About a week and a half ago, BYU’s Museum of Art (MOA) opened the new exhibit Mirror Mirror: Contemporary Portraits and the Fugitive Self, which thankfully continues the facility’s trend toward thought-provoking, cutting-edge contemporary art.
Mirror Mirror brings together a renowned group of contemporary artists that take it as their task to provoke museum patrons to thought and introspection. For example, Valarie Atkisson’s “Hanging Family Tree (Patriarchally Oriented)” depicts the artist’s genealogy using thousands of hanging slips of paper. Like the best works of art, it’s visually stunning and intellectually challenging all at once. Similarly, Rebecca Campbell also works with the image of a tree, but actually installed a real (and fairly large) avocado tree wrapped with velvet in the gallery. These pieces, together with the work of world famous artists like Takashi Murakami, provide a fitting follow up to Dan Steinhilber’s phenomenal exhibit that previously occupied the same space. Though the MOA hasn’t given up on exhibiting traditional painting, Mirror Mirror proves that it’s also invested in the frontiers of contemporary art.
Given all that, however, I also didn’t love the exhibit’s overall composition. On each of my three visits I found myself wanting to be deeply moved, but not actually feeling much. As a non-artist it’s hard to get excited about brushstrokes or inter-artist dialogue that I’m not aware of. Instead, I hope for images that can be viscerally affective, psychologically deep, and intellectually challenging. Some pieces accomplished all that; Ben Coonley’s “Valentine for a Perfect Stranger” and Oliver Herring’s “Basic (Dance 1)” are fantastic video pieces that use wit to explore relationships in a media-saturated, post-Youtube world.
Other pieces, however, worked less well. If Rebecca Campbell’s tree was one of the highlights, her portrait “Highlander (Rebecca)” felt shockingly out of place. Though technically well executed, the painting, along with Mary Henderson’s work, seemed outdated and intellectually lite next to pieces that engaged on so many more levels. Even worse, some of the exhibit’s more traditional paintings and photographs dealt with the “mirror mirror” theme in the most obvious ways and apparently forgot that the “fugitive self” was the more interesting part of the show’s title.
Surprisingly, some of the more experimental pieces came off awkwardly as well. For example, next to Atkisson’s family tree the curators placed a computer that rapidly displays pictures of Paris Hilton. Provocatively, the piece cites “the internet” as its medium. Sadly, however, “the internet” isn’t really being used to demonstrate anything worth looking at. What are we supposed to get from looking at pictures of Paris Hilton? Is it supposed to be some sort of social commentary? If so, how is it bringing something new to the table that pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein didn’t explore decades ago? Ultimately, the piece felt like a high school cliché and left me with nothing but admiration for Hilton and her apparent ability to always turn her good side to the paparazzi.
The overall feeling of the exhibit, then, is somewhat akin to an NBA All-Star game: theoretically awesome, but inexplicably disappointing. Taken individually many of the pieces bring a postmodern sense of playful irony to their subject matter and work very well. Unfortunately, those pieces are also juxtaposed with others that never got past the passé modernist tendency to snottily condemn popularity, mass appeal and silliness. The result is accordingly haphazard. Though the exhibit raises questions about the relationship between Paris Hilton, genealogy and Halo, for example, it never bothers to answer those questions or even explain why they deserve to be asked in the first place. Like a Jackson Pollack painting, the exhibit feels random, but in this case there is disappointingly little method to the madness.
If you happen to be an artist yourself, these inadequacies might be easily overlooked. In fact, even if you don’t closely follow the art world, Mirror Mirror is worth visiting and the MOA deserves recognition for pushing the limits of convention and for assembling an ensemble of artists that includes some spectacular talent. The exhibit also represents a useful, if still imperfect, experiment with modern art that challenges our understanding about the world, which in some ways is the best thing that art can do. It is a lesser collection than some of its predecessors, but it is also clearly a stepping-stone on the path to bigger — and better — contemporary art exhibits.
Jim Dalrymple is a popular culture correspondent for Rhombus. You can follow him on Twitter @jimmycdii.
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