Usually, when I visit museums, I head straight to the contemporary shows. Sometimes I skip the “famous paintings” shows altogether, because the selections from the collections rarely change or surprise. You know the formula: in general museums you’ll find chunky oils of landscapes and uptight portraits of nearly translucent members of the bourgeousie; in museums of modern art you’ll find a Cezanne, a Warhol, a huge, prominently-placed Still, a huge Rothko (always with a bench) and voila! — Western art history through 1960.
So when my friend Erik — whose critical eye I’d trust with, I dunno, my life, if my life depended on aesthetics — spoke highly of a selections-from-the-collections exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive by Lawrence Rinder, who’s the new Director, I made a point to go see it before it closes August 30th.
Galaxy: A Hundred or So Stars Visible to the Naked Eye, occupies three of BAM’s roomy bays. Upon entering the first one, I looked around and saw a bunch of etchings spanning the Renaissance through Romantic eras. Really, Erik? I thought. This is the show? But Galaxy doesn’t disappoint. Or put another way, the BAM collections run deep and Mr. Rinder’s curatorial approach delights. The works in the show are all really good, and the selection and placement of the works exhibit whimsy, unexpected turns, humor, sex and formal elegance. The exhibition guide is written with a high degree of subjectivity, bringing fun and surrealism into the viewing experience. For example, a rather vanilla classical painting based on Greco-Roman mythology is annotated with the oddball note that The Princess Bride is based on the same myth. And in a surprise pairing, a painting that is depicted in a portrait of a lapdog (if that isn’t weird enough), appears next to the lapdog painting.
Mr. Rinder wrote in the exhibition statement that the works in Galaxy are not his favorites from the collections, but they are works that spoke to him during an intensive, personal investigation. This seems true of the exhibition, and it’s refreshing. While lots of museums are doing “blockbuster” exhibitions, it seems anathema to keep the “best” or “most famous” works in storage, but it’s a welcome change to be allowed to peek into a curator’s process this way. His sensibilities emerge through the selections, but don’t overpower the work, or burden it with thematic content. Galaxy is still a mish-mash group show, but the awkward over-reaching attempt at chronology is absent, and a lot of funny formal or thematic similarities can be teased out across the centuries (such as a shockingly grotesque pair of prints by Goya and James Ensor grouped with a text-based drawing by Ajit Chauhan, or a wall of black-and-white works, including a stunning photo by Paul Shiek). Yes, there is the Still, the huge Rothko, and some oldies-but-goodies. For example, I’d seen the kinetic sculptures by Harry Kramer and Jean Tinguely at BAM before, but in this pairing, it inspired me to consider kinetic art in terms of their incidental audio qualities.
I also noticed a love of paint and line. I was really surprised how much I responded to certain works by Bruce Connor, whose inkblot drawing from 1991 gave me nothing short of a total “Wow!” moment.
The biggest surprise of them all, however, was my reaction to a section of landscape pictures. Usually I can’t be bothered with images of nature or the pastoral, which either pale in comparison to the real thing or are mere exercises in the craft, but in Galaxy, it occurred to me that landscapes are ultimately about the human condition, because they are the sites in which man’s plight occurs, and the substrate upon which we project our egos. Landscapes reflect the development of our thinking, for better or worse — they are subject to our awareness of ecology or the follies of our hubris. Thus, landscape pictures are artifacts of human development, and they seem to appear in Galaxy as reminders of distant stories. Rousseau’s painting of a forest after sunset is really a work about light; it’s about paint to an extent, moreover, the paint seems to be in service of light and the majestic intensity of that the visual experience that nature can afford us.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the provisional — how the finished state of art is highly fictional and manufactured, and that entropy, the conditional, the complicit, are more natural and sensible, and this all speaks to our contemporary conditions, and about life in junkspace (Rem Koolhaas articulates the idea of junkspace in an essay on architecture — speculative writing that would be of interest to artists, thinkers and designers of all types). So it was with great interest that I noticed this quote in the Galaxy exhibition guide, which I think beautifully sums up some of the curatorial thinking behind the show:
Aberrations, too, should be represented in the chorale of the artwork. Why not aberrations? Aren’t they human? As such, don’t they participate, more or less copiously, in the psychological mechanisms of every human being? Might they not lead to the most valuable discoveries? Doesn’t art begin with aberrations? Just what is an aberration? Isn’t living an aberration?
–Jean DeBuffet, 1945
Mr. Rinder may have simply wished to contextualize DeBuffet’s highly-stylized, “naïve” work on paper, but I take the liberty of extrapolating the thought across the show; that the works in the collections are aberrations in sidestepping the dustbin of history, and whatever quality of the works that snagged curatorial interest were due to aberrations—whether by quirk, excellence or elegance.