The Joy of Being Lost — Visiting the 57th Carnegie International

The 57th edition of Carnegie International, curated by Ingrid Schaffner, has come to its count-down weeks. Ingrid takes the word“international” with a pluralistic mindset because no single theme can represent the complexity of our times.

Sarah Crowner’s Teracotta Wall

That’s a relief for me. How can we NOT coerce ourselves into contextualizing artworks after reading the artist’s statement? And how often is that fun? The modularized mini-installation at the Carnegie International excites me like an amusement park for a first-timer. You get lost but you don’t care, because you are having fun.

Ulrike Muller’s work

By the words having fun, I literally mean it. The exhibition is a far cry from the sterilized white-walled contemporary art fairs.It invites you to relax in, rest on and even drink up parts of the exhibition. It may not live up to the immersive experience that you would like to have at the Meow-Wolf; but who has the time to argue when you can sip a cup of Vietnamese coffee (with lots of condensed milk) IN the museum?

Resting in a hammock, installed by Art Labor

By establishing the Carnegie International with a “masters of tomorrow” moniker, Andrew Carnegie effectively positioned the Carnegie Institute as the first contemporary art museum in the country. The Wreck by Winslow Homer was one of the first few purchases entering the museum’s permanent collection through the Carnegie International. After more than 120 years, It is still there on the wall.

Myself and Venus by Sir William Orpen won the first medal at 1910 Carnegie International. It remains one of my must-see in CMOA’s permanent collection.

William Gerdts once commented that he was “taking food out of the mouth of his son” to buy paintings. That’s how one becomes serious about art collecting. The same wisdom goes to the museum. The contemporality of art means the museum must not only measure the “adrenaline effect” at the show but predict how each work can withstand the test of time. It’s a tall order. But it gives the Carnegie International the sincerity and the credibility that few can rival. To some extent, the acquisitions by the exposition lend its aura of masterfulness to any artist, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Three Angels by El Anatsui re-invent the facade of the museum. Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure and Richard Serra’s sculpture seem to recede into the background under the massive canopy.

More than 100 years later, 300 plus works of art have entered the collection through the exhibitions. Yet, that very idea that art is meant to be collected, inevitably if not intentionally, goes against the grain of the contemporary art of our time. The exhibition adjusted. Nowadays, each invited artist has the artistic freedom for both what to be shown and how it should look. In some cases, the art exists only as the installation. It takes courage to offer a short-lived installation. But it will pay because what defines the legacy of the Carnegie International in the 21st century is the visitor experience and the institutional memory rather than materialism. In the 2018/19 Carnegie International, more than ever, the contemporary disposition wins over the collectability.

Fruit and Other Things is a on-site performance, a social project sourcing crowd wisdom and a interactive installation conversing with the memory of the exhibition.

I entered a room for Fruit and Other Things, a project by Lenka Clayton & Jon Rubin, accidentally. From 1896 to 1931, when the Carnegie International was held annually, more than 10,000 artworks were rejected. That artwork, which the museum only archives the title, the artist and the year of creation, became the subject of this project. My artist friend picked up a pamphlet listing all rejected artworks and claimed it important because “clearly these are the titles that you should not use for your art”.

At first, I did not understand why two calligraphy artists were painting titles. Then I realized that Lenka and Jon have encouraged visitors to take the finished pieces home. Yes, take an original piece of Carnegie International HOME for free! In a rare format, the social project democratizes the form of art collecting and favors the rest of the 99%. I patiently waited for my turn and took home the title Stodge Meadow by Fred R. Hadley. The value of individual titles remains to be seen. But owning just a title says something about the interactive museum experience. What comes back to Lenka and Jon as a documented snapshot (as requested by the team) is hilarious. You’ve got to check it out.

Work by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, winner of the Carnegie Prize

Even today, however, you can’t entirely discount the collector or the collectability. If I had the funds, I would buy Lynette Yiadom-Boakye without question. The jury committee selected this artist, the creator of wall portraits,  as the winner of the Carnegie Prize.  I do not know which one has been purchased for the museum. All are strong and look fantastic together. I learned that the artist created the body of work just for the show, and installed with detailed instruction from the hue of the wall to the height of each painting.  In the canon of figurative paintings, only a handful of artists are devoting to black people. Between Aaron Douglas and Kehinde Wiley, Yiadom-Boake fills the gaps by painting black figures relatable across races and cultures.

Often, Yiadom-Boakye completed a large painting within one day

Painted wet in wet, her brushstrokes celebrate the vitality of black skin with astonishing warm hues, as far-stretched from ochre to light green. There is a mysterious stillness in her imageries: a man sitting on the edge of a chair, looking delighted. A woman recedes in the dark, watching the cigarette smoke fleeing away. A young man in a light jacket stands next to a white wall as if conversing with his own shadow. The sparseness of the backgrounds, the nuance in their facial expressions, the awkwardness in their gestures and the tenderness in their momentary turning-away, all these gave me chills. They kept reminding me of Gary Winogrand’s words about photography ─ Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. Yiadom-Boakye is not a photographer, but she is certainly good at suggesting a storyline without storytelling. I was intrigued.  I looked for cues and only ended up yearning for more.

Eric and Lin enjoyed short films by Alex Da Corte, in a neon house.

The most joyful installation goes to Rubber Pencil Devil by Alex Da Corte. In a constructed house decorated with neon light, a panel of LED screens shows short films continuously with reference to pop culture. Embedded in flattened, bright colored space, each story has recognizable cultural elements, yet remains elusive in evaluating how that cultural heritage has shaped our life through television. To show his homage to Pittsburgh, Alex added films with Heinz Ketchup and Mr. Rogers if you wait long enough. I laughed, frowned and occasionally felt puzzled. I only wish that I had the opportunity to watch the entire length (three hours in total) in that neon house.

Jesse Reaves’ functional sculpture

We actually sat more than once. That functional installation blending art into daily life is also reflected through the practice of Jessi Reaves. The artist installed roomful sculpture/furniture that invites everyone to sit in or lie down. I did, and then saw, up-close, the patina of old fabric scraps and stains from seemingly haphazard construction. We have seen enough repurposing, but Jessi went for a repurposing extravaganza. Only through touching and feeling the upholstery did I realize the very worn texture that attracts many collectors in the first place is also the same reason that furnishings are thrown away in a non-museum setting, sometimes by the same people.

Like a cat, if there is a space, we sit. Jesse Reaves makes sure that you do touch the material and get rested.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure here as much as anywhere. Jessi is not the only one who looks for detritus along the streets of New York City.  I was a bit surprised to see Yuji Agematsu’s installation in those alcoves because I had seen a similar or probably the same installation at the Power Station in Dallas a few years back.

For me, the material would have a hygiene issue. (I would not pick them up on the street.) Rubber bands, strings and feathers, used gum(yuck) and cigarette wrappers – all these decaying materials are rearranged and transformed into a set of micro-scale sculpture. It has both an airy dynamic that defies gravity and moving beauty that challenges our basic instincts of what is considered garbage. In the Power Station, a rustic industrial setting with high light made each piece minuscule and dandy. At the Carnegie Museum, projected light cast gray shadow onto different rows. That ghostly gossamer gives rise to a sense of monumentality. Like the city where Agematsu lives, the sculpture is complex but organic, untidy but exuberant. If Jessi went for maximalism for her furniture, Agematsu instilled zen tranquility. Together, these artists have endeavored to extend the life span of mundane objects far beyond our own.

Yuji Agematsu’s micro-scale sculpture made of found objects along the streets of New York. “So many gums!” A father commented and took his son away.

By that time I got lost. I couldn’t tell what part was permanent exhibition and which was from the Carnegie International. Presumably, there were some printouts for visitors. I did not find any around. Maybe that’s intentional. The museum did not want to dictate how different installations should be explored. If this is not confusing enough, several artists create artwork in a direct dialog with the permanent collection, be it in the front façade, up along the eaves, in the decorative art galleries, or hidden in the hall of architecture. For once, I thought the museum had invited (like the Dallas Museum of Art) local high school students to show in the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Galleries, along with Boston highboys and Philadelphia sideboards. It turned out those works are by Karen Kilimnik. Kudos to the installation team ─ I can only imagine the amount of work to reorganize almost every single gallery to accommodate this massive exhibition.

Close-up picture of Yuji Agematsu’s micro-scale sculpture

At the end of the day, I came to conclude that this Carnegie International is swaying between a penchant to please visitors with every faculty of immediacy and a reticent restraint to converse with the legacy of the museum itself. It strives to add an intellectual depth when the installation becomes too joyfully consumable (like paring works by Abel Rodrigues with hammocks, kites and coffee offered by Art Labor). But it falls short to confront the turmoil of our times with frankness and impartiality.

The closest installation with a political undertone is a set of photographs by Zoe Leonard. They are close-up shots of the Rio Grande in a near-abstract form. We almost missed them because the gray photographs blend with the wall like marble tiles. The water along the southern border, in the eyes of Leonard, is murky, turbulent and ever-changing, perhaps no less than the political fights over a hypothetical wall on the same location.

Zoe Leonard’s evenly spaced photographs look like marble tiles. Nicole Eisenman’s sculpture from the previous Carnegie International now lives in the Hall of Sculpture.

That does not answer one over-arching question that hangs over every major juried exhibition. Why these artists? Why not me? Why are they selected for a big blockbuster show with no theme?

It brings me back to the project by Lenka Clayton & Jon Rubin, who disseminate artworks made on-site. I searched Fred Hadley but found no information. So I guess I will make a painting of Stodge Meadow in honor of the unknown artist. At the minimum, Mr. Hadley got his fifteen minutes fame in the show he could not get in.

For an exhibition that has crossed the second centennial of its history, the Carnegie International has changed its practice several times. Hadley was lucky enough to participate during a period when anybody could submit artwork. Then for a brief period between 1977 and 1979, the show only granted one artist for a solo show, as if it was the Nobel Prize for the art. Now, for every four to five years, we get to see the creation of three dozen or so artists selected for the Carnegie International. Which way is more democratic? Which approach is fairer? Or, more importantly, which method is more aligned with the mission of the exhibition?

I don’t know. Or should I say, someone at the Carnegie International has conjured up a perfect answer?

Mel Bochner’s Exasperations series provide an answer. We concurred.

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