Cultural globalism at the Albright-Knox
Seldom-seen works celebrate diversity
Subodh Gupta, This is not a fountain, 2011–13, old aluminum utensils, water, painted brass taps, PVC pipes, and motor
Photo by kc kratt
We the People
Through June 30 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Avenue
We the People: New Art from the Collection is an exhibition of more than two dozen works culled from hundreds acquired by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG) over the past five years. The show organizers, director Janne Sirén and assistant curator Tina Rivers Ryan, “encourage us to reflect on our place in a constantly evolving world.” By “us” they mean everyone, but they could easily be introspectively referring to art museums themselves, which are redefining their responsibilities as cultural gatekeepers in the twenty-first century. The curators say they hope the exhibition inspires “conversations about contemporary art and its evolving relevance to all our lives.”
Being so inspired, let the conversation begin.
It’s easy to approach We the People simply as a collection of contemporary work by living artists from diverse cultures. But this is an exhibition with multiple subtexts. On the simplest level, it spotlights the necessity for the upcoming AKAG building renovation and expansion. The assembled artworks—some quite large—represent a fraction of recent acquisitions, yet only a few have previously been on display. Measuring the Circle, Ellie Ga’s fascinating twenty-one-minute video rumination on the nature of the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria through history, mathematics, aesthetics, and politics, is easy to overlook in a gallery passageway, and difficult to view comfortably.
Delving deeper, the exhibit can be viewed as a response to the current anti-globalist political climate in the United States, and a mea culpa for past sins of curatorial omission. It’s no secret that woman and non-European artists are vastly underrepresented in Western museum collections. This isn’t entirely the fault of the institutions, which inevitably reflect prevailing societal conditions. But today’s more enlightened art world is striving to correct these historical oversights. A good percentage of the artists in We the People are women, non-white, and/or from underdeveloped countries—a subtle rejoinder to today’s drummed-up anti-immigrant, anti-refugee hysteria.
Kevin Beasley’s Untitled (hollow), 2016, resin, housedresses, and kaftans
COURTESY OF THE ALBRIGHT-KNOX, THE ARTIST, AND CASEY KAPLAN, NEW YORK; PHOTOGRAPH BY JEAN VONG
The status of contemporary art
Drill down a bit more and We the People serves as an expression of the current state of the artworld. Though much of the work reflects a cosmopolitan hybridization of cultural influences, it all falls safely within the canon of Western art, which has now expanded to become transnational. For instance, Cycle, by Cambodian refugee and US immigrant Sopheap Pich, is a structurally complex woven bamboo form, reminiscent of twentieth century modern sculpture, particularly that of Naum Gabo. Japan-born, Brooklyn-based Yuji Agematsu displays bits of found detritus, much as Jeff Koons showcases vacuum cleaners, both artists underscoring with Duchampian earnestness the gleaming seduction of ordinary objects. Cameroon native Pascale Marthine Tayou references both African beadwork and Western fresco painting in the massive mixed media work, Chalk Fresco A.
An attention-grabbing installation by India-born Subodh Gupta, titled This is not a fountain, functions as the exhibition’s centerpiece. An allusion to rural Indian life, it consists of a sprawling pile of collected gray metal pots and pans, sprouting numerous perpetually flowing water spigots. The title references a well-known work by French surrealist Rene Magritte, and, in its use of evocative everyday materials, the work is reminiscent of artists such as Joseph Beuys and Tony Cragg.
Danh Võ, We the People (detail), 2011–2016, copper
Courtesy of Albright-knox; Photograph by Tom Loonan and Brenda Bieger
Concepts and experimentation
All the works in the exhibition are, to a degree, conceptual, obliquely addressing regional, national, and international issues. None can be fully appreciated without the benefit of supplementary information, amply provided in the form of extensive wall text (intermittently augmented with commentary by members of the public). This isn’t a bad thing (unless you don’t happen to read English), but it speaks to contemporary art’s intellectually introspective nature.
Nontraditional and experimental media dominate the work. Straightforward painting is nowhere to be found. Yale-educated Nigerian artist Njiduke Akunyili Crosby comes close with, “The Beautyful Ones” Series #5. Mixing seven media, this Nigerian/European cultural mashup echoes the work of such artists as Édouard Vuillard and Alex Katz. Even der Morgenthau Plan, by Anselm Kiefer, who is considered a painter, employs multiple media so thickly over photography that it approaches bas-relief sculpture. And again, the artist’s unflinching look at Germany’s troubled past necessitates contextual elaboration.
Vietnamese-born Danish artist Danh Võ’s brilliant We the People—which presumably inspired the exhibition title—is a full-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty, constructed in roughly 250 pieces. The segments have been dispersed to exhibition venues in more than fifteen countries (the AKAG has a section of one shoulder). On its own, this portion of the multicultural, conceptually complex work, reads like a human scale abstract sculpture. But in the current context, it evokes the opening line of a new multinational constitution, which might begin something like, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect global culture…”