Wallowing in Body Space

by Louise Sheldon
       THE NEW SHOW at the Baltimore Museum of Art is not about pretty pictures. It's about your body and the space it occupies. It's about feeling and sensation. Yet among the nine artists whose work is displayed in “Body Space,” there's more than sufficient conceptual material to challenge the intellect and cause one to ponder our style of life in the twenty-first century.

The purity of line, geometical shapes and seeming absence of emotion recall the era of Minimalism, but “Body Space” goes beyond those constraints by appealing to a wide range of senses.

       First of all, floating overhead in translucent green silk, Korean artist Do-Ho Suh's to-scale replica of a typical, pre-World War II Korean home seems a small, protective haven. Nomadlike, we who live in an era of constantly changing abodes can appreciate this limited, but comforting and stable family home in which the artist grew up. In fact, we can even take such a house along with us when we move.

       Next we approach Felix Gonzalez-Torres' wall of sparkling blue and silver beads, allowing the long strands to glide through our hands and over our bodies, as we experience a wealth of physical pleasures involved in touching, feeling and draping. These mass-produced, plastic beads that give, on one hand, the lush effect of a tumbling waterfall, on the other hand, create a decorative and luxurious wall that is not a barrier, but one that we can pass through.

       A great, womb-like cloud of nylon, cleverly stitched into two rooms and a passageway, is undoubtedly the “pièce de résistance” of the show. This work, entitled “Sister Naves” (Portuguese for “boat”) by Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto, must be experienced by walking into it (shoeless, only three people at a time), to know the euphoria of collapsing onto its spongey base, and rolling uncontrollably and ecstatically about.

       All the while, you will be inhaling the aroma of cloves from long nylon socks dangling from above, like various other bulbous shapes that suggest body parts or genitalia. Holes in the work's soft flooring are provided for plunging arms into. So engulfing is this uterus-like environment, you will find it almost impossible to get to your feet and wobble through clinging veils to the exit. Exhilarating, yes! Like being reborn, or having an otherworldly dream.

       In a mirror-like slab of aluminum, another work by American artist Cady Noland, you will see your own body reflected along with printed images of Patty Hearst, as a child with her upper-crust family, then pointing a machine gun as a rebel member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. In this piece, references to Hearst's great grandfather, who initiated tabloid journalism in the U.S., indicate how you might one day see yourself portrayed in other circumstances.

       I was quite taken with David Schafer's handsome sets of aqua-colored bar and picnic stools tightly locked into limited space. This work, entitled “Stepped Density I and 11,” raises the issue of how, as consumers, we are forced into discomfort by objects supposedly created for our comfort. The cause of this constriction, which is somewhat offset by the manufacturers' efforts to glamorize the offending objects, is of course the requirement for commercial gain.

       The most esthetically pleasing work in the show is the last one, a display of delicately wrought, handblown glassware in a latticework shelf setting by Josiah McElheny. Here the play of translucence versus opacity in white-on-white goblets, bowls and platters creates a stunning effect. The distinction between objects resembling those available on the market for domestic use and actual objects of art is blurred, once more raising the question of what exactly a work of art is. The viewer will linger long to appreciate the delicacy and originality of these shapes.

       With an emphatic emphasis on purity of line and geometrical design along with absence of color, of artistic gesture and of outward emotion, these artworks recall the 1960's era of Minimalism.

       However, the dedication to perception, involving the full range of the senses in these works from the 1990's, refutes the earlier Minimalist reliance on the purely conceptual approach. In fact, the rigid adherence to Descartes' philosophy (“I think, therefore I am”) has been tossed out the window.

       Another divergence from the original Minimalist movement, in which the artist's hand is never visible, is the introduction of items carefully hand-crafted by the artist, like the nylon “tent” of Ernesto Neto and Josiah McElheny's glassware.

       The installation of the exhibition “Body Space” has been limited handsomely and appropriately to spare white walls and gray rug in keeping with its neo-Minimalist theme.

       The show will be on view to be enjoyed for its tactility as well as its visual qualities at the Baltimore Museum of Art until May 27.


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This story was published on February 28, 2001.