Trapped in the museum

Pub date February 23, 2010
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionVisual Art

VISUAL ART Have you heard? SFMOMA turned 75. There is a lot to take in across the museum’s related exhibits, from the “Anniversary Show” centerpiece to the small retrospectives devoted to specific artists that SFMOMA has fostered relationships with over the years. While everything is certainly worth a gander, below are some pieces worth more than your while.



Next to Bruce Conner’s Ray Charles-and-found-footage shotgun wedding Three Screen Ray (2006), in the other media gallery, you’ll see a series of music-related or somehow “musical” single channel video works (cannily titled “The Singles Collection”). Media arts curator Rudolf Frieling has played DJ with the archive, going from Steina’s 1970-78 violin-powered video-drone to Cory Arcangel’s hilarious crotch-centric re-edit of footage of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1984 Central Park reunion concert.

The chart-topper, however, is undoubtedly Michael Bell-Smith’s dizzying 2005 piece, Chapters 1-12 of R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet Synced and Played Simultaneously. As explained by its title, the piece exploits the identical backing track used throughout Kelly’s magnum opus, introducing a new audio and video layer with each successive repeat of the bass hook until all 12 chapters are going at once. Bell-Smith’s condensation of Kelly’s soap opera reduces the series’ increasingly labyrinthine narrative to pure affect, in a sense exposing R&B’s McLuhanian truth that the medium is the message. As the visual field moves from palimpsest to whiteout, so too does the audiotrack transform, kecak-like, from discernable speech into a buzzing monsoon of indecipherable chatter, melisma runs, and huge swells of nonverbal emotionality. The idea and execution are so simple and brilliant as to come off as almost self-evident (alternately, I wonder if Kelly just didn’t plan it that way). Here’s hoping Bell-Smith will make a sequel with the other 10 chapters.



Recently, art critic Roberta Smith humorously posited the three career stages of artistic bad boys: “beginner (there’s still time to turn back), over the top, and over the hill.” I wonder where she would slot Matthew Barney. SFMOMA has had a long relationship with the SF-born artist: the museum put on Barney’s first non-gallery retrospective in 1991, followed by the co-acquisition with the Walker Center of the Arts of Cremaster 2 in 2000, and most recently, the massive Drawing Restraint retrospective in 2006. Certainly, there is something of the “beginner” in the 1991 installation Transexualis — part of a “Focus on Artists” exhibition that include sections on Diane Arbus, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, and others — with its petroleum jelly-cast decline bench set in a walk-in cooler. Like a teen bodybuilder, its aesthetic perfection is visually arresting, yet there is something about such over-development that is off-putting and faintly obnoxious. Such is the vanity of youth, perhaps?

Robert Gober’s beeswax torso in the adjacent gallery, made a year before Barney’s Crisco home gym, takes the opposite tack. Slumped on the floor like a throw pillow, Gober’s untitled Eva Hesse-like form simultaneously welcomes you with the upright repose of a postcoital lover (that happy trail that leads the eye up and down from a small cloud of chest hair is made of human follicles), only to then take on the cast of something long past its prime to be taken out with the trash. It is a body many of us have seen, or had, or have. It is a wingless Pyrrhic victory that still manages to fly miles above Barney’s Super Bowl half-time show deconstruction of masculinity. Who’s bad?




Through May 23 (“Anniversary Show” through Jan. 16, 2011)

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000