I’m increasingly realizing that most art can only be experienced in person; the expansive and visceral terrain of a Jackson Pollock canvass, for example, its paint in places measuring nearly a half-inch thick, is entirely lost in translation when transposed into a deadened image in a book (and I can forgive someone for finding Pollock underwhelming if they only ever encounter him in diminutive digital or print reproductions). At Chicago’s Contemporary Museum of Art is a strong pair of exhibitions which emphatically make the point that art is, at its essence, experiential. Together, they demand viewer interaction and emotional response.
The intimate show Above, Before, and After explores the interactive relationship between art and viewer. It presents a mixed-media ensemble of art that moves, dangles, and projects into the viewer’s space. A set of dynamic mobiles by Alexander Calder does this most explicitly; much more subtle is minimalist John McCraken’s Untitled. It‘s a painted green plank, more sculpture than painting, which invades our space as it leans against the wall. Its paint is layered and polished so finely that it seems mechanically produced. It initially comes across as distant and impersonal (as much minimalist art does), yet its reflective surface manages to place viewers directly into the work.
Similarly, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s Cries and Whispers also leans against the wall, interrupting viewer space. His elongated light-boxes consist of mostly negative space except for the faces of undocumented immigrant workers asymmetrically pushed to the outer edge of the frame. It’s subtle commentary on those that live in the margins of society, yet inhabit our space nevertheless.
The concurrent exhibition Witness explores the relationship between the photograph, the photographer, and the viewer. The photos on view are gleaned from the MCA’s permanent collection, ranging from Walker Evans’ candid snapshots of subway passengers to the large and confrontational works of Cindy Sherman, who always manages to make the viewer feel voyeuristic.
The emotional and visual culmination of Witness is a major installation by Alfredo Jaar. His unnerving Sound of Silence is a rectilinear architectural space (its exterior lined with blinding fluorescent lights) that serves as a small theatre which loops an 8 minute text and photo montage which relays the painful story behind the famous image of an emaciated Sudanese girl collapsed in the dirt as a vulture looks on with anticipation. The Pulitzer-winning photo, The Vulture and the Little Girl, was taken by Kevin Carter, a South-African photojournalist. When the image was published in the New York Times in 1993, it proved highly controversial, generating an overwhelming public response (much of it negative). Carter took his own life the following year.
For his Sound of Silence, Jaar’s decision to confine viewers in a claustrophobic space was a good one. We’re forced to confront this image and its history at an uncomfortably close range, and, like the afterimage of a flash-bulb, the emotional weight of the story lingers even after the film ends.
Although these are separate exhibitions, they pair well together, offering art that reaches out to the viewer both physically and emotionally. They’re an excellent antidote to the notion that contemporary art is too esoteric to have anything to say beyond the specialized world of art critics and academics.
As an art history instructor, I inevitably spend much of my day showing Powerpoint slides to students, acting as a sort of mediator between student and image. But I admit to my students that this is quite possibly the worst way to encounter art. It’s only when we physically stand in front of a good work of art that art has the opportunity to stir us emotionally, and these works at the MCA do precisely that.