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"Coney Island, N.Y., USA" by Rineke Dijkstra.

Acquisitions of the last 10 years at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

The Decade: Contemporary Collection 2002-2012 exhibit at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is really 10 different exhibits, any two or three of which could adequately occupy a visit to the museum. With useful if sometimes somewhat pedestrian titles like “Shape of Space” and “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” sometimes more intriguing titles like “The Wayward Line,” and “What Happened to Painting?”

This is the new art that replaced the objects of older eras that was sold off to buy more current stuff in the hope of keeping the gallery in the forefront among modern and contemporary world art venues. Objects like the exquisite bronze Artemis—or Diana—and her fawn that became a display centerpiece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. If you had doubts about that gallery role decision, some of the work in the Decade exhibit might cause you to reconsider. Some other of the work will cause a pang of nostalgia and regret about the beautiful huntress. But as proponents of the so-called deaccessioning might say—did say, I think—if you miss the Artemis that much, you can always fly to New York for a weekend and have a look at it. A Romney-like solution.

The thematic category “Social Space/Private Ritual” includes a few dozen of Kara Walker’s silhouette series on black/white social/sexual relations in pre-bellum times, freely mixing myth narratives from ancient Greece, the Brothers Grimm, and Uncle Remus, posing anew the still open, question: “Did she put on his knowledge with his power/Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?”

Illustrating the broad range or scope of the category, the exhibit juxtaposes Janine Antoni’s super-feminist digital color print woman and gargoyle high atop the Chrysler building, and small metal sculpture analogue to the Chrysler gargoyle, the woman in the picture demonstrating the use of the same metal sculpture as a substitute penis, and Rineke Dijkstra’s straightforward documentary-style portrait of a young woman in black swimsuit at Coney Island, NY, USA, June 20, 1993.

The “Wayward Line” exhibit starts with Sol LeWitt’s gargantuan staircase area scribble drawing and is intended to illustrate how drawing, beginning as far back as the 1960s, according to accompanying wall-posted explanatory text, “began to conceptualize and become self-referential.” Lots of recourse to artspeak in the explanatory material.

The drawings range in approach from Joan Lindner’s meticulous presentation of an office alcove in an anatomical dissection lab, at once hyperrealist and strangely distanced by a representational technique that gauzes over the factual world in quietly obstinate preference for the artifactual, to Nancy Rubins’ maximum application graphite on paper work, to the point of transition from drawing to sculpture, and Katherine Sehr’s uniform-field skin of cell structures, at once of patently biological reference and completely abstract.

"Untitled (for Lionel Maunz)" by Kai Althoff.

By the way, don’t try to keep the labeled thematic categories and their attributes separate. There’s lots of overlap, as necessary and proper. Most of the time you forget which category you’re looking at, and it doesn’t matter.

Under the rubric “Film/Photography/Fiction” there is Jeff Wall’s huge, visually lush, enigmatic photo transparency in a light box about boys busting through a wall of intense greenery in a cemetery, and Sonia Bass’s horrific-vision manipulated color photo evoking nuclear devastation, called The Quiet Dissolution, Firestorm. Also, several pieces by the resolutely enigmatic Matthew Barney. The game is to try to figure out, decipher, fathom, what these pieces might be all about. One of them might be about Moby Dick. That’s my guess, anyway. A sculptural assemblage of immaculate ivory-white plastic—a seductive-looking amalgam of polycaprolactane thermoplastic, aquaplast, and self-lubricating plastic, to be precise—featuring a harpoon, what could be a flensing knife, to cut blubber, a box and laurel crown, evoking a memorial coffin, and some buckets containing some coiled material, a little resembling the buckets containing the rope that attaches to the harpoon that must play out rapidly but safely for the crew of the whaling skiff when the weapon strikes and embeds in the fish, as Melville describes.

Among sculptural works are Sarah Sze’s elegant orange fire escape facsimile and Ricci Albenda’s two-element positive/negative work. The positive part, a jumble of more or less globe forms, globe sections, hangs in the middle of the room, the negative part, a reverse version, more or less, of the positive, is recessed into an adjacent wall. Another sculptural version of positive and negative is Mona Hatoum’s huge circular sandbox with rotating mixer mechanism, one arm to rake the sand, the other to smooth over and cancel the rake lines. An industrial age Zen garden, about yin and yang.

An enormous unmountable stairways sculptural work, occupying the center of the 1905 building central hall, by Rachel Whiteread, will make you think: “We gave up the Diana for this?”

A category entitled “Insidious Humor” features giant-size metal folding chairs by Robert Therrien, a large multi-panel mixed-media work by Gilbert and George, and Kai Althoff’s Calder-derivative toy lion in a cage. Nothing as funny as in the “What Happened to Painting?” section, Vik Muniz’s supposed Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks, resting on two-by-fours on the floor, leaning against the wall, backwards, as if waiting to be hung. So you only see the back of it. Or Jim Lambie’s last gasp of the painting art piece, consisting of a half dozen or so paint-filled plastic bags, hung in a row on a wall, and leaking, so that paint has run down the wall and puddled below on baseboard and floor. Lambie is also responsible for an unnerving makeover of a staircase in the 1962 building in stripes of brilliant, glossy vinyl tape. Watch your step.

“What Happened to Painting?” is about painting’s struggle to emerge from the shadow of abstract expressionism while at the same time being marginalized by a host of seemingly more vital and vibrant new art media and methods, particularly film, video, and performance art. Resulting in work as diverse as Phillip Taafe’s wave motion op art, Mark Bradford’s gestural art with a vengeance, with a gouge not a brush, Teresita Fernandez’s graceful arabesque-pattern sculptural screen, and John Bock’s chaos cubed work, part nondescript construction, part painting manqué, part video performance rant and rave. And Byron Kim’s quiet social document piece called Synecdoche, consisting of 36 separate panels in shades of beige to brown, replicating the skin colors of the gallery board members. Who, incidentally, probably never looked better in a group portrait.

The Albright-Knox acquired some 1,100 artworks by some 500 artists over the last decade. One hundred fifty of these works are in the current exhibit. The exhibit continues through January 6.

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