Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Conversation at the Menil

Mix and match "Byzantine things", modern and contemporary art works, throw in a few odds and ends like a Boli from Mali, the visit of Byzantine Things in the World at The Menil Collection is full of surprises. This crude description does not reflect the goal of the exhibition stated in a brochure available at the entrance: "our purpose, at least partially, is to explore the way that modernism allows us to see new aspects of Byzantine culture" and rediscover Byzantine objects outside of their historical background. It also states what the exhibition is not, like attempting to show the influence of Byzantine art on Modern art or features of modernist art in Byzantine art. With this in mind, the visit becomes a challenging experience.

The display of Byzantine icons, crosses, pilgrims tokens, reliquaries, religious paintings and other small items is scattered in four large rooms among modern and contemporary art pieces or vice versa. Starting with  crosses, the clear symbol in the Byzantine display, hanging on walls or represented in paintings, contrasts with its representation in modern pieces like a work from Dan Flavin lighting a corner, a white composition from RauschenbergCrucifixion and Reflection, 1950, or a black painting from Ad Reinhardt, where it becomes subtle, hidden in the composition. Gold fills the next showroom. In the Byzantine paintings, it gives an aura of inner strength to the subject, a godly spiritual radiance usually associated with Saints whose relics become precious while preserved in a gold vessel. On the other hand, James Lee Byers, Robert Rauschenberg or Yves Klein are treating gold on a material level, enhancing its richness, its shine and its status as a symbol of opulence and luxury. Gold keeps its power through the centuries and across cultures.
From then on, the exhibition looses its thread, and the succession of disconnected works becomes random: a small female nude from Alberto Giacometti (Nu Debout, 1953), minimalist sculptures from Donald Judd (Untitled, 1965), Barnett Newman (Untitled, 1950), a Nkondi figure, more Byzantine "things", more works from Rauschenberg (Gold Painting, 1952) or Flavin, one painting from Mark Rothko, Vietnam, 1965, from Michelangelo Pistoletto, abstract expressionist paintings from Willhem de Kooning and paintings from Fernand Léger, a print from Kiki Smith,... by then, the goal of the visit is forgotten... maybe the pleasure of looking at the pieces, one by one, takes over.
A previous exhibition of the works from Maurizio Cattelan had put a new twist on the permanent collection with his whimsical pieces scattered through the rooms. This time, a sort of a confusion ensues and the Byzantine artifacts from the fourth to the fifteenth Century seem lost in the glass cases, overtaken by the size and number of the modernist works.  Out of their context, they also loose their aura and spiritual dimension, which, one would hope, should have been enhanced by its close proximity to the modern pieces.

What the exhibition failed to demonstrate is another of its goal: showing that contemporary art is "inert and passive, dependent upon the viewer's gaze" as opposed to Byzantine objects seen as "dynamic and changeable, fully capable of affecting the world".
The Menil offered a conversation, it was another occasion to display its unique collection.

no photographs allowed
photographs Flickr photo sharing
"MG9", Yves Klein, 1962 c.
Boli from the Bamana people of Mali
"Untitled, cornerpiece" Dan Flavin, 1969

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