February 2, 2007

Stingel beckons viewers to take a closer look

“When you’re in this gallery, please be aware of the taped lines in front of these pieces,” says the guard as two visitors lean closer and closer to the surface of one of Rudolf Stingel’s giant oil and enamel paintings. It’s the kind of show that demands that viewers look closer. Sometimes, they’re even invited to physically engage with the work—as visitors do to the enormous carpet mounted on one wall of the gallery, running their fingers through the thick white surface and scratching out words or doodles.

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) survey of contemporary artist Rudolf Stingel’s work stretches from his earliest oil and enamel painting, done in 1987, to his MCA entrance installation, completed for this exhibit. Using reflective silver installation boards and a large chandelier, Stingel transformed the high-ceilinged entryway into a modern-day Versailles Hall of Mirrors where viewers scrawl their thoughts into the installation boards.

From far away, the silver-walled entryway is stunningly beautiful. Closer up, the piece and its scrawled messages have the same voyeuristic but banal appeal as a public bathroom wall. Turns out, people write the same sorts of things in museums as they do in bathroom stalls. “I was here.” “Who’s your daddy?” “Chris was here cows rock.” “Impeach Bush.” When the viewer steps farther and farther back, the graffiti becomes simply a pattern engraved into the walls—not unlike the ornate patterns of Baroque architecture.

Throughout the exhibition, the patterns on the surface of Stingel’s works are what draw the viewer in. Stingel’s oil and enamel paintings, about 15 by 20 feet, are luminous blocks of color that shimmer beneath a silver film. Even these paintings ask for the viewer’s physical engagement—although not in the same way as the carpet or entryway installation does. In his 1989 book Instructions, Stingel described the process for creating his oil and enamel paintings, inviting admirers to make their own Stingel paintings.

After painting the canvas one base color, he would lay a sheet of gauze over the painting, then spray paint it silver. Finally, he would pull the gauze away, leaving a silver layer as well as faint creases of paint from areas where the gauze did not lie flat. In his curator talk on Sunday, the museum’s senior curator-at-large Francesco Bonami compared the oil and enamel paintings to the entryway installation. “Each sign you see made by the public on the surface outside is like the creases on the painting.”

Stingel’s fascination with surfaces and materials was evident throughout his work, whether it was the viewer or the artist leaving the marks. Two pieces made with giant sections of Styrofoam showed a particular concern for material. According to Bonami, Stingel dipped a pair of boots in acid, then went “walking over the surface [of the Styrofoam] like a madman.” The resulting tracks resemble footprints in the snow. “Passage over the canvas for Stingel is the painting,” Bonami said.

The word “passage” reflects both Stingel’s interest in capturing physical movement and his interest in capturing time. His enormous self-portraits, done in oil, are a stark contrast to his other works because of the way they reflect upon time and movement. Three of the giant self-portraits show Stingel in middle age, and they appear to be photographs at first glance.

Two of the middle-aged self-portraits show Stingel slumped on a bed, face half in shadow, the crisp white of his dress shirt contrasting with the faded texture of his jeans. Another depicts his face looming from the side. The paintings are cinematic in their size and scope, and don’t immediately seem to be concerned with surface. Yet, their very photo-realism calls the viewer’s attention to their surface.

Museum-goers took in the paintings first from afar, then peered in closely to see whether the paintings were indeed paintings. Close up, the viewer could see the coarseness of Stingel’s tiny brushstrokes on his jeans and the smoothness with which he deployed the paintbrush on his shirt. Unlike in Stingel’s Styrofoam pieces or his gauze paintings, the surface of the self-portraits is deceptive, suggesting at first that there was no movement and even no artist involved in their creation.

When viewers stepped closer, as they so often did, the self-portraits reversed the first impression. This artist’s craft dwells in the tiny details. While the interactive installation surrendered the most intimate scale to the viewer, Stingel himself dominated the paintings, leaving his mark in every stroke.