I don’t want to devote too much brain or internet space to art that doesn’t excite, disturb or intrigue me. But I have had a recent bout of disappointments and I need to talk about at least one of them so that my feelings don’t fester.
Cai Guo-Qiang, what happened?
I remember the first day we met. It was 2004 and I had driven from Middletown, Connecticut to Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. After two hours in the car, I was hungry for something spectacular.
The first gallery held a collection of paintings from the New Leipzig School; Matthias Weischer and Tim Eitel are the two that I remember most clearly. As a 21-year-old, I drank in every example of painting I could find, eager to explore the potential –and limits– of my new medium, and these calm, reserved works from Germany caught my attention. Weischer’s slightly decrepit interiors and Eitel’s solitary humans impressed me because of their technical precision, sparse compositions and suggestive narratives.
In the following 8 years I have seen more of both these artists and continue to respect them, though my tastes have changed. But then apparently so have Weischer’s, as he recently exhibited a series of sunny, fragmented garden paintings, similar to Hockney’s current work. Is this a plein-air trend? The thinking painter’s excuse to let loose and use pretty colors? In the case of Weischer, it is refreshing to see established artists go through transitions and take risks: it suggests that they are striving to grow their ideas. I might not like every piece they create, but I respect the process and will wait to see what the work reveals.
But back to Cai.
In 2004 I walked into the main atrium at Mass Moca and WHAM! After the quiet, cool paintings meditating on emptiness, here was the definition of spectacle: cars, flashing lights, precarious motion on a grand scale. I read the piece as a commentary on the seductive pleasure of violence and disaster. Smart and sexy? I had an art crush.
In an adjacent room, stuffed tigers twirled through the air pierced with arrows, mirroring the cars pierced with light. Upstairs hung a collection of simple circular gunpowder paintings which added weight to my admiration: this was a serious artist, referencing ancient Chinese forms with a contemporary and daring twist. I have since seen his pieces in other museums and though nothing has replaced that first thrill, until last week I had not seen anything to make me reevaluate my initial read of Cai as a contemporary master.
But then last week I went to his exhibition Skyladder at MOCA in Los Angeles. To be fair, the work was housed next to Transmission LA, an exhibition that included a Mercedes Benz bathed in light that flashed to the beat. Macho, excessive and completely impersonal, this “art” (I have a very open definition of art, but even I don’t think it can stretch to a car advertisement and I think it’s an irresponsible choice by a museum to suggest otherwise) represented much of what I dislike, so it didn’t put me in the most receptive or meditative of moods.
Skyladder contained three large gunpowder drawings and a crop circle installation the whole length of the room. The crop circles were nice. The drawings were literal and boring. One dealt with childhood fantasies of space, another the chaotic destructiveness of nature, and the third told the story of humanity’s desire for flight. These could all be compelling starting points, but the images didn’t provide any further insight or fresh discoveries. The desire to defy gravity is fertile ground for discussions of freedom and hubris, but Cai doesn’t take us there. This lack of a “so what” made the gunpowder feel like a gimmick, which in turn threw my whole previous understanding of Cai into question. Had I been seduced by a car with flashing lights and no conceptual backbone? I hope not.
Maybe this installation is a result of over commitment or of working with volunteers to create the piece. Perhaps Cai is burned out and exploring new avenues and he has yet to hit a new rhythm. I am willing to give this work the benefit of the doubt, but I expect better next time.