Art: Stepping Away

The CAC's 'New Media/New Materials' highlights artists working in new ways

Mar 21, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Tristen Lowe's 23-foot-tall inflatable blue dolls, entitled "Alice," are part of the CAC's New Media/New Materials exhibition.

Some of today's most celebrated artists are at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in a two-floor exhibition that's packed full with exciting creations: New Media/New Materials: Highlights in Contemporary Art from the Fabric Workshop and Museum.

The Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) is, according to its founder and the co-curator for the CAC show, Marion Boulton Stroud, "one part avant-garde laboratory ... one part design collective ... and one part educational center." Each of these elements is present in New Media/New Materials.

Of course, there are many workshops like FWM, places that invite artists of varying degrees of fame to create art with their tools and under their "label." What's remarkable about FWM is its strong current, pushing artists to create using materials with which they aren't so familiar — mainly diverse and innovative fabrics.

With nearly 20 artists included in New Media/New Materials, almost all of them worth whole articles, I'm going to stick to my favorites.

Let's start with Lorna Simpson, a well-known Brooklyn-based photographer who often adds text to her black-and-white images, revealing a critical analysis of gender and race issues. Simpson's installation work in the CAC show, however, "Standing in the Water," fills an entire room. Some aspects of the work betray her most common medium, but not many.

On the ground lay three large silk-screened felt panels depicting black-and-white waves.

They're like heartily pixilated photographs. Within these floor panels are smaller squares of Plexiglas, with much clearer silk-screened images of shoes.

The shoes are indexical signs — signs that someone (you? me?) has stood in Simpson's waters. Here she gives herself away. Often Simpson's work includes such signs: Images of people that aren't actually of people but of their possessions or of their disjointed body parts. Hair and the backs of heads have found their way into Simpson's work many times. Rarely if ever does she allow her viewer a frontal image of her subject.)

So what's new about the CAC installation? For the artist, almost everything. First the materials: felt, sound, silk-screens. Second: It's interactive. Many of Simpson's works include text, which entice the viewer to engage by reading, but never have I seen her work on the floor where you must walk through it like a maze to physically, not just mentally, participate.

The text is there, too, but it takes new shape as a two-channel video with looping dialogue. Two tiny screens are stacked one on top of the other, built into the gallery wall. The bottom is an image of a moving body of water. Words appear: "tub emptying," "flushing toilet," etc. The sound in the room echoes the text. On the top screen seemingly random water-based experiences make you blush or giggle or cringe. First time pissing in a pool ... masturbating in the tub ... watching for the arrival of ships.

It seems incongruous, but actually there's a distinct message. The sound of the sea, the sound of the bathtub. The public display of seas, the most private of private times. The ebb and flow becomes a dialogue between the public and the private — water becomes a metaphor for social interaction.

Tristan Lowe is another artist who plays with social ambiguities in the New Media/New Materials exhibition. His two 23-foot-tall inflatable blue dolls, entitled "Alice," call up some confusion. Of course, "Alice" makes us think of the fairytale Alice in Wonderland and of the "perversions" of its author, Lewis Carroll. And certainly when the giant sculptures move into their most sexualized poses, they confront the viewer with an odd feeling of Carroll-esque perversion.

Lowe's sculptures are like blow-up dolls. Each is naked and has just one eye, a hole and a pointed reference to its gender. They're girls; one wears a bonnet. They're playthings — for the artist and for the viewer. They move, but not according to their own desire.

The artist is commenting on taboo sex — molestation. Their size is evidence of the fact that Lowe wants them seen. He brings the taboo to the highest of attention. Getting around them without noticing is impossible. Finally, then the secrets of sexual deviation will be recognized?

Glenn Ligon, another artist in the CAC exhibition, mixes issues of race and gender in his work "Skin Tight." Ligon is best known for his paintings, and in fact this piece from 1995 is his first sculptural work. "Skin Tight" is more than just a sculpture, however — seven handmade punching bags hang from the gallery ceiling with chains. On each bag there is text or an image that explores the notion of the black male: the face of Mohammad Ali, a quote from Leon Spinks, the Everlast boxing company logo morphed into Tupac Shakur's famous tattoo, "Thuglife."

Ligon here explores the expectations of the black man from body (Ali) to mind (Ligon takes quotes from African-American novelists such as Ralph Ellison, writer of The Invisible Man, whose discussion of black men and boxing has been one of the most haunting in literary history) and to hyper-masculinity (Shakur and gang life).

Other artists in the New Media/New Materials exhibition include Claes Oldenburg, Kiki Smith, Tim Rollins, Faith Ringgold, Kara Walker, Pae White and Carrie Mae Weems, among many others. The artists come from places as diverse as rural Ohio and Brazil. They've created identities in certain media, only to be pushed during their residencies at the FWM to branch out in new directions with new materials.

The CAC's acting director, Cynthia Goodman, certainly did a good job putting together the first exhibition of her tenure. With this kind of material, how could she not? Grade: A

New Media/New Materials is on view at the CAC through April 15.