Separated by several feet and about 400 years, a Dutch still life hangs adjacent to a three-dimensional collage that looks as if made by Robert Rauschenberg. The painting by Willem van Aelst and the collage by contemporary artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins explore the still life in the innovative show, The Genres: Still Life, the second in a series of three exhibitions in which the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum (of Michigan State University) invite a contemporary artist to engage in a visual dialogue with the art of the past. Concurrent with Hutchins’ re-presentation of the still life genre, a retrospective of Lansing-born architect Lebbeus Woods celebrates 35 years’ worth of highly conceptual projects. Although working in different media and addressing different problems, both artists share a playful defiance of the rules.
Jessica Jackson Hutchins unconventionally explores the still life genre. Around her exhibition space hangs a varied assortment of traditional still life paintings, each selected by Hutchins from the Broad’s permanent collection. These paintings place her three dimensional sculptural collages in the broader context of art history.
Some of Hutchins’ multimedia projects bear a resemblance with the “combines” of Rouschenberg, particularly in her humorous juxtaposition of visually dissonant shapes and textures. Unlike Rouschenberg, Hutchins uses a comparatively narrow set of motifs, including the frequent presence of ceramic forms, household furniture, and personal clothing. Her media is generally the stuff of a domestic interior. Much of her art questions gender stereotypes and responds to the overuse of the ceramic vessel as a metaphor for the female body. Consequently, her works invite a comparison, even if a bit strained, to traditional still life painting, which infuses the banal articles of domestic life with allegorical significance. Unlike the intimate scale of traditional still life painting, Hutchins’ works loom large and confrontational. Surrounded by comparatively placid still life paintings of the past, they scream for attention.
In Untitled (2011), a visually arresting three-dimensional collage, a large white rectilinear plaster form ,evoking a sense of oppressive weight, rests implausibly high and erect on an old sofa. Upon the block, nearly beyond reach, two ceramic vases precariously rest. Cups (2011), a multimedia black and white monoprint, shows the surface of a table as seen from above. Paint and fabric, loosely arranged into circular shapes, vaguely evoke two cups. A real plastic coffee lid affixed to the paper’s surface, brings a touch of the real-world into an otherwise highly abstract composition. Confounding the boundary between imitative and actual reality, Dinner Theatre (2012), uses an actual chair upon which rests a biomorphic ceramic form. Hutchins affixes these to a large black canvass containing a small, emphatically flat still life painting of apples in a bowl.
In these sculptural collages, Hutchens messes with our preconceived ideas of the still life, as the three-dimensionality of her work and her use of real-world objects foil our traditional understanding of the genre. The exhibit contextualizes the works of the present with the works of the past in a playful dialogue between genres and across time.
Concurrent with Jessica Hutchins’ exploration of the still life, in Lebbeus Woods: Architect, the Broad presents a retrospective glimpse of several of the architect’s conceptual projects. This exhibition brings together over 100 works spanning 35 years. Working mostly in pencil, Woods’ imaginative drawings depict futuristic structures and cityscapes that defy the laws of physics and gravity. He describes many of the projects as deliberately “free of any kind of usefulness.” Within these varied projects conflict reoccurs as a motif. Responding to serious issues, whether political, social, ideological, or environmental, his visionary solutions remain defiantly and conscientiously unburdened by any sense of practicality.
Many of his drawings seem other-worldly, such as Einstein’s Tomb (1980), a cross-shaped structure intended to ride a beam of light though outer-space. Yet his projects often address real world problems including hypothetical projects for historically volatile urban regions in Eastern Europe (East and West Berlin, Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia), the Demilitarized Zone in North Korea, and San Francisco (the latter addressing the conflict between humanity verses nature).
His architecture finds ways to transcend social problems. Inspired by the siege and destruction of Sarajevo (1992-1996), his High House drawings and accompanying models depict angular, many-faceted homes elevated on implausibly thin supports high above a war-tattered city street below. Rather than masking the urban, crater-ridden structures of recent geopolitical conflicts, Woods simply proposes, on paper at least, a highly original way to coexist with the ruins.
Some of his projects seem like pre-production conceptual drawings for high-budget, futuristic movies. The makers of the science fiction thriller Twelve Monkeys based a set design on one of his projects without his permission, leading to a lawsuit in 1996. The contested drawing, Neomechanical Tower, hangs in this exhibit.
He renders absolutely exquisite drawings with such impressively tight, refined detail that, on occasion, it takes a few moments to determine whether one is looking at a drawing or a photograph. Collectively, these images simply reveal the architect at play, dispensing with the restrictive rules of physics, and, in his own words, showing “what could happen if we lived by a set of different rules.”
These two distinct exhibits share a theme of playful defiance. Hutchins and Woods dispense with pre-conceived rules and restrictions governing their respective genres. The viewer can only come away with the sense that each artist approached all these projects with a sense of whimsicality, even when addressing serious issues.