A couple of weekends ago, when I was in Kentucky, I went to Cincinnati to purchase some wood. Given the opportunity to be in the Queen City for a while, I made the trip downtown to visit the Contemporary Arts Center. Prior to visiting the museum, my Dad and I ate lunch at Izzy’s. If you’ve never eaten at Izzy’s, suffice it to say that next time you are in Cincy you must eat lunch there. Have the Reuben with potato pancake. You can thank me later.
Back to the CAC visit. The museum is architecturally spectacular and they’ve received a great deal of press in several of the national art magazines. I couldn’t wait to see what the fuss was all about.
The CAC was founded in 1939 and is one of the nation’s oldest museums dedicated to contemporary visual arts. In 2003, the new space was opened. It was designed by Zaha Hadid. My first impression walking into the museum was that it was dark and gloomy. The ground floor was just too much concrete for my tastes. Regardless, there was something about the space that attracted me and I was optimistic about my visit.
My Dad and I made our way up to the second floor and encountered two massive faux-rock formations. Each was configured as a chimney and from the sculptures some low sounds emerged (doesn’t it always?). I can’t find the artist’s name on the CAC Web site but I do recall it was a younger guy. The wall text was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo which discouraged me from an art perspective.
In an adjacent gallery the museum showed presentations of the The HOME House Project:
What if affordable, sustainable design became an important element in communities and city-housing services? How can a contemporary art museum aid these endeavors? These are some of the questions raised by The HOME House Project, a traveling exhibition of pioneering designs that address the future of affordable housing. This exhibition will include more than 100 innovative plans. In addition, there will be 13 three-dimensional computer animations of some of the entries. The goal for the project is to establish a new national housing model in terms of design, energy efficiency, environmental consciousness and cost effectiveness that can change the stigma attached to affordable housing. With The HOME House Project, a contemporary art museum can provide a forum for artists, designers and architects to address the range of issues surrounding affordable housing.
An important and interesting cause, certainly, but a display of 100+ plans was overwhelming. We moved through this section pretty quickly.
On the next floor, if memory serves me correctly, was an exhibition dedicated to The Ant Farm:
Ant Farm, a collaborative art and design group established in 1968, created inflatable structures, action art and multi-media pieces for the purpose of public display and performance. In the midst of the free speech movement and anti-war demonstrations, the group saw themselves as part of the cultural underground and set out to create an alternative architecture suited to a nomadic lifestyle: cheap and easy to create and move. Ant Farm is perhaps best known for the "Cadillac Ranch" located in Amarillo, Texas, where 10 Cadillacs are half buried, nose down, in the field as both an act of homage of the history of the tailfin and of critique of the planned obsolescence of the Detroit automobiles. The group abruptly disbanded when a fire in 1978 destroyed their studio, although sparing most of their work. This exhibition will examine the 10-year history of the artist collective that challenged the visual architecture of image, icon and power.
Having only been familiar with “Cadillac Ranch,” I was excited to see what else this group had done. From what I could tell, not a whole lot else that really mattered (I'm sure I'm wrong... but looking back at the work didn't work for me). “Cadillac Ranch” is an awe-inspiring and powerful piece, but the rest of their work seemed like a bunch of wacky kids playing around. Most of what was on the walls wasn’t worth close inspection. But, if all that play was necessary for “Cadillac Ranch” to be created, then I think it was well worth it.
The highlight of our visit to the CAC was a show dedicated to the work of Los Carpinteros:
Los Carpinteros: Inventing the World is the first major museum exhibition to survey the work of the Cuban collective Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters). Alexandre Arrechea, Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodrguez have been working together since 1991 when they were students at Havana's Instituto Superior de Arte. The group's name, which dates to 1994, arose from early works that were reminiscent of furniture or work done by a carpenter. This mid-career retrospective will include a selection of drawings, paintings, prints, installations and sculptures. Transportable City, a group of tents resembling famous buildings in Havana, and Watchtowers, are two examples of work possibly coming to the CAC.
Our experience of the show would have been even better had it not been for Mike. Who’s Mike? Mike is the annoying education person at the museum. When we reached this floor and walked into the first gallery, Mike approached us and immediately began telling us about the work. He told us about the artists and some of the subtle symbolism the artists use. Now, I don’t like it when a museum person approaches me unsolicited to explain the work. I mean, we hadn’t even LOOKED at anything yet. I walked straight past the guy without looking at him and began examining the fantastic sculptures and watercolors on display. My Dad, the kind soul that he is, half-engaged with Mike. By half-engage I mean that my Dad periodically responded with “uh” and “ahh” and “mmh mmh.” Mike began following us around the gallery continuing to jabber away. At this point I raised my hands and plugged my ears. Not too subtle, right? Apparently so… Mike kept talking for another 30 seconds or so. Finally, he left us to go give the same schpeel to the next visitors.
Los Carpinteros makes fantastic work. It’s beautiful and full of allusions to their oppressive homeland of Cuba. My Dad, being a woodworker, was amazed by the skill displayed in each sculpture. I was particularly fond of the missile shown above that has several drawers in it. Additionally, I really liked a large stack of drawers that was shaped like a hand grenade. Though the rest of the museum’s exhibitions disappointed, Los Carpinteros made the trip worthwhile. Unfortunately, I wasn’t done with Mike.
As we were leaving the floor – did I mention that Mike stalked us throughout the floor and made us feel very uncomfortable? – Mike followed us out and asked what we thought of the show. My Dad was between Mike and me so I thought I’d be free to ignore him. After my Dad responded with, “It was different,” Mike would not let it go. He said, “And you, sir?” Here’s the exchange that followed:
Mike: “And you, sir?”
Me: “Um, are you part of Los Carpinteros’ art?”
Mike: “Excuse me.”
Me: “Are you part of the art?”
Mike: “Well, no, of course not. I’m in charge of art education at the museum.”
Me: “OK, I just wanted to make sure you weren’t part of the art.”
Mike: “Well, sir, we get many visitors to the museum who say this or that isn’t art. We like to engage those people and help them understand contemporary art.”
Me: “I just want to look at the art if that’s ok with you.”
Mike: “I’m sorry, sir.”
If Mike ever reads this, I’d like to offer him some advice. If you want to engage visitors, then when they enter the gallery tell them that if they have any questions to feel free to ask you. Do not bother them. Do not give them some explanation about the art before they’ve even looked. Do not stalk your visitors as if they are prey. Do not force them to talk to you if they clearly don’t want to. The fingers in the ears should be a good indication of that. Let the art do what art does. Be there for support and nothing more.
Ugh… what a tiresome experience that was. Dad and I proceeded up to the top floor where things got crazy. Before you enter the galleries, there’s a door with an upside down record player. A sign tells you to push a button. Next to the sign is something on the wall that looks like a button and I pushed it. Nothing happened. I pushed again. Nothing. Then I hear a familiar voice. Good ol’ Mikey is watching us from the floor below. He yells out to us to push the button hanging on a cord next to the door. Ah, what wonderful signage! I should have known that the cord hanging away from the sign and almost touching the floor had a button on it. Thanks for saving the day Mike! I pushed the button and the record player began to play. Fascinating.
Inside the top floor galleries were several pieces that were more childlike and playful. There was a large sculpture that had several drawers. The piece was made with visually impaired kids in mind. You pull the drawer, feel inside (some sort of texture was in the drawers) and a loud sound would play. Several of them scared me. I can only imagine the fright that a young blind kid would experience.
The most brilliant piece ever (and by ever I really mean never) was a dark room. When you enter, there are circles taped to the floor. You step on the first one (which is illuminated) and then another circle becomes illuminated. You follow the light from circle to circle until you leave the room. Brilliant! A piece of art fit for a carnival! By reading the wall text you would have thought the artist had cured cancer. Maybe the lights were really some sort of radiation… I don’t know.
Having said all of the above, my first impression of the museum is this. I think the building is really something. It seems to function well and it has a wonderful presence. I think the museum is an asset to the city. I think Mike should be relegated to a non-people-interacting position. Now. I worry that the museum tries to be too contemporary, if there is such a thing. I see a lot of "edgy" NYC art being shown here. Maybe I underestimate the Cincy audience, but even though I see a lot of art I thought a lot of what was on display was a little out there and not really relevant. Perhaps I’m stuck on my desire for beauty in art. Los Carpinteros find beauty in carpentry… it doesn’t have to be a pretty landscape oil painting. A dark room where you follow dots on the floor is not beautiful. It tries too hard. I wonder if the CAC (and Mike) always try so hard.
Hmm, what I would give for a Reuben from Izzy’s right now…