1.20 / Review

From Chicago: Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy

By Carol Anne McChrystal July 27, 2010

Carol Anne McChrystal: This is Nightmare City reporting from the wild. On our way to a summer residency program, we stopped at “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy” at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The exhibition explores Calder’s influence on seven mid-career contemporary artists—Martin Boyce, Nathan Carter, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Aaron Curry, Kristi Lippire, Jason Meadows, and Jason Middlebrook. The show displays Calder’s work in a gallery on one side of the atrium and the works of these contemporary artists in the opposite gallery.

Keturah Cummings: I think that it’s safe to say that a lot of the work has a California vibe. Many of the artists are either from the West Coast or have ties to California. Abraham Cruzvillegas’ Bougie du Isthmus (2005), which he produced in Calder’s studio in Paris, is a great interpretation of Calder’s work. It’s organic—a bunch of fishing poles with dangling colorful scarves extending in opposite directions at least fifteen feet into the space above the viewer. The visual movement of each element is ambient.

CAM: The piece retains the idea of the kinetic, which is central to Calder’s mobiles. Cruzvillegas’ piece in combination with Jason Middlebrook’s and Jason Meadows’ works really get to the curatorial point of the exhibition. Middlebrook’s work screams “California!” to me. Each of the sculptures in the Plank (2008) series is painted with linear designs, radiating lines, and graffiti-style spray paint. They remind me of custom surfboards or custom car culture, even down to the way that they’re painted.

KC: The aesthetic treatment certainly speaks to California culture, specifically the Bay Area, but I have a hard time understanding how this aesthetic fits into the show—it simply seems to be too decorative for me. While some work in the Bay Area is purely decorative, I want more of a reason here.

CAM: Well, we are supersaturated with that aesthetic: up and down the streets of San Francisco’s Mission district you can walk into shops and see this sort of look used for decorative purposes. I could easily see this half of the show organized under a different premise if it was at the UC Berkeley Art Museum—namely, in relationship to the contentious and possibly exhausted conversation around art and craft, which has a lot to do with decoration and function.

KC: I struggle with the decorative aspect, but Middlebrook’s titles really help, especially in How Much Thought and Consideration Goes into our Decisions (2008), with its metal armature, wooden plank, and cast concrete bottles. On one hand, he’s talking about resources, and on the other hand it’s more self-reflexive. From the Forest to the Mill to the Store to the Home and Back Again (2009-10) is a huge raw log balanced against discarded wood ranging from old floorboards to furniture and scraps collected from surrounding Chicago neighborhoods. The scrap wood radiates from a central point and is balanced perfectly with the log, precariously suspended in the atrium of the museum directly above viewers. Ascending to the upper levels of the museum, one can see just how gigantic the work really is.

Jason Middlebrook. From the Forest to the Mill to the Store to the Home to the Streets and Back Again, 2009-10; Michigan log, steel rod, wooden detritus, sand. Commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Courtesy of the artist and Sara Meltzer Gallery, New York. Photography © MCA, Chicago. Photo by Nathan Keay.

Kristi Lippire. Three Under Parr, 2008; aluminum, foam, acrylic paint, urethane, freezer paper, gouache, wood, cotton strap, vintage 1960’s and 1970’s Tupperware, 142 x 104 x 34 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

CAM: It’s a plain, simple relationship between Calder’s work and Middlebrook’s demonstrated clearly with stunning and spectacular results. The MCA commissioned Middlebrook to make this piece in relation to the curatorial purpose of the show, though it doesn’t rely on the context of the show to sustain it.

The curatorial rubric of “Form, Balance, Joy” as the “first exhibition to explore Calder’s significance for a new generation of artists” brings something new to Calder for me.1 It’s fascinating to see the types of strategies he may have opened up for artists and to realize how radical Calder’s work was in his time, a perspective that’s faded away with the passing of time and the prevalence of mobiles in our daily lives as toys or decoration.

KC: Kristi Lippire’s Three Under Parr (2008) is a direct reference to Calder’s work in the title, and I think it’s fair to say that whereas Calder’s work is bright, Lippire’s borders on garish. I have an issue with the cartoonish faces on the over-sized petit fours, but overall I think that hers is a strong realization of Calder’s conceptual framework.

CAM: Lippire’s piece feels like too much of a puzzle to me. The pieces of the work are arranged by proximity, and it starts to feel unnecessarily symbolic. The elements aren’t just forms—there’s vintage Tupperware, there’s gigantic candies sculpted from raw materials with stupid fucking faces, and there’s a ladder; each one comes with specific social baggage. I have a hard time getting anywhere with it.

KC: I don’t know that it goes anywhere beyond a reference to Calder. Formally, it’s concerned with balance—even simply in the different scales of the three components. And the other works in the show aren’t just forms either. They contain objects with cultural baggage, too.

CAM: The relationship to Calder in Meadows’ or Middlebrook’s works is that the sculptural elements read more a bit more clearly as detritus—like the six-pack rings of Meadows’ Ghost (2008) and concrete castings of ubiquitous empty plastic bottles in Middlebrook’s How Much Thought and Consideration Goes into Our Decisions. They’re all employing similar relationships, but it’s more complex in these works. Three Under Parr is pieced together more like an obvious riddle. There’s the Art: it’s weird and the hand of the artist shows clearly; there’s the super-design-y yet functional object; and there’s the plain utilitarian object: it’s a ladder.

KC: While I see those relationships, I respond more to the formal aspects—the shift in scales between the elements and the balancing.

CAM: I hadn’t considered the idea of balance of scale. The scale of Cruzvillega’s sculpture is something we don’t see often in the Bay Area. Is it because we don’t have any space there?

KC: I think it might be a matter of space—it causes artists to make works on a smaller scale as a matter of necessity.

CAM: There’s something really compelling for me about seeing an artist decide to make something really big, or really tiny for that matter, obviously depending on context. With this kind of autonomous work, though, there’s a sort of conviction about it.

The scope of this show is refreshing in a similar way. Framing contemporary sculpture in reference to Calder—an artist loved by general audiences, but perhaps dismissed by more sophisticated ones—is a really effective way to put contemporary art into context for viewers who aren’t engaged in dialogues of contemporary art, who don’t have much knowledge of the art historical narrative, and for whom this type of art work might remain largely inaccessible.


"Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy" is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago through October 17, 2010.


1. Press Release, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Comments ShowHide