A look into the intent behind these two contemporary exhibits gives viewers a unique perspective on new art.
Growing up, most of us learn about artistic icons who captured mesmerizing images like a swirling night sky and rows upon rows of colorful soup cans.
Few children are taught the difference between a pile of candy, for example, and “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Félix González-Torres — a 175-pound interactive candy installation that represents the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness.
Contemporary art is so, well, contemporary, that it’s hard for some people to comprehend it without context. But in its latest exhibits, The Ringling attempts to make this type of artwork as accessible as possible.
On March 17, the museum unveiled “Natasha Mazurka: Order Systems” and “Interpolations: Artworks from The Ringling and Monda Collections,” two contemporary (and the latter of which is partially modern) exhibits that focus on art that takes some time to understand, art that visitors can’t casually stroll by and have a full experience with.
These works of art beg to be explored. Their descriptions aren’t necessarily longer, but they’re steeped in precious context, which can completely change what a piece of art means to someone viewing it.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Natasha Mazurka is a Canadian artist whose contemporary pieces utilize symbols from various disciplines — especially natural science and digital visualization — to make a thoughtful social commentary.
“The exhibition is organized as an art piece itself … it’s a laboratory-type environment,” she says of “Natasha Mazurka: Order Systems” at The Ringling. “I think of the paintings almost like petri dishes where information is being designed or microorganisms are being bred.”
When walking into the show, her first solo museum exhibit in the U.S., visitors are being watched by two shiny, tall, textured vinyl figures that serve as guardians of the gallery. Mazurka derived the name for these two pieces, “The Attendants,” from a work she first saw at the age of 16 that stuck with her.
“Emperor Justinian and His Attendants” is a Byzantine mosaic from 547 A.D. made of glass and stone tesserae that depicts just what its name implies: an emperor and members of his court. She’s always been interested by the socio-political subtext of such imagery, and decided to give it a modern twist.
The result were these two large kaleidoscopic designs, one on each side of the gallery doors, that aren’t visible upon first entry. Mazurka says she wanted people to have to physically turn around to see the pieces, and she purposefully put them higher up on the wall so viewers would have to look up at them, thus creating a sort of subservient experience.
“We aren’t supervised by an emperor but we are supervised by the internet and digital communication, so you’re looking at a digital algorithm,” she says. “It looks imperial, it’s a crown-like shape that dazzles, but rather than through (the medium of) a mosaic it’s through kaleidoscope vinyl.”
It would be hard to understand some of this from just standing and looking at the work, but curator Ola Wlusek (the inaugural Keith D. and Linda L. Monda Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art) carefully crafted a description next to it and all the other works to give context. She also notes that even without understanding the message, the piece is simply breathtaking to look at.
“I use the word beautiful (to describe them), which I don’t normally use when speaking about art, but these patterns are truly beautiful,” she says.
“The Attendants,” along with another along the back wall called “Hub” is the first of the three distinct bodies of work that comprise Mazurka’s solo exhibit. The other two are Mazurka’s pattern-centric paintings and her index series, the latter of which are embossings (raised or recessed relief images) on parchment paper that are displayed in a hexagon-shaped structure called “The Controller” that she designed specifically for the Monda Gallery.
Mazurka’s paintings also carry a deeper meaning than the patterns of shapes might imply to the casual viewer — a message that is deeply personal.
Three years ago, Mazurka gave birth to a baby girl, and motherhood changed her life more than she’d ever imagined. Suddenly what she says is her natural human craving for a sense of order became heightened and far harder to achieve.
Thus her interest in patterns grew even more intense, the reasoning for which, she says, is twofold.
Firstly, patterns can create a sense of order that is attractive to many people, but that attraction can also be a weakness because the absence of order becomes something to overcome. Second, the patterns she makes remind her of all the different camps of people constantly surveying mothers. In-laws, babysitters, other mothers — there’s always someone watching and judging.
It makes sense, then, why many of the paintings in Mazurka’s exhibit depict motherly themes — particularly breast feeding — upon closer examination. “Suckers” is a pattern she made based on nipple shields, for example, while “Feeder” is modeled after the shape of a breast pump.
Even people who aren’t mothers can connect to these, she notes.
“In ‘Feeder’ you have this negative space in the center … it’s the idea of feeding into something that has no end (that) I think everyone can relate to,” she says. “Working towards something that seems like it’s never going to end, whether it’s a work project or renovating your house.”
MARRIAGE OF COLLECTIONS
Across the museum in the Searing Wing, “Interpolations: Artworks from The Ringling and Monda Collections” mixes modern (art created between the 1860s and 1960s) and contemporary (art created after the 1960s); it also blends The Ringling’s own collection with the private collection of Keith and Linda Monda.
Wlusek notes that the Searing Wing is part of the museum’s Art of Our Time initiative, which focuses on living artists, both those who use visual and performing mediums.
When speaking to the title of the exhibit, Wlusek says she likes to pull from fields that have nothing to do with art and find some sort of connection.
“I pulled this out of the field of mathematics, where interpolations means to create a unique set of data points out of two very discrete data points,” she says. “Bringing them together to create something new, a new configuration, this echoes what’s happening in these (gallery) spaces.”
In spring 2018, the Ringling added Beverly Pepper’s Curvae in Curvae (2012), the lyrical sculpture in Cor-ten steel, to its grounds. This is one of four promised gifts from the Monda family, and the other three are included in “Interpolations.”
One such piece is Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s 1993 acrylic painting “Infinity Dots,” which, at 76 3/8-by- 204 ½ inches, Keith Monda calls the centerpiece of the exhibit. He also notes it’s a completely different work in the gallery than it was in his narrow New York City townhome.
“I’ve owned these pieces of art for a long time, but it’s a new way of seeing (them),” he says. “ I only saw it (“Infinity Dots”) from 20 feet away, so I’ve never seen these large pieces from so many perspectives — for me it was like seeing them for the first time.”
One of the other three gifted works in the exhibit is Spanish postminimalist artist Teo González’s “Untitled #406,” a 2006 acrylic painting on canvas. His work also features a series of dots, but in a completely different style and process than Kusama’s.
González says there are two basic elements to this work, the first of which are the marks he first made using acrylic enamel around the canvas. He left several “puddles” of a liquid mixture of acrylic enamel on the canvas until shortly before it completely dried out, and then on top he placed a smaller portion of the same acrylic enamel to let the fluids interact.
The second element, he says, is the grid that he constructs before he starts every work. He used to draw this on the canvas, but then he wanted to bring more of an organic feel to his work, so he stopped visualizing the size of his dots, or what he calls drops, and where he wanted them to be. To do this he made bigger squares on the grid, and the bigger the square, the more free flowing the pattern (or lack thereof) is.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
The two exhibits share several artistic characteristics, but the intentions of the artists behind them are quite unique.
“At first all these works feel separated and dispersed — that’s sort of intentional because I enjoy having viewers make their own associations,” Wlusek says. “But to me they’re quite linked together … Early modernism and abstraction (for example) really inform one another.”