One of the stranger artworks on display at Contemporary Art Center’s current Where Do We Go From Here: Selections From La Coleccion Jumex is a urinal. It is seemingly ready to use, planted right out in the open on a gallery wall surrounded by other objects. If not for the fact that on close inspection it is too sculptural and painterly, too beautiful as an object — with its plaster and semi-gloss enamel paint — to have any functional purpose, it might actually get used.
Once you know that the creator of “Urinal” is Robert Gober, the strangeness dissipates. He’s a sculptor/installation artist known for his provocative intellect. So not only would he be one to reference Marcel Duchamp’s famous 1917 “Fountain” — an actual urinal that he signed “R. Mutt” — but he also brings it full circle. As Duchamp appropriated that urinal, Gober appropriated an image linked to Duchamp, but he puts the artist’s hand back into shaping and creating the object.
But for something really strange, and something that at first seems about as far from Duchamp-inspired art as conceivable, take a look at the identity of the curator responsible for the current Whitney Museum retrospective, Heat Waves in a Swamp, devoted to one of Ohio’s most important artists ever — Charles Burchfield. It’s none other than Gober. (The show is up through Oct. 17.)
The northeast-Ohio-born Burchfield, who lived from 1893-1967, had his greatest success with his particularly moody American Scene watercolors from the Depression Era. During that time, living in Buffalo, he won acclaim for depicting America’s towns and factories as lonely, chilly, often-depopulated places.
The work fit the times and, I think, holds up as an example of art that puts a search for truth ahead of prettiness. But it didn’t particularly fit with the art trends of post-World War II America. While Burchfield remained active, his fame slowly faded.
This show marks a major attempt to revive his legacy. Gober got involved at the invitation of Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, where it originated. But, as Gober’s participation might indicate, this is no ordinary retrospective. It sets out — not unlike Gober’s take on Duchamp — to make Burchfield relevant to today.
I saw Heat Waves in New York this summer, already a fan of the artist’s best-known realistic work, which I saw as a more Expressionist companion to Edward Hopper. I was surprised to see that this exhibition downplayed that, as if his most popular period was his least important.
Rather, Gober concentrates on the landscapes Burchfield did in Ohio 1915-1917 in a style so Expressionist it borders on fantastical. Some of these vivid watercolors, like 1917’s “The Insect Chorus” or his late-period “Dandelion Seeds and the Moon,” seem to radiate waves — be they heat or seismic ones — the way Munch’s “The Scream” does. You can almost feel the nature trapped within them, and it’s scary. It’s definitely personal; intimately psychological, even.
For those reasons, the media (and the Whitney) has called Heat Waves a show of visionary, mystical work. That connects Burchfield to various strains of Modern and Contemporary art — Mark Rothko, the mystical Expressionism of Northwest artists like Morris Graves, even California Beat Generation painters like Jay DeFeo.
The exhibit makes Burchfield seem new again, which is what major museum shows — as well as artists like Gober — try to do with art.
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