Corcoran Roundup: Images Speaking for Themselves

Two currents have often run simultaneously through the exhibitions of major American museums and galleries in the past year. One is the now requisite “Occupy show,” picking up steam in the months immediately following the start of Occupy Wall Street, and continuing to the present with exhibitions such as Sharon Hayes’ There’s So Much I Want to Say to You at the Whitney. Perusing the daily stream of e-flux announcements in the fall of 2011 and winter of 2012, it seemed that at least every week there was a new “Occupy show”: something that somehow engaged contemporary political practice and activism in ways that at best felt like genuine attempts on the part of art institutions to be sensitive and current, and at worst felt merely opportunistic.

Standing in contrast to this trend, has been a turn toward experiential installation art and abstract painting, both of which feel rather escapist by comparison. Los Angeles MOCA’s Suprasensorial, and Hélio Oiticica’s Penetrables at Galerie Lelong, are two prominent examples of the former. Examples for the “return” of abstract painting are numerous, including retrospectives for big names (like Richard Diebenkorn, one of the subjects of this post), and gallery shows for younger artists. This is not to collapse the concerns of experiential, Light and Space-style installation into those of abstract painting, but as compared to the Occupy show, they are both primarily tied up with aesthetics and spectatorship.

What has made these types of shows feel especially like concurrent trends is that they have often appeared as seemingly conscious pairings. The Sharon Hayes exhibition mentioned above was at the Whitney at the same time as the Yayoi Kusama retrospective, which featured both large-scale, abstract paintings, and an infinity mirror installation, Fireflies on the Water. The latter part of Suprasensorial’s run at the Hirshhorn Museum overlapped with the opening of Barbara Kruger’s Belief + Doubt installation. SFMOMA’s, The Air We Breathe, reflecting on the issue of equal marriage rights, came at the same time as the traveling exhibition, Richard Serra Drawing. It appears that museums are experiencing a need to cover their bases: offering viewers art that is a window out onto the world of current affairs and crises, while elsewhere pointing back inside the walls of the institution, with art that is optically stimulating, meditative, and engaged with the creative process.

Up now at the Corcoran is one such pairing. Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, a simple, beautiful hang of paintings and works on paper, is on view across the hall from Charlotte Dumas: Anima, a show featuring four series of animal portraits, including a recently commissioned project on the horses that live and work at the Arlington National Cemetery, leading military funeral processions, eight processions a day, five days a week. What is notable about this particular political/nonpolitical duo is how quiet it feels. Both shows ask images to speak for themselves in narratives about painting, and animal social roles/animal labor, respectively.

The Ocean Park Series is arranged chronologically with minimal wall texts. There is no revisionist thesis to be gleaned about the evolution or place of the Ocean Park series, which Diebenkorn initiated in 1967 at the age of 45 after moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and continued to work on until 1988. Displaying the large-scale paintings in groups spanning 6 or 7 years allows for shifts in style and composition to become clear, but nothing remotely like a progression is in evidence. In her catalog essay, curator Sarah C. Bancroft of the Orange County Museum of Art claims that it would be “naïve” to assert any such narrative. She also discusses in length the milieu of 1960s Ocean Park, while insisting that for Diebenkorn, “the Ocean Park works were never abstract landscapes of his surroundings,” but rather, “a far more personal synthesis of his own decisions, attitudes, and process within a particular microcosm to which he was sensitive” (16).

Charlotte Dumas is a Dutch artist, whose series, Retrieved, of the rescue dogs deployed in the aftermath of September 11th may be familiar to some. At the Corcoran she presents Anima, the above-referenced series depicting horses of the Arlington National Cemetery, Reverie (2005), a series focused on gray wolves at nature preserves in the United States and Europe, Palermo 7 (2006), two groups of images of racehorses in stalls in Paris and Palermo, Italy, and Heart Shaped Hole (2008), photographs of dogs living on the streets, also in Palermo. Dumas frames her animal subjects at eye level and often directly in the center of her shot, giving the feeling of a formal, society portrait. In a quote from the pamphlet accompanying the show, Dumas is quoted as saying, “The bond between mankind and animals, and the extensive history that it accompanies, is my great interest. How we tend to use and regard animals for our own purposes, both literally and symbolically…” (7).

There is an inherent political element to Dumas’ work. All of her animal subjects are trained and employed by humans, under human stewardship, or in danger as the result of human neglect. She consciously seeks out these types of situations in her photography, and comments on them verbally, as well. The documentation of the condition of animals in a variety of social roles is definitely a form of activism, even when the documentation is equally oriented to aesthetic concerns. As was mentioned before, though, the politics here are kept very, very quiet. Dumas always edges when it comes to the issues that her various series confront. In the statement accompanying Palermo 7, the series of images of racehorses, she describes the horses as, “tethered on either side of their stalls . . . emphasizing their restraints. Still, their individual characters are apparent, and they represent their collective history as working animals.” In other words, these animals are obviously tethered and restrained, but let’s also just step back to regard them aesthetically and symbolically.

The Corcoran building is the perfect space for both of these exhibitions in all their quietness. It is a prime example of the museum as temple paradigm: almost exclusively white, and replete with natural light, soft edges, and echoes. The Diebenkorns benefitted immensely both aesthetically and conceptually from their treatment in the Corcoran, leaving plenty of space for viewers to appreciate the complexity and layering of each piece, without bombarding them with ideas about spirituality, process, or other tropes of abstraction. In the case of the Dumas photographs, while the dramatic setting of the Rotunda was a beautiful venue for the Anima horse series in particular, something felt amiss in the relationship between subject matter and presentation.

Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series runs until September 23rd.

Charlotte Dumas: Anima runs through October 28th.

Thank you to The Corcoran Gallery for permission to reproduce images. Full captions are as follows:

1.) Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #83, 1975.
Oil on canvas, 100 x 81 inches. Corcoran
Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Museum
Purchase with the aid of funds from the National
Endowment for the Arts, the William A. Clark
Fund, and Mary M. Hitchcock 1975.30.
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

2.) Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #109, 1978.
Oil on canvas, 100 x 76 inches. (254 x 193 cm)
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and
Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund and gift of
The Cleveland Society for Contemporary
Art and an Anonymous Donor, 1979.17.
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.
Image courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art.

3.) Charlotte Dumas, Peter, Arlington National
Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, 2012. Pigment
inkjet print, 35 x 47 inches. Courtesy of the
artist and Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam/
Julie Saul Gallery, New York. © Charlotte

4.) Charlotte Dumas, Vincennes 1, Paris, France,
2006. Chromogenic color (Type-C) print,
23 3/5 x 17 7/10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and
Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam/Julie
Saul Gallery, New York. © Charlotte Dumas.


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