‘Jim Dine: Poet Singing (The Flowering Sheets)’ @ Getty Villa
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Artists who appropriate older art in the process of making new work face a considerable risk. Depending on its quality, the older art can set a very high bar that the new work will need to equal, if not surpass. Otherwise, the appropriation will look like mere self-aggrandizement.
Such is the unfortunate fate of “Jim Dine: Poet Singing (The Flowering Sheets),” a grandiloquent installation at the Getty Villa (to Feb. 9). Dine, the 1960s New York Pop artist, is best known for mixed-media paintings that incorporate store-bought objects such as tools, lamps and bathroom fixtures, as well as for iconic heart-shaped images. He now works part time in Walla Walla, Wash., where the commission was produced.
Getty Museum manager of education Rainer Mack invited him to create a new work in response to any aspect of the antiquities collection he chose. It’s the first contemporary art project at the re-opened Getty Villa at the edge of Malibu.
The autobiographical installation consists of several parts. All four walls of a second-floor gallery of modest size (21 by 27 feet) are covered with 10 stanzas of Dine’s poetry, written in charcoal by numerous hands, then rubbed out and written again, to give an aged effect. The poem begins with travel through time and space as a metaphor, then meditates on familiar themes of life, love, sex and mortality. Art is conceived as an individually futile yet socially necessary hedge against the grave.
The words are also spoken by the artist, via a looped recording that plays on small speakers. Corny as all get-out, the stentorian free verse is not helped by the five sculptural elements that crowd the room.
Near the center is a big giant head, made from what appears to be white plaster — a self-portrait of the artist, stylistically reminiscent of monumental Soviet-era sculpture. Literally disembodied, the crudely rendered likeness rests directly on the gallery’s elegant black terrazzo floor. There it is surrounded by four chunky, cracking, larger-than-life wood sculptures of women dancing. Pictorially, the dissonant ensemble suggests an eddy of conventional thoughts swirling about a stolid man, whose mind is otherwise preoccupied with feminine charms.
The wood sculptures were made by enlarging a pair of Greek terra-cotta dancers from the Getty’s collection. They’re on view in a display case in the gallery devoted to “Women in Antiquity.”
Dine began with three-dimensional scans of the two small votive statuettes, which are typical examples of an abundant type left in burial tombs or at religious sanctuaries in ancient provinces in southern Italy, circa 300-100 BC. The scans were converted into a computer program that operated a milling machine, which blew up the roughly 9-inch objects to something approaching 9 feet.
Dine changed the positions of certain body parts, like the angle of a head, so that the two originals result in four different adaptations. Then he painted them and sand-blasted off the paint. The abraded result is, like the written and rewritten surrounding walls, a form of faux finish; apparently it’s intended to signal time’s relentless passage.
The original Greek terra-cotta figurines were mass-produced from molds — sort of pop culture artifacts from the Hellenistic age, ancestors of the store-bought stuff in Dine’s 1960s paintings. Their authors were artisans, not artists. (A parallel today might be Lladro figurines or collectible knickknacks from the Franklin Mint.) The originals possess a modest charm, italicized by great historical appeal.
However, once blown up to gargantuan size using a high-tech version of the old sculptor’s technique called pointing, the kitschy ensemble feels leaden and inert. Fluttering about the workmanlike self-portrait, the sculptures are charmless and devoid of history’s challenge. The installation is like a comic-book rendering of a headache, with chirping birdies flying around a sufferer’s head.
It’s a far cry from the installation’s inspiration — a masterpiece of Greek provincial funerary art, on view in a first-floor gallery. There, a pair of terra-cotta sirens — half woman, half bird — stands beside a slightly smaller than life-size seated man, presumably a poet. (He once held a lyre, now lost.) The theme is different from Dine’s, but it’s a sculpture of such formal delicacy and imaginative strangeness that the flat-footed ensemble upstairs wilts in comparison.
The choice of Dine to inaugurate the Getty Villa’s contemporary series is similarly uninspired. Plainly it was a result of his having produced a seemingly endless series of pastiches of the Venus de Milo. Get it? He’s a contemporary artist who looks at ancient art!
The achingly awful Venuses typify the ’60s Pop strategy of picturing established modern clichés about artistic value, just as his famous heart images do. (“Now there’s a painting with heart,” as the bravura Abstract Expressionist era painters used to say.) Dine is an artist with popular appeal but scant critical heft.
What the choice suggests, and what the pompous “Poet Singing (The Flowering Sheets)” confirms, is that the Getty needs to get serious with this program. If living artists are going to be engaged to produce worthwhile new works in relation to the collection, both at the Villa and in Brentwood, the museum should engage a proper curator. The project needs to develop into something more informed than this lackadaisical plan.
-- Christopher Knight
‘Jim Dine: Poet Singing (The Flowering Sheets),’ Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays. Ends Feb. 9. Free, but reservation are required. $10 for parking. (310) 440-7300
Top photo: A giant self-portrait head of artist Jim Dine surrounded by dancers of carved wood is the centerpiece of his Getty Villa installation.