Summer's Finest

I frequently walk past the girders and rising walls of the new home for the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) at Sixth and Walnut streets downtown and wonder: What art will come to this new building?

Aug 8, 2002 at 2:06 pm

I frequently walk past the girders and rising walls of the new home for the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) at Sixth and Walnut streets downtown and wonder: What art will come to this new building?

It's been an invigorating year of museum construction locally. The Taft Museum of Art is expanding, while the Cincinnati Art Museum continues to renovate its former decorative arts galleries, period rooms and costume galleries into the Cincinnati Wing, 15 new galleries dedicated to local art.

With these three projects, Cincinnati will physically transform its visual art community. Clearly, our three art museums have one goal — to bring the best work to local audiences. With that agenda in mind, I can't stop thinking about two exhibitions I saw this summer.

At Columbus' Wexner Center for the Arts, curators Jeffrey Kipnis and Annetta Massie organized Mood River, a playful retrospective of consumer design in the late 20th century. Billed as a revisiting of Philip Johnson's 1934 Machine Art show at the Museum of Modern Art, Mood River grouped together handheld vacuum cleaners, toothbrushes, skateboards and furniture.

Basically, it was a celebration of our consumer age. Separately, these objects would be mundane, but grouped together, whether suspended from the gallery's ceiling to resemble a school of fish or twisted into an indoor cyclone, the installation manipulated them into something stunning.

Plastic chairs from designer Philippe Starck's Bubble Club Collection helped form a furniture waterfall cascading over a gallery wall. A large model of the U.S. Air Force's Stealth Fighter hung prominently from the ceiling. Works of painting, sculpture and architecture were interspersed among the electric shavers and ballpoint pens. In one gallery, the innovative clothing designs of Hussein Chalayan took center stage. "Table Skirt and Fin Pleat Top," a wooden skirt that actually unfolds into a small coffee table, generated laughs and awe.

Mood River shamelessly crossed borders into neighboring areas such as design, media and advertising. It became more than a broad overview of design. Colorful and exuberant, it was that rare art show that makes you smile.

Currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, the first comprehensive exhibition of the 70-year-old German artist's paintings, makes its second stop in a four-city American tour. Richter isn't well-known to many Americans, but the show is significant just the same.

Its scope is immense, revealing the veteran artist's astounding volume of work, eclectic series of aesthetic styles and consistent beauty. It's been said that Richter's canvases stand up to the adventurous demands of conceptual art. Visited soon after seeing Mood River, I can say that these paintings are every bit as inventive and engaging as the Wexner Center's design show.

Like many blockbuster art shows, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting is a massive undertaking. Still, there are small, intimate moments of personal pleasure. "Betty," a 1988 canvas that shows a young woman staring away from the artist, her back arched slightly, best represents the photo-inspired realism that defines many of his paintings. "October 18, 1977," a cycle of 15 canvases based on Germany's Bader-Meinhof gang, a notorious terrorist group, pushes this photo-inspired realism into the realm of abstraction. In the process, Richter expands the visual palette of gray, black and white into its own solemn rainbow.

Richter's paintings are rigorous — so much so that the viewing experience can be emotionally demanding. As with many meaningful art experiences, it's hard to put into words my feelings about seeing this artwork grouped together for the first time. Simply put, I'd describe it as transcendent.

The one local exhibit that matched my experiences with Mood River and Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting this summer was Tony Luensman's Irato, the site-specific acoustic installation created for the Weston Art Gallery. Gallery exhibitions are one thing, but a large museum show has the potential to transform a city and engage a wide public audience.

In Mood River, consumer items that are frequently considered trivial and kitsch were elevated to something noteworthy. Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, as serious-minded an exhibition as you'll ever see, showed how formal techniques and solemn subject matter can be the source for great beauty.

I don't know whether shows the caliber of Mood River and Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting are destined for Cincinnati in the coming years, but I hope our local visual arts construction boom will have an impact. Brick and mortar is the natural first step.