By Brandon Sward
You may not know it yet, but you are at the center of Above, Before & After at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The exhibition borrows its name from three of the six prepositions within Bruce Nauman’s series Elliott’s Stones (1989), which resides just outside the exhibition space. Resembling gravestone rubbings, these sheets of paper read: ABOVE YOURSELF, BEFORE YOURSELF, AFTER YOURSELF, BESIDE YOURSELF, BEHIND YOURSELF, BENEATH YOURSELF. This piece, and Above, Before & After as a whole, draws attention to the many ways we occupy the space around us.
One of the room’s walls is devoted to an exploration of space. Showcased here is a recently acquired piece by Polish neo-avant-gardist Edward Krasiński entitled Interwencja (Intervention) (1983). The painting consists of a wooden panel appearing to slide out of its frame, with a thin line of blue masking tape joining both to the supporting wall . These walls, with their plain field of white and unremarkable right angles, provide a monotony that allows the viewer to focus entirely on whatever is hung upon it. Interwencja’s blue tape frustrates this expectation by pulling the eye away from the work and onto the inconspicuous walls in a quest to find the limit of the tape. More abstractly, the line gestures toward infinity in its level unbrokenness, an impossibility for artworks if we understand them as discrete objects to be bought, sold, and shown.
Following Krasiński’s line leads us to a second piece on this wall; one of John McCracken’s iconic planks, Untitled (1967). Unlike Interwencja, which ignores the boundary between the wall and the work, the McCracken bridges the distance between the floor, where viewers stand, and the wall, where the viewed hangs. With its sleek finish, McCracken’s Kubrickian slabs seem to violate a truism that is almost too simple to state: art is made by humans. Although the placard alerts us to the slab’s authorship, it is nearly impossible to find any trace of the artist’s hand on the piece’s pristine surface. Like the mysterious black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Untitled feels as if it has some non-human, or at least industrial, origin, despite that McCracken painstakingly made them by hand. It is perhaps ironic for the work to have such an other-worldly effect, since its genesis lies in the very this-worldly context of Los Angeles—both with regard to McCracken’s grouping together with other Californian “finish fetish” artists, and the ways in which polished resin references are tied to Californian surfer culture. By searching for some slight imperfection, the reflective surface instead shows the viewer’s own face, throwing the individual back upon itself, in a way reminiscent of the Nauman instructives.
The plank’s placement catches the light from Alfredo Jaar’s sculptures on the opposite wall, leading the viewer onward. In Jaar’s Cries and Whispers (1988), the topic of space moves into a figurative territory. Although these light boxes are similar to the McCracken in terms of their shape, their content is incredibly different. The piece portrays an undocumented Mexican immigrant in the US; living at the margins of society, he is physically present, but legally absent. Gripped in his hand is a stack of Mexican pesos, valuable in his home country but worthless outside of it. The unnamed man looks destitute, yet is unable to exchange his capital for commodities. Although we often think of money as being valuable in and of itself, Jaar shows us how money only has worth for those who believe it to have worth. Cries and Whispers helps to draw out the subversive qualities within the Krasiński and the McCracken. While it is difficult for us now to appreciate the radicalism of an artist like Krasiński or others who emancipated painting from the confines of the canvas, seeing Interwencja alongside the more legibly political Cries and Whispers helps remind us of the historical weight of such “high modernist” interventions. In turn, McCracken highlights the dependence of Jaar upon the formal experimentation of his forbearers.
Connecting these two walls is a set of resident Alexander Calder mobiles. These kinetic sculptures explore space in yet another way, as their delicately balanced shapes respond to subtle changes in air currents, perhaps created during the very process of being observed. In this way, they also contribute to conversations about the boundaries of an artwork and the relationship between viewer and viewed, albeit obliquely.
Another kinetic sculpture, Takis’ Magnetic Mobile (1964), brings the Krasiński/McCracken and Jaar walls into dialogue more effectively. Unlike the Calders, which rely upon its local environment to become animate, the Takis piece needs only to be plugged into an electrical outlet. Like sinkers on a fishing line, two objects dangle from the ceiling, circling one another in a jerky electromagnetic dance. Magnetic Mobile functions as a metaphor for the exhibition as a whole, governed by forces which attract and repel simultaneously: rather than merely updating McCracken, Jaar wades into the explicitly political; a runaway line from Interwencja interrupts the ethereality of the McCracken plank; Calder’s mobiles’ spontaneous movements are brought against the electric swing of Takis.
Turning to leave the room, one is confronted by a final painting next to the doorway. Recalling McCracken’s quasi-reflective plank, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Il bagno turco (The Turkish Bath) (1971) is a silkscreen on polished stainless steel. The back of a nude woman holding a lute, borrowed from Ingres’s Le Bain Turc (1862), acts against Orientalist voyeurism, using a reflective surface as his “canvas” to draw the viewer into the scene instead. Like Jaar, the work alerts us of our possible complicity in historical forms of oppression. But our eyes are not the only ones in the room—above the Calders, John Baldessari’s Three Eyes (with Gold Bug) (1987) keeps watch over all. One of the eyes belongs to an elephant, but the other two are human, including one staring out through the scope of a rifle. As we watch the work, it watches us—like Yeats wrote, as above, so below.
Above, Before & After at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago runs through April 16, 2017
Brandon Sward is a writer currently based in Chicago. He can be found @brandon_sward