Hipness Returns to the Cincinnati Art Museum

The first must-see exhibition in a summer of essential art blasts is Mark Fox's Dust, a series of eight works installed throughout the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), with six of the pieces grouped tog

The first must-see exhibition in a summer of essential art blasts is Mark Fox's Dust, a series of eight works installed throughout the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), with six of the pieces grouped together in the final gallery of the CAM's luxurious new Cincinnati Wing. The Cincinnati Wing opens to the general public Saturday, but I crashed a couple of private events last week to catch a glimpse of Fox's work.

Dust is dazzling, hip and essential. It's unlike anything else in the museum, and that's a compliment.

His short film, "EVEr DISCONSOLATE," offers another chapter in a lifelong fascination with tornadoes, this time placing a storm outside CAM's back windows. The wittiest piece in the installation is "The Collectors? (Barnhornbirdhouse)," a wooden birdhouse with an interior that's a detailed replica of CAM's contemporary art gallery located in its third-floor cupola. A video camera inside the birdhouse sends a live picture from the birdhouse's insides back to a projection on the gallery wall.

Fox has created a picture-perfect illusion with "The Collectors?," but the biggest laughs await those who watch the first bird invade the miniaturized museum gallery. He's re-created a gallery tour video into a 1950s monster movie, and the effect is hilarious.

The titular piece, "Dust," a collection of paper drawings representing all the stuff Fox has collected in his Camp Washington studio over the years, is familiar to anyone who saw his 2001 solo exhibition at the Linda Schwartz Gallery downtown. Fox has enhanced the piece, tweaking it from a flat surface work to sculpture pasted to a large wall jutting into the gallery's center.

My favorite of the six pieces gathered in the Cincinnati Wing Gallery is "The Passing," a sculpture of dust and debris Fox swept from his studio floor over the past month and molded into a classic archway fitted onto one of the gallery's doorways. It's classical and irreverent, a work that pokes fun at the decorative architecture throughout the museum.

Surprisingly, its varying shades of grayness and speckles of black are beautiful. Stand in the adjacent gallery, well past a mediocre Jim Dine canvas, and you'll gain the best perspective of "Dust."

In the context of the work around it and the well-polished beauty of the surrounding Cincinnati Wing rooms, Dust is a bold, welcome burst of modernity in a place that could use more of the same.

Fox single-handedly hipifies CAM's collection of 15 renovated galleries dedicated to Cincinnati painting, sculpture and decorative art. The wing is quaint, polished and tasteful, a perfect addition to CAM's noble-museum-on-the-hill status. In contrast, Dust shows another, more playful side to visual art.

The works in Dust are as artful and well-crafted as any other CAM piece. What separates Dust from the rest of the museum is an embrace of irreverence. Fox shows us that the beautiful isn't always to be taken seriously.

As a volunteer who helps program contemporary movies in the museum's auditorium, I'm doubly impressed by Fox's message and CAM Director Timothy Rub's decision to share Fox's work with museum visitors.

The highlight of Dust is located near CAM's front door, behind its visitor's desk. In a small, dark room that's perfect for projected videos, Fox has created a 40-minute video, "Forty Days (elegy for the GREAT HALL)." A work of poetic illusion, Fox has built a detailed model of CAM's Great Hall and slowly floods it in a downpour of rain. The Great Hall is washed clean of all its belongings, ready to receive new work, a new future.

The natural sound of the pouring water, varying from soft droplets to a thunderous roar, accompanies the dreamlike images perfectly. "Forty Days (elegy for the GREAT HALL)." is unlike anything Fox has made before.

I didn't take time to walk through the rest of the Cincinnati Wing. I didn't need to. I saw what was essential, and I plan to revisit Dust as many times as I possibly can.

I believe other people will feel the same.

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