Art review: ‘All of This and Nothing’ at UCLA Hammer Museum
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“All of This and Nothing,“ the sixth in the Hammer’s series of biennial Invitationals, is likely to get a drubbing coming and going. Amid the raw drywall, cellophane and torn fabric, traditionalists may ask, “Where is the art?” On the other hand, jaded aficionados of contemporary art might dismiss the show as another triumph of the bloodless conceptualism that dominates the international biennial circuit. Although both positions have their merits, they miss the heart of this ambitious, challenging and surprisingly moving exhibition.
To be sure, “All of This and Nothing” has grand, somewhat nebulous intentions. It purports to be about everything—the fundamental conditions of existence—and nothing, as in absence and silence. But the featured works by 14 local and international artists are really about perception: the play of presence and absence that makes it possible, on the one hand, to tell one thing from another, and on the other, to blur or confuse those distinctions.
Things are not always as they seem. This may sound like an over-broad and obvious point, but what makes the exhibition fascinating is not what it says about the featured artists or works, but rather what those works request of us, the viewers. They ask us to appreciate, not the brilliance of the artists’ minds, but the subtlety and richness of our own.
Although past Hammer Invitationals have focused on local artists, in their first major effort since joining the museum last year, curators Douglas Fogle and Anne Ellegood have selected seven artists from L.A. and seven from elsewhere: Berlin, Buenos Aires, Glasgow, London, Mexico City and New York. This decision represents a shift for the museum from a regional to a global focus, but it’s also an acknowledgement of L.A.’s growing stature in the international art world. Whereas previous Invitationals homed in on the particular tenor of art making in Southern California, this one asserts that it’s part of a much bigger picture.
Indeed much of the work in the show seems informed by another international moment in art history. Fluxus, the mid-20th century movement whose adherents took up where Dada had left off, championed an interdisciplinary art of the everyday. In particular, the work of John Cage—whose prose poem, “Lecture on Nothing,” is reprinted in the exhibition catalog—looms large, with its emphasis on the open-ended possibilities of silence.
The show begins in Fluxus style with an unassuming piece by Southern California artist Charles Long. (Although not listed as one of the featured artists, he also contributed a text to the catalog.) Outside the entrance to the galleries is a small box filled with dry leaves, each printed with a little piece of text. Mine requested that I pay attention to my body when standing in front of a work of art—do I thoughtfully cup my chin in my hand? And why does that seem more appropriate than, say, dancing a jig? Beyond playfully questioning the proprieties of museum-going behavior, these chatty leaves reminded me of Yoko Ono’s “Morning Piece,” in which she labeled bits of broken glass and sold them as “mornings.” Both works muddle the line between nature and culture by imagining new, fantastical relationships. What if you could buy a morning? What if bits of insight fell from above like leaves?
Cage’s influence also appears in the recurring motif of the musical score. As Fogle notes in the catalog, Cage’s radical 1952 composition, “4’33”,” was 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, allowing ambient sound to take center stage. In similar fashion, Fernando Ortega has transcribed the sound of a mosquito’s buzz into a piece for violin; Jorge Macchi turns sheet music into sculpture, indicating the notes by piercing the paper with steel cables strung across the room. And Charles Gaines creates haunting melodies by “reading” the texts of famous political manifestos as music.
A transformation of sorts is also at work in Ian Kiaer’s installation, which feels like an extruded abstract painting. Kiaer has lined a small gallery with spare geometric shapes in everyday materials, including a single white ping-pong ball, a paper architectural model, and an aluminum rectangle jutting out from the wall like a wacky, unfinished doorframe. The components create an aesthetically pleasing composition, but also gesture toward a more playful understanding of space and scale. The inside of an architectural model—were it habitable—might feel something like Kiaer’s installation: a provisional, experimental space that is also oddly familiar. In this sense, the work calls attention to the notion that buildings are simply ideas made larger.
Although Gedi Sibony’s use of discarded building materials is perhaps the most direct, several other artists in the show refocus our attention on the everyday. Frances Stark uses ubiquitous pre-printed stickers to spell out ‘Push’ and ‘Pull’ on images of her studio doors; they double as framing devices for her practice and her paintings. Karla Black exploits the aesthetic properties of cellophane and bath powders in sculptures that evoke the visual delights of both candy and Minimalism. Sergej Jensen creates lovely, evocative abstractions by stiching and stretching worn, found fabrics. And Eileen Quinlan creates images that look like darkroom experiements but are actually photographs of light, smoke and mirrors.
No such illusions accompany Paul Sietsema’s silent, 16-millimeter black-and-white film, ‘Anticultrual Positions.'Text from a lecture by French artist Jean Dubuffet is interspersed with close-ups of Sietsema’s scratched and splattered worktable. At first it all seems rather dull and repetitive. Sure, the spills and marks look like abstract expressionist paintings, but so what? However, the texts, which are all about revealing and transforming the means of representation, slowly begin to infect the images. Then the networks of stains and scratches become wondrous little constellations or nebulae, and one realizes that it is this byproduct of artistic activity—the stuff you inadvertently make when you’re trying to make something else—that approaches the unselfconscious beauty of nature.
These works and others by Evan Holloway, Dianna Molzan, Mateo Tannatt and Kerry Tribe point to the lovely, complex phenomena around us that we often hardly notice. And they remind us that not only is beauty in the eye of the beholder, but that the experience of art itself can be a generative collaboration between artist and viewer. Such open-ended works are liberating in that they help us fathom the depth, power, and potential of our own minds. As John Cage famously remarked, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight…. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (310) 443-7000, through April 24. Closed Mondays. www.hammer.ucla.edu