Homage, with humor, to Barnes's ensembles

Homage, with humor, to Barnes's ensembles

The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 15, 2015
By Stephan Salisbury

With a new exhibition opening Saturday, the Barnes Foundation is entering a shadowy, self-referential, postmodern world it has never ventured into before. Certainly not during the lifetime of founder Albert C. Barnes, nor at any time since his death in 1951.

"Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things," running through Aug. 3, consists of three commissioned installations inspired by the famously idiosyncratic Barnes and the manner in which he displayed his art; "ensembles" he called his wall and gallery arrangements, and he stipulated they could never be rearranged.

Barnes consulting curator Martha Lucy, assistant professor of art history at Drexel University, characterized the founder's personal installation method as swapping out "the traditional display system [for] one of his own."

"Each of his assemblages is perfectly symmetrical," she noted, "perfectly ordered, and set in place for perpetuity."

To add more spice to the show, the Barnes has recreated what is known as the Dutch Room, a tiny gallery that was obliterated at the Barnes' former home in Merion and replaced in the 1990s with an elevator for handicap access.

The Dutch Room now sits within the new Philadelphia exhibition space, its carefully arranged conglomeration of objects - New Mexico religious carvings, a blunderbuss, Native American rugs, a Pennsylvania chest, three clocks - serving as robust evidence of Barnes' aesthetic eccentricities. Its walls are plexiglass, encasing the whole like an exotic artifact in a huge vitrine.

The three invited artists have found all of this fertile territory.

Wilson, 61, who represented the United States at the 2003 Venice Biennale and is known for installations that reimagine museums, has put a mirror right up to the Barnes.

He has created a maze of rooms that begin with "found" ensembles, arrangements of objects taken from the Merion foundation offices and placed in exactly the same arrangement for exhibition.

There is, for instance, the square desk of Joan Taylor, longtime foundation receptionist. It sits in front of a square C├ęzanne reproduction; a square desk calendar offsets an angular desk lamp. The whole can be formally analyzed in a Barnesian manner. But the rigor of the aesthetic is swamped by poignance once a viewer learns that Taylor, who presided over this ensemble, recently died. Here, her presence lives on.

A coatrack is another "found" ensemble. Blocking a Van Gogh reproduction, it stands, full of hangers, a yellow slicker, a hat.

"This was the first thing I saw going in there, really," said Wilson. "The coatrack."

"It's a ready-made ensemble," said Lucy. "You can make these formal connections between the coatrack and the painting and all of the objects. Look at the shape of the coatrack and look at the shape of the painting. You could make a relationship between the colors of the hangers and the colors in the painting. . . . Now, I am making all of this up and none of this was intended. But that's what I think is so interesting. . . . It makes you realize how arbitrary some of these correspondences are.

"But it also is an example of Barnes' philosophy, because he did believe that by training people to go and look at art and to see these formal correspondences they could take that out into the world and see them in ordinary objects."

Wilson has a wry sense of humor that comes out in these found displays. "They're all kind of funny," he said.

Other parts of the installation, including a sound loop of snippets from Barnes' collection of jazz records, are assembled from oddments. In one small room, for instance, display cases filled with various objects from storage are placed one in front of the other to inhibit the viewer from seeing exactly what's in there.

"This is not hurting any objects, but doing this allows me to see something else that one might not be able to see," said Wilson.

Questions of harm and obliteration occupy the center of Mark Dion's installation, which covers an entire wall of the gallery. Dion, 53, has created a Barnes-like symmetrical array of objects related to natural-history collecting - nets, poles, guns, hooks, snares, cages, shovels, hammers, clubs, pitchforks, and many other implements of capture.

All are completely taken out of their original contexts.

"I'm interested in the kind of aggressive aspects of the nature of collecting," said Dion, whose work has appeared in exhibitions all over the world. "You think about it and sell it, in a way, as being about caring for things, about preserving things. But what we never talk about is the kind of radical recontextualization of things, the kind of ripping them out of a certain context and putting them into another context."

What was especially true of Barnes' collecting practice, Dion said, was the "instrumentalization of artists" - the use of their art "to illustrate [his] view of what their work is."

That said, "there is no more violent example than natural history collections . . . where you're literally capturing and killing things and pulling them out of one place - nature - and forcing them into" another. "I'm trying to hint at the notion that there is a darker side of collecting, and that darker side of collecting does involve some destruction."

Dion allowed that he hoped his piece was "a little lighter in touch than the way it sounds when I describe it."

Judy Pfaff, 69, one of the pioneers of contemporary installation art, said her large Barnes piece was responding to what is absent from the gallery's Philadelphia site - Laura Barnes, Mrs. Barnes.

"I thought, 'What's missing here?' " Pfaff said. "I just thought, 'What happened to Mrs. Barnes?' She wasn't moved over [from Merion] in a funny way."

Laura Barnes' great passion was horticulture, and the gardens at the foundation's Merion site were her domain. She remained in charge of them until she died in 1966.

For her piece, Pfaff has created a kind of exploding symmetry of poured shapes and colors - all announcing that Mrs. B has returned with a bang. Wall murals depict plants and flowers dissolving into swirls of color, poured polymer foam shapes bubbling with color rise up from the floor, white welded metal "trees" stretch toward the ceiling, paths weave around and through it all, and a pointed echo of the Merion building and grounds with three arched "windows" opening onto a brilliance of dissolving garden covers one wall.

"I'm an additive," said Pfaff. "Minimalism sort of passed me by."

She described the whole as "a stage set for Mrs. Barnes."

"It's a kind of study about the garden, Mrs. Barnes, her collection, horticulture," Pfaff said. "And there's a nod to old Barnes in Merion."