Because Waters brings to “Absentee Landlord” a little bit of quirk. He arrives at the church wedding in a purple tuxedo, and maybe you laugh at first, but then you realize, “damn, that’s a handsome tuxedo,” and the old suits just look meager.
My notes from the day include a number of examples of newer work that’s more complex, that has more range, and is simply more striking than some of the show’s modern touchstones. Here are a few:
· Mike Kelley, “Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid, No. 4, Stevenson Junior High School and Satellites.” This is a large drawing—it looks like pencil on rolled out white paper—a kid’s map of his rural school and the surrounding landscape. Two things I love about it: the frank and bitter assessments in the map labels, for example, northeast of the school, down the “dirt rd” is “swamp gas / red necks,” south of the school is “corn fields, hillbillies & greasers,” and to the west is simply “nothing,” although if you look closely you’ll see that there’s a discarded washing machine at the edge of “nothing.” I love the mind of the fictional kid who made this map. But I fear it, too, because I’m left wondering, “what is the purpose of this map?” It could be pure fun, but there’s an echo in it, for me, of school violence. Someone might need a map like this in order to execute a school shooting. (See Ben Percy’s napkin fiction, “Obsidian Jr. High—Tuesday—11 a.m.,”).
· Peter Fischli and David Weiss, “Busi (Kitty)” and “Hunde (Dogs).” These are two video installations, shown on small TV screens that are angled toward each other at the top of a wide staircase between galleries in the Walker. “Kitty” shows a cat drinking milk off of a saucer, “Dogs” shows two small dogs barking nervously through the slats of a fence. At first, I reacted in two ways. First, the kitty is beautiful. The act of its drinking is amazing in itself, but also the lighting around the cat is gorgeous, as it is almost haloed by light around its head and neck. Secondly, I thought it was cute—because of the positioning of the screens, the dog seemed to be barking at the cat, which I thought was playful, if a little simple. After a while, though, I became touched by the extreme agitation of the dogs—no, I didn’t think they were barking at the cats. Rather, it was as if they were seeing something very disturbing happening beyond the fence, and they were barking almost quietly, as if they feared to be heard. I found emotional complexity in the pieces, the longer I looked at them.
· Perhaps most comparable to a Rothko painting, Thomas Demand’s photograph, “Barn.” The light and color are stunning, and the picture is huge. Simply put, I think it’s better art than Rothko’s color fields. It’s more exciting. It’s more amazing. And it’s more real. Looking at a photograph of this kind of beauty, we can hope to someday enter a real space that could be so captivating—whereas, Rothko’s big canvases are spiritual in a way that can seem not only divorced from the world but a product of severe depression.
· John Currin’s painting, “Park City Grill.” The piece has always seemed almost out of place at the Walker. It’s figurative, and almost mundane, even though the woman’s exaggerated neck and the man’s wolfish stare create vulnerability and predation within the suburban scene. I’ve always liked the painting, though, and liked it again this time around. I think it’s because the presence of the artist is sublimated to the subject, in it. I know that words like “subject” are problematic when you’re talking about art, but it’s refreshing, at the Walker, to find a successful portrait of a dynamic and telling moment-in-time—something that isn’t particularly self-referential.
· Best of all was the room of portrait photos by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein of his wife, “Marie.” EVB was a largely undiscovered “outsider” artist, who painted and sculpted in addition to taking photos. This sequence of saucy, sometimes naughty, always brightly imaginative pin-up pics of his wife really starred in Waters’s exhibition. They were given their own room, and the many moods of Marie, the quirky backgrounds and get-ups she wore, combined with the clear adoration of the photographer (who, himself, appears in the final picture of the sequence) shed more light on the diversity of human experience than any of the heroic high modernist expressions in the show. Delightful.
In short, I think John Waters has helped me (finally!) get past my adoration of mid-twentieth century painters. Waters successfully highlights the work of newer artists who have wed a sense of humor with the high seriousness of mid-20th century modernism. In subtle ways, he's given us a show that waves goodbye to the past as it happily hops into the hot convertible of the future. Not to over-react, but in company with these cats and dogs and Marie and the washing machine at the edge of nothing, Rothko and Pollock seem more than a little self-indulgent—the last people I’d want to table up with at the big party at the end of the big exhibition. So, thanks John Waters. Your crazy purple tuxedo is a big hit.