Post #1241 • October 3, 2008, 12:59 PM • 8 Comments
North Adams, MA - Badlands is an angsty landscape show up at MassMoCA. Sayeth the museum:
While attuned to the art historical legacy of the landscape, the artists in Badlands engage new ideas about exploration, land use politics, and the relativity of aesthetic beauty.
It's inevitable in an exhibition as tendentious as this one that the best work somehow fails to get with the program. Alexis Rockman, a competent but not an inspiring talent, ended up dominating this show with a multi-panel, mural-length Antarctic seascape painted after a sea voyage to the pole. This is a classical idea of exploration, not a new one, and his icy, syrupy sprawl of oil and wax on paper stood out for want of equal veracity elsewhere in the room: Leila Daw's pleasant but lax collages, Jennifer Steinkamp's toy-like animation of a tree budding, leafing, blossoming, and shedding as it twirled back and forth (entitled, for reasons entirely unapparent, Mike Kelley), and a flaccid tribute to the power of Photoshop by Anthony Giocolea in the form of a 24-foot wide snow scene populated with absurdly costumed models. Also failing to get with the program was the talented Mike Glier, whose knifed, abstracted landscapes on metal were often sun-dappled and pastoral, and thus had to be shunted off into a side room with the great Robert Adams where neither of them would upstage the less traditional work. J. Henry Fair, armed with the moral authority of photography, provided the most solid pieces in the exhibition that looked like they belonged in it - stunning arial shots of industrial waste fields, richly-hued swamps of bauxite, arsenic, cadmium, and other by-products of comfortable contemporary living.
Much of the rest of the show was nonsense. Paul Jacobsen submitted a painting of a weird bridge in an awkward landscape entitled Metaphorical Investigation of a Metaphysical Reunion, thus saddling a stiff work with pretention. Hanging terrariums by Vaughn Bell gave you the opportunity to stick your head inside from the bottom and get poked in the eye with a fern. A grating video by Jane D. Marsching showed cities, in satellite view, sprouting bubbles and sailing away from their land masses, as an operatic soprano sang headlines from a Google News search on "North Pole." Badlands provided its own benchmark: a room of photographs from the archive of the Center for Land Use Interpretation of military, energy, and water facilities, displayed with matter-of-fact descriptions. Artless in the positive sense and informative, they were better than many of the deliberately artistic works like the garish sermons of Melissa Brown or the Boyle family's superrealist fiberglass relief paintings of chunks of ground. Eliminating everything that couldn't outperform the CLUI photos would have cut the show in half, to its benefit.