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ICA Disappoints With ‘Foster Prize’ Roundup Of Boston Art

Detail of Luther Price, "#9 A Study in Decay," 2012. (Greg Cook)

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BOSTON — What can be done about the Institute of Contemporary Art’s just opened “2013 James and Audrey Foster Prize Exhibition”? In the past the Boston museum has described it as a biennial showcase for “Boston-area artists of exceptional promise,” but ambition is tamped down this time around. In a prepared statement, Director Jill Medvedow is aiming just for an exhibition that “brings the strength and talent” of local artists to the museum.

It’s an impeccably displayed show that’s a yawn—despite the talent of some of the four artists involved. Worse, this is how the ICA presents our community to the world in the area’s most high profile exhibition of local talent.

“It was really important to me that it not be a best of Boston show. I wasn’t interested in that. I really wanted the artists to be in some sort of dialogue with each other,” ICA Chief Curator Helen Molesworth, who organized the show (100 Northern Ave., Boston, through July 14), said at a preview for reporters last week.

Hear her downplaying expectations? Can you imagine a curator of New York’s Whitney Biennial being so unambitious? Rather than the ICA acting as a leader in our community, it acts as if the “Foster Prize” is a chore.

Mark Cooper, "yu yu tangerine," 2013. (Courtesy of the ICA)

Mark Cooper, “yu yu tangerine,” 2013. (Courtesy of the ICA)

The exception to the show’s dullness is Somerville artist Mark Cooper’s “yu yu tangerine,” a luscious installation of lumpy, sketchy white ceramic pots displayed on unpainted wood shelving, studded with lots of metal brackets, that resembles traditional Chinese scholars’ rocks. Surrounding walls bloom with flowery cutout doodles and photos of mounds of red and yellow spices, forests, stepped hillsides, and bamboo scaffolding around a building. It’s ecstatic about the ripe, colorful fecundity of the world.

Cooper, who won the critics’ pick award for best installation at the 2011 New England Art Awards (an open-source regional awards that I oversee), has a similar installation in the Museum of Fine Arts’ “New Blue and White” group show, through July 14, that’s even stronger.

The “Foster Prize Exhibition” awards $25,000 to the top artist in the show, as chosen by a panel this year including artist Mark Dion, MIT List Visual Arts Center Director Paul Ha and Hammer Museum curator Ali Subotnick. But I don’t expect it will be going to Cooper when it’s announced this week.

Katarina Burin, "Hotel Nord-Sud 1932–34: Design and Correspondence," 2013. (Courtesy of the ICA)

Katarina Burin, “Hotel Nord-Sud 1932–34: Design and Correspondence,” 2013. (Courtesy of the ICA)

I predict the prize will go to Cambridge’s Katarina Burin for “Hotel Nord-Sud 1932-34: Design and Correspondence.” It’s a history-museum-style display of black and gray Modernist furniture, models, architectural drawings and what appear to be period photos documenting the career of Petra Andrejova-Molnar, a Czechoslovakian whose cantilevered, geometric designs are typical of Bauhaus architecture from between the world wars, but whose efforts purportedly vanished in the destruction of World War II. Wall texts go on about names and buildings and architects “emboldened by the utopian spirit of the age” and committed “to human progress and innovation.”

It turns out that Andrejova-Molnar doesn’t actually exist. She’s an invention of Burin, though the installation offers no hint of the truth. I expect the prize jury will be wowed by her smartypants ruse. It is elaborately, handsomely developed … but pointless. And it’s so gray and dry that why would you bother to spend enough time with it to figure out the deception? Once you do realize that it’s all made up, there’s no corresponding revelation of meaning.

Like lots of conceptually-driven art today, rather than pointing us toward meaning, Burin offers the tiniest hints and expects us to fill everything in ourselves. Or for the curator to do it. Molesworth positions the project as a feminist statement about inserting a woman into the history of a field that excluded—and often still excludes—women. But the art’s only allusion to this is a mild wall text concluding, “Despite her youth and the dearth of opportunities offered to her gender, she secured positions in some of the region’s most prominent architectural offices.”

Sarah Bapst, "Untitled," 2008. (Courtesy of the ICA)

Sarah Bapst, “Untitled,” 2008. (Courtesy of the ICA)

The rest of the “Foster Prize” show features Cambridge artist Sarah Bapst’s precise recreations of dissected air conditioners as cool, neo-Minimalist sculptures and Revere filmmaker Luther Price’s hand-painted abstract slides clicking through five projectors.

Price is known for making hothouse montages of jittery, snippets of found, scratched, scarred, and often provocative footage. For example, his feverish 1989 film “Sodom” mashed up gay porn footage with bloody Catholic art. Here, Price’s art is not flattered by these dotted, weathered, bubbly, marbled slides (pictured at top and below) with glimpses of sports cars, a kid wading at the shore, and onion dome buildings. They feel too much like the classic Modernist experimental films by Stan Brakhage. As a filmmaker, Price is a more delirious and original artist than this. I can’t help cynically suspecting that Price was remembered by the ICA because he was featured in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, where his slides were exhibited for the first time.

 Luther Price, "#9 A Study in Decay," 2012. (Courtesy of the ICA)

Luther Price, “#9 A Study in Decay,” 2012. (Courtesy of the ICA)

Molesworth is one of the most brilliant and increasingly influential curators in the nation. But she’s a cerebral curator (her dissertation was on Marcel Duchamp), motivated by ideas.  She really needs a theme to orient around. The one she cobbles together here—“they share an interest in architecture and building, the handmade and mechanically produced, and the role art plays in shaping and reimaging the world we have all inherited,” she writes in one wall text—is too nebulous to carry the show.

Also, Molesworth is not a curator who relishes finding new talent, which leaves her adrift in our community where most artists aren’t already stars. She’s not a visual curator or a sensual curator. I mean, two artists out of the four “Foster Prize” finalists basically work in just black and white. The show exposes her weaknesses.

Inevitably any prominent roundup of local talent like the “Foster Prize” becomes a pincushion for critique. That’s what happens when an audience cares. The reason the show disappoints isn’t because of what the show attempts. There’s talent enough in Boston to put on a thrilling show. The problem is that somehow the ICA doesn’t see it, doesn’t feel it.

Mark Cooper, "yu yu tangerine," 2013. (Greg Cook)

Mark Cooper, “yu yu tangerine,” 2013. (Greg Cook)

The Boston art scene is percolating with new durational and queer performance; with digital art like Anthony Montuori’s 1980’s style video games satirizing life in the Great Recession; with Jake Fried’s psychedelic freak out animations. Boston photography has long been at the forefront nationally. Meanwhile new venues, roving projects, outdoor installations, and shenanigans by the likes of Banditos Misteriosos are popping up.

Artists like John Osorio-Buck and Jane Marsching who helped make conceptually-driven, socially-inspired installation art prominent here in the first decade of the 2000s are busy now doing mature midcareer work. Folks like Abigail Anne Newbold, whose work is on view at New Hampshire’s Currier Museum of Art through July 14, have moved here from out of town and extended that tradition.

We need shows like the “Foster Prize.” But we need a show that’s as rich and smart and amazing as our community actually is. Done well by a curator who cares passionately about Boston art and is determined to find and foster the best art making here, it can spark a chain reaction of good things bubbling up, of people upping their game, of outsiders being attracted to that ferment and coming to join the party.

We are a community with a wealth of great places to see art, like the ICA. But great art communities aren’t remembered for their venues, they’re remembered for the art they produce.

Comments

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  • Nona Hershey

    In Praise of Black and White: Gerhard Richter, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Richard Artschwager, Richard Serra, Louise Nevelson, Vija Celmins, Frank Stella, Brice Marden, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Abellardo Morell, Chuck Close, Jackson Pollack, Frank Auerback, to name a few…..

  • just1more

    The annual Greg Cook lament for More Worthy Art. At least he didn’t mention comic books or Ben Jones.

  • Janis

    Mr. Cook, your populist schtick is tired. Also, you want it all ways. You tear down Helen Molesworth as you compliment her, then offer your own curatorial ‘vision’ for the show and cap off the whole thing with meaningless drivel like “great art communities aren’t remembered for their venues, they’re remembered for the art they produce.” Your reviews are so unnecessarily taxing. Please stop writing.

    • just1more

      I agree. He claims to be such an advocate for local art but he can barely disguise his contempt for the places and people he writes about. His superiority complex really becomes obvious with his reviews of survey shows like this one. I understand he doesn’t care for Conceptualism (its not a favorite of mine either) but he short-changes Burin (a ‘smarypants ruse’ and ‘pointless’) and Bapst (a superficial description) whose work might have more whimsy and humor than he would acknowledge. He shortchanges Price as well by simply dismissing his aesthetic choices, not considering -among other considerations- that it might be low-fi commentary on the Foster Prize and/or the ICA given that Price is such a reclusive figure. No, its much easier to link an experimental filmmaker to their most obvious comparison (Brakhage) and then walk away. Anyone that knows of your biases could see that Mark Cooper would win you over, but that does no favors for Cooper. What does it mean for a Boston artist to be won over by Greg Cook? I don’t even think smartypants Cook knows the answer to that.

  • Stephanie

    Given the dearth of art-writing and criticism in Boston, it’s unfortunate to hear someone tell Greg Cook to ‘please stop writing,’ even in light of this article’s shortcomings.

    • Janis

      I’m very pro-art writing and pro-criticism. That’s why I’m anti-Cook. If you look closely at his populist schtick over the years -and it truly is a schtick- you’ll see its contrived solely so as to be his journalistic crutch. His modus operandi is rather than criticize the work of curator and artist as presented, he attacks curators for excluding the genius of Bread and Puppet Theater and/or Fort Thunder and attacks the artist for not being approachable/not having a straightforward narrative/not drawing comics. I believe if he truly cared for Boston art, he would stop offering this kind of shoddy “criticism”.

    • Stephanie

      I hear your frustration. As somewhat of a newcomer to the city much of this history is lost on me, and I see a lot of anger directed both at the lack of coverage of the visual arts, and at the writing that exists (sometimes for its cheap shots, but mostly for its lack of opinion, which isn’t the case here.) So I wonder what it would take to help raise the level of writing? I can see why nastiness in criticism begets nastiness in readers, and hope for a supportive climate that is constructively critical of artists, curators, and writers. I am sure Greg Cook sees these comments, and he’s a mature-enough writer and thinker to be able to evolve. Would love it if he’d weigh in.

  • Greg Cook

    Perhaps my critique of the ICA’s “Foster Prize Exhibition” is predictable because the ICA remains consistently lukewarm about/disengaged from art made here? I’m not alone in giving the show a thumbs down. For example, Boston Globe: “Could it be that the ICA is losing interest in this biennial obligation, which it discharges with an almost audible sigh?” Metrowest Daily News: “While
    people visiting the ICA expect to be challenged, some might feel
    frustrated by artists who seem more focused of constructing multi-level
    work that teases their knowledge of contemporary art rather than
    stimulating an emotional reaction.” If you’re happy settling for this status quo, fair enough. But the art being made here is more fun, meaningful and thrilling than this show suggests. Our community deserves better than this show.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=589309926 Steve Locke

    Here’s a question: Did Mr. Cook talk to Ms. Molesworth or did he just read the press release? Some of the things he says about her are really quite nasty and I cannot help but wonder if he’s ever met the woman, seen any of the shows she’s curated and installed. And the horror, her dissertation was on Duchamp! I guess according to Mr. Cook, that makes her unable to understand visual pleasure? To say that she is not a visual or sensual curator is simply incorrect if you have seen any of her shows (Work Ethic, Part Object, Part Sculpture, THIS WILL HAVE BEEN, to name three). It seems that no one read this text before it was put online. I think there would have been some editorial reigning in and fact-checking if this was in print.

    Art writing in this town would benefit greatly from people not trying to get ahead by bringing others down. If people actually wrote about what they saw, what is does, and how they respond to it, we would be a lot better off. This notion that the 4 artists in the Foster are somehow outside of the community is patently insane. They are known to a lot of people in Boston. I was thrilled with the show, thrilled that the ICA’s chief curator took it on with all of the studio visits and questioning that entails. To me, that is a sign that the institution is actually engaged in the community of artists. Do I like all the work in the show? No. Do I think it creates a great and needed dialog about divergent practices that are happening in Boston? Yes, it does. It may not be the practices that Mr. Cook thinks are important, but they are happening. Mr. Cook does not speak for the “Boston art community.”

    Lastly, if the Metrowest Daily News’s analysis of what art is supposed to do is followed we are all in a great deal of trouble. It is not an artist’s job to “stimulate an emotional reaction.” This sort of outdated and Romantic thinking has no place in a contemporary dialog. Artists live in and embody all of the immediate experience of culture. Leave emotional stimulation to entertainments, art does something a lot more powerful, difficult, and sublime.

    • jefe68

      So you don’t think a critic should call out bad art? Or criticize what seems on the outset pretty banal. Really?

  • Greg Cook

    re: Did Mr. Cook talk to Ms. Molesworth?

    This time just listened to her at the press preview for the show (see quote at the top of the review).

    But have talked to her in the past about some of this stuff (http://thephoenix.com/boston/arts/147109-helen-molesworths-moment/).

    And she said in a public talk at the ICA in 2010: “I’m not known in the field for being the discoverer of new talent. That’s not me. I got my posse.” http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=2255

    Also, Steve, am I understanding you correctly: Emotion has no place in contemporary art?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=589309926 Steve Locke

      Greg, no, you are not understanding what I wrote. I didn’t say that emotion has no place in contemporary art. I said that an artist’s job is not to stimulate emotion. My point was that relying solely on emotionalism limits art’s impact. Far from policing anything, I’m saying that the door is a lot more open than people who want to discuss feelings would like it to be. Emotionalism is a Romantic idea not because I said so, but because Romantic artists put it forward. The contemporary moment is more expansive than that.

  • http://twitter.com/franklin_e Franklin Einspruch

    This boring and shabby berating of Mr. Cook should assure him that his remarks have stung their intended targets. Indeed, I’d say you’re hardly doing your job as a contemporary art critic if you’re not regularly wounding pseudonymous aspiring hipsters such as “Janis” and “just1more.”

    As for Steve Locke, who characterizes this critical but entirely above-the-belt review as “nasty” and laments that “art writing in this town would benefit greatly from people not trying to get ahead by bringing others down,” these are typical remarks for the crowd of people who insist that the emperor really is wearing the finest of clothes. “This sort of outdated and Romantic thinking has no place in a contemporary dialog,” he claims, as if that sort of rote, academic pooh-poohing of the emotional aspect of art would make it go away. We humbly beg you for a place in contemporary dialogue, Mr. Locke! Oh wait, we’re already having it despite your attempts to police the entryway.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=589309926 Steve Locke

      Hi Franklin. I don’t know you. I am not policing anything. I am talking about Romanticism as an historical art movement that is at odds with the contemporary plural moment in art. I didn’t say anything about the emotional aspect of art. If I am a part of any “crowd” it is the group of artists who cares deeply about his peers and the way their work is characterized by critical writing.

    • http://twitter.com/franklin_e Franklin Einspruch

      Hi, Steve. I don’t know you either. But point in fact, as soon as you characterize someone’s thinking as outdated and Romantic and unfit for contemporary dialogue, you are indeed policing said dialogue. You’re marching in lockstep with the anti-Romantic stance of contemporary Theory and its myriad gatekeepers. If the moment were genuinely plural, operating critically or artistically out of a Romantic mode, understood art-historically or otherwise, would be as welcome as any other sort of practice. It is not. The Foster Prize shows prove this so consistently that the inclusion Mark Cooper is anomalous and surprising.

      I’d like to add here that Cook has been predicting the winner of the Foster Prize since the new ICA started issuing them again, and he has called it correctly every damn time. This year is no exception.

      http://artery.wbur.org/2013/05/08/karatina-burin-foster-prize

    • Steve Locke

      You have misunderstood what I’ve written. For a writer to tell an artist what art is about is anathema to me. I am not the one saying that art should stimulate the emotions. To me, THAT is limitation. Also, to make the obvious clear, just because the work doesn’t appeal to one person’s emotions, doesn’t mean that it is unemotional. Some people get weepy in the Louvre, some get weepy in front of a Donald Judd. Just because something is filled with color and shapes doesn’t mean that it appeals to the emotions. Ever think that a cardboard construction of an industrial object can be about something poetic and not just about “concepts”? I do.

      Art moves not because of theory but because of artists reshaping. If Romanticism was still the dominant mode of thinking, we’d have no Mark Cooper, whose work exists because of Brancusi more than because of Rodin.

    • http://twitter.com/franklin_e Franklin Einspruch

      Rodin, of course, had nothing to do with Romanticism. It petered out while he was a schoolboy. If you’re trying to spin Romanticism as a working attitude, then Brancusi was the bigger romantic between them – he was practically a mystic. Nobody in the history of art ever wept in the presence of a Judd. Judd probably would have found that embarrassing. But again, this is the establishment party line, that emotional responses are arbitrary (they’re not) and what really counts in contemporary art is the idea (it doesn’t). Hence the hostility to the romantic. One of the curiosities of the contemporary art establishment is that it’s demonstratively exclusionary and yet is incapable of thinking of itself as such.

      Art may move because of artists reshaping it, but the museums filter the great variety of activity through its curators. This is Cook’s point, and it stands unchallenged – programming at the ICA has a predictable quality to it even apart from any aesthetic or quasi-aesthetic direction. Good luck with your show there.

    • Steve Locke

      I’m not a Romantic; I don’t believe in luck.

    • http://twitter.com/franklin_e Franklin Einspruch

      I too can pen arcane epigrams.

    • Steve Locke

      Dude, you wished me luck. I don’t need it. And….we’re done!

    • http://twitter.com/franklin_e Franklin Einspruch

      Oh, you were referring to that reflexive bit of politeness. Well, I don’t believe in luck either, really. You think we’re done? Correction – you’re done.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=589309926 Steve Locke

      Rodin had nothing to do with Romanticism?

      From the Oxford University Press bio of Rodin written by Catherine Lampert:

      “Visitors to Rodin’s studio in the Rue de l’Université compared the rough plaster reliefs attached to scaffolding to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, Rome, and to Eugène Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1827; Paris, Louvre). The handling of light and shade, the partial figures caught in the swirling background and the impression of human libido released from religious or social constraints captured the mood of desperation and anarchy fundamental to Romanticism: Théodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819; Paris, Louvre) was a specific source. Rodin’s explanation in 1886 of his inability to follow a scheme or to emulate the moral authority of Dante was not disingenuous: ‘My sole idea is simply one of colour and effect … I followed my imagination, my own sense of arrangement, movement and composition’ (see Bartlett, 1889, p. 223).”

    • http://twitter.com/franklin_e Franklin Einspruch

      There you are, in his own words – those are terms we associate with early modernism and Rodin’s colleagues in Impressionism, not the Romantic period of art history, which was quite finished by 1889. Three decades earlier, in fact.

    • Steve Locke

      OK. Now I understand who I’m talking to.

    • http://twitter.com/franklin_e Franklin Einspruch

      I rather doubt that.

  • Caleb Neelon

    Is Helen Molesworth curating your solo show at the ICA this summer, Steve?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=589309926 Steve Locke

      Caleb, Helen is curating my show at ICA this summer. That is not a secret.

    • Caleb Neelon

      My minute of google didn’t yield the answer, thanks.

  • Guest

    Caleb, Helen is curating my show at ICA this summer. That is not a secret.

    Greg, no, you are not understanding what I wrote. I didn’t say that emotion has no place in contemporary art. I said that an artist’s job is not to stimulate emotion. My point was that relying solely on emotionalism limits art’s impact. Far from policing anything, I’m saying that the door is a lot more open than people who want to discuss feelings would like it to be. Emotionalism is a Romantic idea not because I said so, but because Romantic artists put it forward. The contemporary moment is more expansive than that.

  • Matthew Thibeault

    The place should be torn down. Its an eyesore on the water in the growing Seaport. I mean really, it looks like an old tuna cannery building! And that eyesore of a one story building that they are finishing up across the street is just as bad. Contemporary Art is a misnomer. REAL art is created by MASTERS. Some left leaning beatnik/hippy got up one day 50 years ago and said “Hey man, what about OUR art? Why is it always just Monet, Michelangelo and Rodin? We need to have great art created today displayed for everyone to see, so that we can feel good about ourselves and our place in time!” Its a fine idea. Theoretically.

    The problem is that GREAT art is created by one in ten million people and so when culling together works at museums like the Louvre, The MET and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the curators have millennia to work with. Museum’s like ICA TRY to find GREAT works among such a small segment or todays artists that the bulk of their exhibitions fall flat on their faces. And to me, it seems that the only requirement of modern art is that the viewer has to ask “What the heck is this?” If it promotes confusion, its modern art. Beauty be damned.

    • http://twitter.com/cash4yourwarhol Cash For Your Warhol

      Matthew, you need to get out more.

    • Matthew Thibeault

      Ive been to many places and many museums, including the ones I named, multiple times.

    • http://twitter.com/cash4yourwarhol Cash For Your Warhol

      Apparently not enough. Maybe you should apply for a passport.

    • Matthew Thibeault

      Oh, your one of THEM. My apologies, I did not know.

    • jefe68

      One of them? What are you implying?

    • http://twitter.com/cash4yourwarhol Cash For Your Warhol

      Jefe, maybe Matthew means someone is a “beatnik/hippy” [sic]?

    • jefe68

      I’m not a fan of the ICA, but that’s a bit harsh.
      The work shown in this article is banal in my opinion, but it would seem that’s the point of a some, not all, post-modern theory based art. It is based on banality, nihilism, and narcism.

      Banality is not only in the realm of post-modernism as some neo-classical art is pretty banal as well. The difference there is it hides behind a facade of beauty.

  • http://twitter.com/cash4yourwarhol Cash For Your Warhol

    This review would appear to rule out the Foster Prize show for a nomination in “Best Group Show at a Museum” at the next New England Art Awards… whenever that is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/edrie Edrie Edrie

    Was having lunch with a group of people today and many of your opinions were also voiced by that group – I just sent this article out to them and a GIANT chorus of YES was returned!

  • disqus_tMXyFZIKBk

    Greg, I thought is was a pretty good article. I don’t agree with everything you write every time, but that is probably a good thing. RL