Considering that we spend our entire existence surrounded by objects, it’s no wonder we tend to overlook them while also being guilty of overvaluing them. What is a consumer society if not materialistic and trivial? If there is one thing that artists are more obsessed with than the human condition, it is perhaps the object. The new exhibit at the Walker Art Center is an examination of the artist’s fascination with simply, the everyday.
Browsing through the collection of over 50 works by international artists spanning decades from the 1960’s to today, the viewer is presented with an amalgamation of objects exemplifying trends from some of the most disciplined of contemporary art movements. Outside of a necessary nod to pop art upon immediately entering the exhibit, in the form of two Andy Warhol Brillo boxes, expectations for anything glamorous are swept away by a muted palette of mundane things. From surrealist pieces, photo-realistic paintings and conceptual art… the influence of Dada (the social movement that simply aimed to bring attention to the sheer meaninglessness of life and art) threads through the exhibit, and it’s almost impossible not to sense a Marcel Duchamp approach of presenting seemingly random objects as art.
Yet not everything is simple enough to wander past nonchalantly. While a plate of shrimp pad thai by Rirkrit Triavanija and speaker stacks by Kaz Oshido’s appear to look as eerily lifelike as possible, other pieces deliver a trompe l’oeil effect… tricking both the eye and the mind. Is a cigarette pack actually floating? Is a bee really a bee? Is this kitchen a place? Do those elevators actually work? Are those leaves really growing from the crack in the wall?
These questions are not exactly at the core of any deep philosophical contemplation, and yet the exhibit feels exceptionally perplexing. The exhibit poses the question of reality. Simply, what is “real?” Further, why is any object worthy of a tribute or painstaking re-creation in the form of art? The collection of art makes it clear that across decades, countries of origin and influential art movements… regardless of our societal circumstances… artists are undeniably obsessed with making things look and feel as real as possible. There is a need to re-create in some form a memory, a moment, or a mundane object in order to preserve it and give it attention. After all, what is the point of life if we don’t take the time to appreciate even the smallest things? Who but the introspective artist would feel obligated to make them bigger, give them weight and ultimately acknowledge them? Thanks to these artists we are given the opportunity to contemplate our attachment, or lack of connection altogether.
While the obvious experience of self-awareness is readily available through this exhibit, Lifelike left me feeling unsatisfied. In a flawless attempt at familiarity the art feels alienating, creepy and at times morbid. Yes, I know this is also the point, but I’m personally not floored by art that pretends not to be art because simply, it’s boring. How stimulated should I be by a piece of cardboard leaning on a wall that seems to ask, “Why can’t I be art? I’m not actually cardboard.” Besides feeling intrigued about the curious threads between these art works that span decades and subject matter, I didn’t feel connected to it. I didn’t feel amazed, in awe or inspired. It’s bewildering to feel this way about art, especially art that is obviously skillful and contributed by major worldwide contemporary artists. However this exhibit is still powerful, simply for making me think for days about why I didn’t necessarily love anything about it. Ultimately, it taught me more about what it is in life and art that I do value and appreciate.
I’ll admit that a few pieces in the exhibit did have me lingering in contemplation for more than a moment, a Chuck Close self-portrait (always awesome to examine the thousands of lifelike strands of facial hair in varying lengths) or an entire installation re-creating every last detail in the kitchen of artist, Keith Edmier’s childhood memory (nostalgia is inescapable). Taken out of this collection many of the pieces are exciting works of art, yet surrounded by so much else that similarly addresses the ordinary, it becomes difficult to feel stimulated. This exhibit might have been touted as a “crowd-pleaser,” but I think not so much. To me, it’s an exhibit that shamelessly asks you to love it or leave it. Some will delight in the dual real and surreal feel of the entire collection and revel in the many photo ops of amusement. Others perhaps like me, will need a little more beauty and idealization in art.
And that is perfectly okay, either way.