Over the hill, MCA reaches deep into collection for retrospective

By Jessica Hester

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is throwing itself a birthday party of sorts. After the Gordon Matta-Clark exhibition You Are the Measure’s closing, the MCA will present a three-part series of mini-retrospectives chronicling the development of eight of the most innovate artists of the last 40 years. The year-long retrospective exhibition, entitled Artists in Depth: Works from the MCA Collection, showcases the crème de la crème of the museum’s permanent collection.

The first installment, which runs through October 26, consists of a group of drawings and a film by William Kentridge. Kentridge is a renowned South African artist acclaimed for his politically charged animated films, which he makes using charcoal and pastel. He animates by filming a drawing, making changes and erasures, and then refilming it, and his work references the changing social, cultural, and political climate of post-apartheid South Africa.

Part two of the series runs from June 28–November 2, and features the work of multi-media artist Bruce Nauman. Nauman’s provocative early work focused on exploring the relationship between mundane activities and “elevated” works of art. In one piece, he investigated the significance of the artist’s studio work through filming himself pacing his work space. Nauman’s work ranges from contemplative to coy and often draws upon linguistic ironies and wordplay. Throughout the course of his protean career, Nauman has utilized sculpture, installation, video, and photography; regardless of the medium, his work tends to emphasize the conceptual above the aesthetic.

Also featured in this second series is work by minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, painter Leon Golub, and photographer/filmmaker Sharon Lockhart. Judd is known for his investigation of space, volume, and interval. One exemplary series is his Stacks from the late 1960s. In these pieces, Judd installed identical rectangular, plexiglass constructions directly onto the wall in precise intervals. The serial nature of this work, as well as the transparency of its creation, constituted a critique of European illusionist painting. Leon Golub was an American painter whose figural renditions were influenced by Greek and Roman sculpture, photographs of contemporary athletes, and images from gay pornography. Pine Flat, a film that documents rural American teenagers in solitary settings, is an exemplary work by Sharon Lockhart. Though these teenagers’ activities—running, swinging, reading—are unexceptional, Lockhart’s keen, sensitive eye powerfully reveals the self-consciousness and anxiety characteristic of adolescence. The juxtaposition of works by these artists illuminates the commonalities and differences between the artists’ thematic concerns and productive processes. While they work in different media, all of the artists confront and arouse questions of place and temporality.

The final series, which runs from July 5–March 1, 2009, features the work of Cindy Sherman and complementary large-scale installations by Kara Walker and Sarah Sze. Sherman is an accomplished photographer and pop culture icon. Her photographic work is always in series and frequently involves costumed self-portraits of the artist as various characters from film actresses to clowns. Sherman is best known for her Untitled Film Stills, a project that she produced from 1977–1980. In these works, Sherman posed as a film noir, B-movie, and foreign-film actress. In these and later works, Sherman explores the portrayal of women in film and other media as well as the pervasiveness of the male gaze.

Like the previous series, Sherman’s pieces are accompanied by works of two other artists, offering the possibility of interesting comparisons. For example, Walker’s work also draws heavily upon imagery of the body, but while Sherman addresses issues of gender, Walker’s main concern is racial identity. Instead of using her own body in the production of her art, Walker uses the bodies of museum-goers. In Darkytown Rebellion (2000), Walker arranged lights casting visitors’ shadows on the wall among her black-paper figures and landscapes.

The work of the eight artists featured in these three series exemplifies the MCA’s desire to engage patrons in a visual discourse with innovative, challenging contemporary art. I recommend diving headfirst into Artists in Depth.