I just finished reading Sebastian Smee's review of the current Foster Prize show at ICA. I usually love reading him, and I usually agree with him, but this review really didn't sit right with me.Because of the discomfort, I started to write. Increasingly, I think its vitally important for artists to actually talk and write about the way our work and the way the work of our peers is framed. The artist doesn't sacrifice their access to language just because they make things. Artists as thinkers occupy a position of authorship on the field of criticism, and we have shied away from that space for too long to our own detriment.
I should say first that I know two of the artists in the Foster this year, Mark Cooper and Sarah Bapst (it's a small town). I was thrilled that they were nominated for the Prize and it was heartening to me that two artists with such divergent practices were being recognized. I'd seen Luther Price's work at the Whitney and I had never heard of Katarina Burin. Also, the fact that Helen Molesworth, the museum's chief curator, put this show together - with all the studio visits and conversations that entails - to me said a lot about the commitment of the ICA to the Prize. (In full disclosure, Helen is curating my solo exhibition at ICA in July.)
So here are some things I thought as I read Smee's Foster Prize review:
The Foster this year uses work across practices. It doesn't privilege one kind of art making and it allows for haptic and conceptual practices to be debated and discussed in the space of a large contemporary art institution. There is a lot of work in this show and the limitation of 4 artists I think allows each of them to really provide an expansive view of their practices. (Some of the artists in the last Foster show simply didn't have enough room for their work, and this penalized the brilliant Stephen Tourlentes, who should have won.) Some of it requires a lot of reading, and some of it delights the eyes.
Smee's criticism that Mark Cooper's work doesn't "come together" says something about taste but not necessarily anything about the issues at play in contemporary art. I am hard pressed to accept that in 2013, a requirement of art is that it cohere and make sense. Contemporary life does not make sense so it stands to reason that the artists of the time would be struggling with an unsettled world. Cooper's project, which at its core is about the jouissance of production and growth, isn't about coherence. It's really about the turning the gallery into host organism. Issues of infection, infiltration, and cultural exchange permeate that work. And the ICA install is much more successful than his more chromatically restrained opus in the New Blue and White show at the MFA.
Sarah Bapst is not working with the "ready-made." I don't think a Duchampian gesture is a feature anywhere in this work, which I think speaks more to the concerns of an artist like Robert Gober. Her work is deeply engaged in the act of looking, framing, and replicating the visual world-a world that is embodied in a discarded found mass produced object. She is addressing a key issue of art in her work: what happens as material meets material. This is by no means a hermetic concern, it is a basic concern of trying to understand how to make something out of something else. (Interestingly, Gober's Plywood (1987) lives in this contested territory, and elicited a similar critical response.) Her devotion to and investigation of something we think we understand - and thus cannot truly see because of its function - is powerful. We don't understand what we are looking at even though it is something with which we are familiar. Bapst's dogged attention moves the familiar to the uncanny. She makes us examine what we consume, what we honor, and what we discard.
Katarina Burin's installation was interesting because truthfully, it wasn't about what we were looking at. It was about the text that she produced to go with the objects. That marriage between text and context is what made this work so challenging. While it left me cold, it is great to have this work in dialog with an artist like Cooper, and I think that dialog is a big part of what the Foster Prize should do. But this is work that is really about the import of language, history, and research. It's the kind of work that writers like to write about.
Beauty is key in Luther Price's work, but in contemporary practice beauty is an element, not a goal. Price's installation is a glorious array of sound and image that is really a death knell for a certain kind of art production. The joy of listening to a projector is a museum experience. The lurid, chemical color of slide photography is no longer part of our everyday experience. Price's presentation is a concatenation of signifiers that speak to the psyche of anyone old enough to see pictures in the dark with the audible assertion of their manifestation clicking in their heads. The beautiful images belie their creation. Born of destructive and corrosive action, and mixed with the found, the altered projected slides combine to form a poetic shadow of what was once a technological innovation. It's a symphony to the end of a certain kind of vernacular image making and the loss of a way of recording history. Other people's Kodachrome slides, no longer important, are altered, resurrect for a moment of glory and vanish into the dull click of a carousel.
Lastly, I will say that to refer someone's practice as "desultory" is pretty harsh and in my view, unfounded in regards to this show and these artists, some of whom have never garnered public attention until now. I simply cannot see how this applies to anything on view.
So I was/am thrilled with the show. It is challenging. All four artists deserve to be engaged critically and are working in diverse modes that reflect contemporary art in Boston and globally. Judging this will be hard and I hope there is a lot of discussion about this show - that's part of what it's for.