtly figurines. Shechet’s contributions are generally hybrid creations that melt or cut or combine these familiar elements into something new and strange. Disembodied legs pop out of rosebuds, abstract shapes crop up on porcelain plates, vases soften and tip over erratically. It’s an odd, funny little room that invites close looking (though, sadly, no photos) and adds an unexpected historicity to the exhibition as a whole, relating Shechet’s contemporary use of ceramic to its decorative and East Asian origins.

shechet-AndSoAndSoAndSoArlene Shechet: So and So and So and So and So and On and On, 2010.

In conversation with fellow artist Janine Antoni, Shechet says, “One of the reasons I’ve liked working with marginalized materials is that they have a kind of slackness. They give me more opportunity to say things in an unexpected way, or to point out the full range of life rather than a narrower range” (Arlene Shechet, 150). Though her approach to “pointing out the full range of life” is nonspecific, I do feel these works represent a whole person, a whole volume of emotions. They reveal the flaws, the humor, the tragedy, the playfulness, the bizarre, and beauty everyone experiences, though they may ultimately best represent the artist herself.


“Arlene Shechet.” Art21. http://www.art21.org/artists/arlene-shechet

Jenelle Porter, et al. Arlene Shechet. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and Prestel, 2015.

Exhibitions: Adriana Varejão at ICA Boston

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-ChinaSeries-2014-detAdriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (China Series) (detail), 2014. All photos by the author.

With large-scale paintings that seemingly ooze innards and self-portraits brushed with racial signifiers, Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão does not hold anything back. Her works offer a pointed commentary on contemporary race relations by referencing colorism, colonialism, co-mingled cultures, and cannibalism. The latter is the unifying theme of the artist’s first US solo exhibition, curated by Anna Stothart, though she and Varejão prefer the term “anthropophagy”- coined by Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade to describe the assimilation (“devouring”) of European culture by native Brazilians as a means of surviving during the colonial period. In this way, “the cannibal, which had long represented the paradigm of the indigenous savage” is reclaimed, and “the taboo of eating human flesh [is transformed] into a symbol of cultural absorption” (Stothart, 39).

varejao-EntranceFigureI-1997Adriana Varejão: Entrance Figure I, 1997.

varejao-EntranceFigureI-1997-detAdriana Varejão: Entrance Figure I (detail), 1997.

varejao-Carpet-StyleTileworkOnCanvases-1999Adriana Varejão: Carpet-Style Tilework on Canvases, 1999.

Varejão represents this concept both literally and figuratively in a range of media, including large-scale paintings, mixed-media installations, and sculptural tiles. Entrance Figure I, situated in the first room of the exhibition, probably reveals her themes most literally. A classical nude woman stands in the center, gesturing in welcome (referencing popular courtly decorations in Portugal and Brazil). Covered in floral tattoos and holding a spear, she represents an idealized indigenous warrior. Her right hand reveals a shocking scene behind her, a grisly depiction of cannibalism as nude men and women tear into human body parts, cooking them on a large fire. These images themselves are pulled from the illustrations of Flemish printmaker Theodorus de Bry, who illustrated the people of the Americas with incredibly broad strokes, never having traveled there himself. As Stothart notes, in the minds of colonizing Europeans, such images “became validation for forced catechism and cultural oppression” (Stothart, 41). In works like this, Varejão relies on stereotypes of indigenous peoples, long maintained by Western minds (often unconsciously), as well as viewers’ familiarity with omnipresent Greco-Roman motifs. We see a classically beautiful nude, but are thrown off by her allover body tattoos. We see a classically beautiful balustrade setting, but are then repulsed by the intense scene of cannibalism and “savages”. The blue-and-white painted style of this piece and many others is a further reference to colonial ceramic tiles, subverting a domestic tradition into something far more sinister.

My favorite element of Varejão’s work is her penchant for Cronenbergian body horror. Several of her pieces are literally spilling over with fabricated blood and guts, others pucker like human skin. The artist breaks through the facade of harmonious cultivation, of benevolent colonizers, of imposed “civilization.” These nicely painted tiles are falling apart to reveal the human detritus inside, a not-so-subtle reminder of Brazil’s (and all of Latin America’s, really) violent past due to European takeover. In her work, Varejão asserts that there is no hiding that past, even today, for it remains an integral part of Brazil’s cultural identity. Wall with incisions à la Fontana is a canvas that has been slashed as if with a sword or knife, cutting into the painting to expose blood and tissue, an update of the cut canvases of Argentinian modernist Lucio Fontana. Map of Lopo Homem II turns a 16th-century Portuguese map into sutured flesh, with gaping wound torn through the center: a visceral representation of map-making’s benefactor, world conquest, and a nod to the adage, “history is written by the victors” (and of course in most instances in Western history, that means white people). As Federico Rosa points out, in human affairs, “beauty and destruction often have to coexist” (Rosa, “Adriana Varejão: A History of Flesh”).


varejao-MapOfLopoHomemII-1992 Adriana Varejão: Map of Lopo Homem II, 1992.

varejao-Folds2-2003 Adriana Varejão: Folds 2, 2003.

varejao-exploratorylaparotomyii Adriana Varejão: Exploratory Laparotomy II, 1996.

varejao-exploratorylaparotomyii2 Adriana Varejão: Exploratory Laparotomy II (detail), 1996.

varejao-WallWithIncisionsALaFontanaHorizontal-2009-11Adriana Varejão: Wall With Incisions a la Fontana-horizontal, 2009.

One gallery is devoted to a third and integral aspect of Varejão’s practice: her exploration of race and colorism. For her recent “Polvo” series, she experiments with skin tone and racial perceptions in both paintings and mixed-media installations. Polvo Oil Colors from 2013 features a collection of paint tubes with labels like “coffee with milk,” “half breed,” and “mostly white,” all descriptors taken from a 1976 census in which Brazilians were able to identify their own race. Having created the paint colors, Varejão then uses these unique racial signifiers in a number of subversive portraits. For Polvo Portraits (Seascape Series), she commissioned a traditional Brazilian artist to paint multiple copies of her portrait, which she then altered using different skin tones so that her face suddenly moved within numerous racial categories. Such works point out the limiting and narrow-minded views of race within contemporary society, views that have carried over from the complex racial hierarchies established by Europeans when conquering South America. The artist challenges her viewers to consider how skin color affects their view of a person, specifically of a woman, silently pushing all of our unconscious prejudices and assumptions about race and ethnicity to the forefront of our looking experience.

In the final room of the show, there are a few paintings taken from a series dedicated to empty tiled rooms, in which Vareão chooses to forgo the sculptural guts for a more subdued composition, merely hinting at unseen acts of violence through stark settings and anonymous blood. The large-scale canvas The Guest perhaps makes the biggest impact of the whole show. Its bright white tiles seem to pop out of the wall, a believable three-dimensionality that invites the viewer into the painted space, only to meet them with a mysterious pool of blood. There is no visible body, no attacker, no weapon, no police tape or clean-up crew, no indication of the titular “guest.” Upon viewing this work, I was immediately reminded of Varejão’s peer Teresa Margolles, whose work Limpieza features a man mopping a palatial floor with the blood and grime of Mexican crime scenes. Margolles is literal and aggressive with her use of human remains to comment on the violence that has become commonplace in her home country; Varejão is similarly confrontational and visceral, but filters her commentary through history and metaphor so that the overall effect is more open-ended. Her presentation is varied in material and style but consistent in its iconography. She captures our attention with her unsettling compositions and forces us to consider why we are unsettled, why we feel discomfort when met with the atrocities of the past and the remnants of colonialism found in the present. Her work is strange and academic and often esoteric, but its full-frontal approach makes an impact regardless of context, and this exhibit is sure to stick with me for a long time.


varejao-PolvoOilColors-2013Adriana Varejão: Polvo Oil Colors, 2013.

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-ChinaSeries-2014Adriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (China Series), 2014.

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-SeascapeSeries-2014Adriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (Seascape Series), 2009.

varejao-TheGuest-2005Adriana Varejão: The Guest, 2005.

varejao-ThePerverse-2006Adriana Varejão: The Perverse, 2006.


Federico Rosa. “Adriana Varejão: A History of Flesh.” The Culture Trip. http://theculturetrip.com/south-america/brazil/articles/adriana-varej-o-a-history-of-flesh-/

Anna Stothart. Adriana Varejão. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2014.

Exhibitions: Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg at ICA Boston

djurberg-glass6Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view. All photos by the author.

When I heard that one of the newer exhibits at the Institute of Contemporary Art would feature stop-motion animation, I was pretty damned excited. Basically all I ever want in any visual entertainment is stop-motion animation, for real. But that description is only scratching the surface of Nathalie Djurberg’s work, produced in conjunction with her partner, Hans Berg, a composer. Djurberg combines elements of installation, sculpture, video, and sound to create her immersive room-size works, the newest of which is titled A World of Glass. For this piece, viewers enter an enclosed dark room lined with several rows of long tables, upon which rest hosts of small translucent sculpture- resembling glass but actually rendered in polyurethane. On all four walls are projected four different films, short claymation stories featuring violent and sexual interactions between humans and animals. Over the presentation Hans Berg’s eerie, ethereal soundscape plays, establishing a quiet, strange mood throughout.

Born in Sweden and now based in Berlin, Djurberg is known for her bizarre, surreal imagery and unexpected pairings of sex and violence. Scholar Nancy Princenthal sees her compositions as examinations of human and animal relationships “both from the point of view of humanity’s inherent bestiality–understood, conventionally, to mean our lust, hunger, viciousness–and from the perspective of our physical domination” (The Reckoning, 90). Her figures are crude and colorful, taking on a kind of naive look in their imperfect, thumbprinted surfaces and exaggerated facial features. In previous installations, Djurberg has created mid-size sculptures in the same style as her animated characters, as in The Parade (exhibited at the Walker in 2011). For A World of Glass, she casts household objects and kitchenwares into unreal glass-like sculptures. Viewers walk among the long tables on which they stand unguarded, treading carefully for fear of smashing them into pieces. The irony is, of course, that they are not actually glass but polyurethane, thick and sturdy despite their appearance of fragility. They are detailed and a little strange, some misshapen and even lumpen, others perfect in their recreation, all slightly aglow in the darkened space.

djurberg-glass1Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view.

djurberg-glass2Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view.

I like these devious little sculptures, but I’m really there for the animation, which is itself captivating, and decidedly off-putting. In one film, a naked woman is melting like butter, both helped and hindered by the advances of a large bull who attempts to lick her back into shape. In another, a naked man wrestles with crocodiles and hippos that snap their jaws in anticipation of a meal, but when he dons a red fox-like mask he seems to gain the upper hand and their battle starts to resemble an orgy. In the third, a black woman (whose features resemble a caricature, but I’m not sure if that was intentional or if it’s just the result of Djurberg’s cartoonish style) sits in a room made of ice, surrounded by various animals. She continually catches herself in a large bear trap, and the animals can only help her escape by chewing off her appendages. In the final film, a furry bison attempts to remain still in a room full of glass objects (echoing the sculptures in the gallery), but eventually knocks over several shelves and they all shatter.

djurberg-glass5Nathalie Djurberg: I am a Wild Animal, 2011.

djurberg-glass3Nathalie Djurberg: My Body is a House of Glass, 2011.

The animation is somewhat stuttery and artificial, intentionally revealing strings and armatures, never fully committing to the films’ own fantasies despite their attention to detail. I find Djurberg’s imagery frightening but captivating, confusing but thought-provoking. She has noted that a formative experience for her was when a fellow student showed a hardcore porn film to her biology class. She was twelve. The apparent juxtaposition of childlike innocence with pornographic content is central to her videos on view in A World of Glass. The characters shift between victims and aggressors multiple times, and no one appears to maintain control of their situation. The women seem to find equal parts delight and discomfort in their own sexual liberation. There is pleasure and pain, creation and destruction, humor and horror, color and darkness, and a lot of weirdness. I find the work as a whole wonderfully original, but also unsettling. Which may well be the artist’s intention. Curator Anna Stothart concludes:

“Trespassing the border between good and evil, this remarkable and unsettling work updates the traditional folktale and suggests that the hierarchies and distinctions that uphold societal organization are simply a response to the voracious, and amoral, demands of our so-called animal nature. While the lessons of A World of Glass are patently unclear, the installation invites us into an alternate world in which can confront aspects of our own desires and demons.”


Flowers & Mushrooms. Ed. Toni Stooss. Hirmer Publishers, 2014.

Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, and Sue Scott. The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium. Prestel, 2013.

Anna Stothart. Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg: A World of Glass. Exhibition Booklet. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2014.

Exhibitions: Nick Cave at ICA Boston

cave-soundsuits3Nick Cave. Installation view. All photos by the author.

Last month the Institute of Contemporary Art debuted two new exhibitions in their main galleries. One is a phenomenal video installation by William Kentridge, which I cannot recommend enough, but I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about Nick Cave. No, not that Nick Cave. That Nick Cave. The Chicago-based sculptor and performance artist who’s been making a big splash in the art world just within the past few years. I don’t think I’d heard of him before 2011 or so, and now I feel like I see him everywhere. He is known for his Soundsuits, a series of meticulously crafted wearable sculpture that can be displayed statically or worn in dance performances. The ICA’s show, simply titled Nick Cave, displays a mixture of the artist’s latest work, with a large room full of Soundsuits and a smaller gallery that shows off his playful assemblages.

cave-soundsuits5Nick Cave. Installation view.

Growing up in the small town of Fulton, Missouri with a single mom and seven brothers, Cave studied art and dance while at the Kansas City Art Institute in the late 1970s. He went through graduate school in the 80s and has been based in Chicago since getting his MFA. However, it was not until 1991 that he began making the type of work he has since become known for. That March, like many other artists, Cave was appalled and moved to action by video footage of the Rodney King beatings. His artistic approach immediately shifted as he responded to notions of racial profiling (then heavily debated across the US) and his own personal experiences as a black male. He sought to incorporate self-protection, a kind of second skin, into his work, and after combining hard twigs into a wearable costume, the first Soundsuit was born. Since then, he has made over 500 of these works, notable especially for their colorful patterning, eclectic materials, detailed construction, and sound qualities when used in dance.

cave-soundsuit20133Nick Cave: Soundsuit, 2013.

cave-soundsuit20134Nick Cave: Soundsuit, 2013 (detail).

The suits exhibited at the ICA- almost all from 2012-2013- seem like an attempt to show the artist’s multifarious output, with works made of beads, buttons, crocheted blankets, sequins, furniture, and other materials. Many critics and curators are especially keen to point out how Cave blends craft and fine art, how he is transcending these traditionally separate spheres. And that is definitely true, but it’s not like he’s the first person to do it (in fact, his “Button Suit” idea was preceded by about 60 years by Iowa housewife Ruby Anne Kittner), so I don’t think that’s what makes them special. The artist himself has even stated that he considers them fine art as opposed to costume, saying of his process, “How do you keep it art before it becomes costume? It’s such a fine line. One false move and you can screw it up” (quoted in Sojourn, 68). For him, it’s about elevating these craft techniques to the level of fine art, not equating craft with fine art. I was first really just pulled in by their skilled making, achieved with the help of numerous assistants who furiously sew buttons and sequins according to Cave’s designs. Each suit offers so much to the viewer who takes their time to look closely.

cave-soundsuit2012Nick Cave: Soundsuit, 2012 (detail).

cave-soundsuits2Nick Cave. Installation view.

After learning about their connection to the Rodney King beatings, and their original function as protection or disguise, I found myself looking at them differently, considering how such violent inspiration has morphed into these joyous, extravagant, even ridiculous creations. I think my favorite is his series of white buttoned suits with circular faces, reminiscent of spacesuits. They are beautiful but hard, with spikey wire protruding from the facial area, completely hiding the figure beneath and creating an antagonistic impression. Though the Soundsuits cannot complete their full function as musical performance aides when presented immobile as sculpture, I do appreciate the opportunity to take in every detail. I wonder if there couldn’t have been videos of their use in performance within the gallery, though, or perhaps Cave didn’t want that. It just felt like something so vibrant and known to be noise-making shouldn’t be encased in a room so quiet and still.

cave-soundsuit20132-2Nick Cave: Soundsuit, 2013 (detail).

cave-soundsuit2014Nick Cave: Soundsuit, 2014 (detail).

Though I went into the show with Soundsuits on the mind, I left with a greater love for his assemblages. There’s a large wall piece made up of multiple panels, all constructed out of various found objects. The backings are complex steel armature made by husband and wife fabricators Ross and Elizabeth Fiersten, onto which Cave weaves in materials he’s collected from flea markets and other sources, including beads, ceramic birds, phonograph horns, and textiles. He says he wants these works to be associated with refuge and contemplation: “That’s a big part of it, creating this sort of field to escape in and maybe hide within” (quoted in Sojourn, 64). I like them for their complexity. Like the Soundsuits they reward viewers giving the work a close inspection, and I kept finding new objects and combinations the more I looked.

cave-untitled2013-3Nick Cave: Untitled, 2013.

cave-untitled2013-1Nick Cave: Untitled, 2013 (detail).

cave-untitled2013-2Nick Cave: Untitled, 2013 (detail).

The final set of works in the show are Cave’s adorable and kind of weird dog assemblage sculpture known as “Rescues.” Begun in 2012, these pieces grew out of Cave’s discovery of a life-size ceramic poodle at a flea market. From there, the artist placed numerous dog figurines on couches, surrounding them with intricate halos of found objects. They have a fantasy element blended with a kitschy opulence, and like the wall piece they offer a wealth of fun details. Cave says they are meant to evoke various qualities associated with dogs, like loyalty, protection, and power, but honestly I think they’re just kinda funny. They’re strange and beautiful and cute and just… unexpected. My personal favorite works in the show, I think.

cave-sculpture2013-1Nick Cave: Sculpture, 2013 (detail).

cave-sculpture2013-3Nick Cave: Sculpture, 2013 (detail).

cave-sculpture-4Nick Cave: Sculpture, 2013.

cave-sculpture-6Nick Cave: Sculpture, 2013 (detail).

It’s not a comprehensive exhibition but it is a varied one, with a good sampling of Cave’s recent output. I do wish something of the Soundsuits’ performative aspect had been incorporated into the show, but I believe they have typically been exhibited just as sculpture in other museums. All in all it’s a good show, and I now have more appreciation for Cave as an artist (as well as his assistants for their impressive handiwork). Seen with the Kentridge installation the ICA is offering an interesting pairing, with both artists somehow concerned with black identity and history (though Cave’s connection to these ideas is barely touched upon in the exhibition itself).


Kyle MacMillan and William Morrow. Nick Cave: Sojourn. Denver Art Museum, 2013.

Leslie Umberger. Messages & Magic: 100 Years of Collage and Assemblage in American Art. John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2008.

Exhibitions: Christina Ramberg at ICA Boston

ramberg-waiting lady-1972-flickrChristina Ramberg: Waiting Lady, 1972. via flickr

The human body as a subject has long fascinated visual artists. It has fallen prey to distortion and monstrosity, to sexualization and idolization, and so many other representations. In the 1970s many artists involved in the rising feminist movement turned to the female form as a symbol of oppression as well as power, some referencing Mother Earth metaphors and others satirizing 1950s domesticity and feminized consumerism. It became easy for any woman artist to be labeled “feminist” (a dirty word to many) regardless of her actual intentions or activism. While many artists actively pursue goals relating to feminism and combating prejudices, others are more ambiguous in their work, more private about their own goals or beliefs. It is this understated approach that makes the work of Christina Ramberg so fascinating. Her work can easily be interpreted through a feminist lens, but does not endeavor to give the viewer any clear answers or meanings.

Based in Chicago, Ramberg became associated with the loose-knit group of artists known as “Hairy Who,” a subset of the Imagists- Chicago artists generally known for their humor, grotesque surrealism, and disconnect from the more mainstream New York art world in the 1960s and 70s. Her influences range from geometric Cubist Fernand Léger to 1950s “damsel-in-distress” comics. I also see a bit of the Art Deco figuration of Tamara de Lempicka in the angular forms and notable sheen of her paintings. Ramberg’s work is characterized by stylized forms, close-up and cropped body parts, binding and bandage motifs, and references to women’s lingerie and hair. Though she had several solo shows during her lifetime, her career was tragically cut short in 1995 when she passed away of a neurological disease. She is popular with collectors but rarely exhibited in museums, pushed to the side in more mainstream discussions of the Imagists, women artists, and contemporary painting.

ramberg-istrian silver lady-1974-whitneyChristina Ramberg: Istrian Silver Lady, 1974. via The Whitney Museum tumblr

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston’s exhibit Christina Ramberg (on view through March 2) focuses on the artist’s major paintings made between 1971 and 1981, featuring a selection of 13 works. It is a small but effective show, exploring the artist’s development over a significant period. Her style is sleek and flat, mostly acrylic paint on masonite. Her palette is subdued, often limited to brown, tan, and black tones with the occasional dark blue or bold purple. With their cropped bodies and surreal distortions, the paintings invite closer scrutiny, and their memorable bright sheen effect has to be seen in person.

1988_ramberg_blackwidow_bChristina Ramberg: Black Widow, 1971. via The Renaissance Society

One of my favorite pieces is Black Widow from 1971, one of her first large paintings. The catalogue shares an interesting quote from Ramberg, as she reminisces about watching her mother get dressed for a night out when she was a little girl: “I can remember being stunned by how it transformed her body… she’s transforming herself into the kind of body men want. I thought it was fascinating… in some ways, I thought it was awful.” This painting is one of a series showing women’s torsos in antiquated lingerie, with flesh tightly bound in black satin and lace. By hiding the figure’s face and limbs, Ramberg de-humanizes them and thus literally objectifies them.

The artist moved onto more abstracted paintings, with figural forms that merge with phallic forms and repeating motifs of long strands of hair and wooden chairs. Her tendencies move from voyeurism to surrealism. The latest works in the exhibit showcase Ramberg at her most abstract, with androgynous torsos and body parts made up of different objects, patterns, and materials. She also veers slightly away from her penchant for symmetry, with some bodies partially falling apart from the center. Freeze and Melt from 1981 shows a body as an assemblage, composed of furniture parts, wire mesh, wooden blocks, and clothing.

ramberg-Freeze_and_MeltChristina Ramberg: Freeze and Melt, 1981. via Boston Beyond

Over these ten years of experimenting with the human form, showing the transformative power of clothes, hair, and objects, Ramberg reveals a refusal to be obvious. She plays with gender, with feminine sexuality, with stereotypes, and creates her own iconography that lends itself to multifarious readings. The exhibit is a small but powerful one, and allows a neglected artist a worthy space and surely many new admirers.



Janelle Porter. Christina Ramberg (ICA Boston, 2012).