Yesterday, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see “Isa Genzken: Retrospective.” I had never heard of this German contemporary artist before. However, advertising works! I had noticed ads for the retrospective around Chicago and I was intrigued by these bright colored, curious sculptures. The exhibition did not disappoint.
I accidently went the wrong way around the exhibition. I started with her latest work and ended with her earliest works in the 1970s. It was interesting to see where her later works came from. I’m going to talk about it from this perspective. Throughout the exhibition, the explanatory plaques talked about her fascination and consideration of architecture. I could definitely the thread throughout her work.
The first room was composed mostly of sculptures that were inspired by news events, namely 911. She created these buildings out of consumer objects, like trays, bright colored plastic, flowers, tiny toy cars, and more. The buildings were decently large; they definitely towered over you. Each building had a different purpose. One was a church, another was a parking lot with tiny cars. One was a store named “Osama Fashion Show.” The curator interpreted this piece as a show of optimism by the artist. These kitsch constructed buildings reflected the chaos and beauty of Manhattan. Despite the terrorists’ best efforts to destroy the spirit of the city, Manhattan will regrow and thrive. I think this is an interesting idea. I can’t help to think that there has to be a comment about the brashness of the city. And “Osama’s Fashion Show” seems to suggest something about commercialization and creating opportunities of 911.
Another installation that spoke to me was “The American Room.” It’s a decent sized room with a giant desk on one end. Several pedestals line the room leading up to the desk. On each pedestal, there were mixed media sculptures that incorporated various eagles objects. On top of the desk, there was a giant figure of Scrooge McDuck. It’s an interesting statement about consumer culture tied to the business world. This room is definitely supposed to be an executive’s office, large and foreboding, but there’s no actual work on the desk. There’s no computer, nor much paperwork. And yet eagles surround the desk. The eagles are both consumer products (who knew there would be so many varieties of eagle sculptures!), and stand-ins for the prosperity of the US.
I really liked the mixed media sculptures “Empire/Vampire.” They were these little dioramas composed of fabric, plastic army men, and other consumer goods; all painted in various bright colors. These sculptures depict scenes of war. Little miniature solders stalk the enemy around shoes, and clumps of fabric. My favorite diorama transformed sneakers into monsters by slicing horizontally in the front to create gaping maws. I liked these sculptures because they made war tangible. War is often such an enormous concept that people forget that it is something lived by the people who fight it, and the people who live where the fighting takes place. The individual battles, the places, and the people get forgotten. By placing the sculptures at eye level, we confront the experience of war. Moreover, by using consumer products, it reminds us that war makes everyday existence difficult and even terrifying. A shoe, something relatively harmless and common, can be turned into something horrifying.
Other works play with gender, a favorite topic of mine. There are two giant sculptures loosely called Veils: Man and Woman. They are vaguely head shaped sculptures covered in multi-colored paint. They are placed on higher than normal pedestals that slowly turn. What I love about this is that it’s not discernible what makes one veil “male” nor the other “female.” The viewer could try to make guesses about what constituted male or female attributes but it would be a construction. She does this with another series of sculptures that translated to “Gay Baby.” There are several shiny sculptures hanging off the wall composed of kitchen items and tools from the tool shed. These are objects from very gendered spheres. They are mixed together, “scrambling” notions of gender.
As we go back in time, there are several sculptures known as “Basic Research.” They are cement block sculptures. At first you can overlook them since it just looks like cement blocks on a pedestal. But if you look closer and think about the work, you realize that these are very carefully calculated sculptures. There’s a strange beauty to them that I can’t quite put my finger on. She’s managed to take something fairly unaesthetic, namely cement, and make it into art. I’m really partial to color as a rule but there was something oddly compelling. Also these sculptures made her later sculptures of 911 or war possible. I can see the line moving forward in time.
And the last room (or first room if you go by year) is a selection of her earliest works. There are these incredibly long smooth wooden sculptures in the middle of the room. There were also framed found advertisements for consumer goods on the wall. There was also an abstract series of paintings. And there is a found object in the form of an old radio. Per the curator’s interpretation, even from her early career, Isa Genzken refused to define herself to a single style so she wanted all these disparate art forms to be showcased together.
So check out the Retrospective before it closes on August 3rd.
Also, there’s the sweet room of Calder mobiles from the permanent collection. You can’t beat wonderful Calder mobiles dangling from the ceiling. And if you are lucky (or move fast to create some wind), they might even dance for you. Or with you.