The architecture of the MACBA blew me out of the water. I admired the painstakingly white facade with glistening windows while skateboarders will whirl and whiz past me. Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, a modernistic building designed by Richard Meier* (he deserves an asteriks because he has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women). Although it eventually opened to the public in 1995, it was intended to be open for the 1992 Summer Olympics. 

I went to the MACBA for a reason, to see their collection presentation Beneath the Surface and was particularly excited to see Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work. I didn’t know which of his work would be on view, but because of the title of the exhibition, I was expecting a shiny candy pile.

Anyway, I very much appreciate it when museums offer information leaflets to their visitors. But it did not provide an all-encompassing amount of info about the artworks and the wall tags or texts did not provide a lot of information as well. It is always a curatorial decision to choose where you put the info in order to convey the message of the exhibition or artist. I enjoy being armed with as much information as possible, but others just want to get the main thing and interpreted the works in their own way.  What the curators tried to communicate was that the chosen material a significant meaning has in the contemporary art realm. They wanted to explore the notion of the surface as a privileged place for experimentation and meaning. How can one traditional medium such as painting and sculpture, be altered and thereby be a critical statement?

In the first part, artists like Dubuffet and Tàpies are shown under the umbrella of “anti-representational action” which question the surface language. Artists like Ignasi Aballí seem to test how far they can go to still be called a painting. He only puts varnish on the wall. My question is: what are you trying to accomplish here? Undermining the idea that a painting needs to satisfy certain requirements? I’m unable to answer Gilda Williams’ “so what?” question.

This is not the case in À chaque stencil une revolution (for each stencil a revolution) in which Latifa Echakhch refers to the carbon paper and stencil machines which in former times were used to print and reprint leaflets and revolutionary messages, especially in the 60s, when people did not shy away from going on labour strikes, human rights demonstrations and protesting war. The work is made out of pouring methylated spirits down the carbon papers placed on the wall. By referring to the used material, she makes you contemplate the differences and similarities between now and then. It is like an abstract monument of this time.

The second part was “On the other side of beauty”. Derek Jarman’s last film Blue from 1993, released only months before his death from AIDS-related complication, bears witness to his struggle. The movie consists of a single shot of vivid blue color (Yves Klein Style) on a soundtrack Jarman’s and some of his collaborators narrate a description his life and vision. According to Wikipedia, Jarman was already blind due to his illness, so this actually is of added value to the work. His life and body fleeting away, he did not make this movie for himself as a diary as such, because he could not see it anymore. To relate this to the notion of the exhibition, this work should be an alteration of a material condition and therefore critical? Or does this work make you contemplate about the horrors of this destructive disease? The leaflet fails to explain why this piece of art is part of the show.

As part of the same theme, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ 1993 Untitled (Last Light) was for me the highlight of the exhibition. His work is mentioned briefly in the leaflet: Félix González-Torres’ [notoriously using the acute accents he only used at the beginning of his career]light installations also hide a profound melancholy beneath their festive apperance. The wall text mentions that is work functions as a symbol of life and loss. I don’t know why it is not mentioned that his work refers to a specific loss and melancholy: he lost his boyfriend Ross Laycock to AIDS in 1991. However, the devastation and struggle about the loss of his lover Ross who died of AIDS-related complications is only one layer of meaning in his work. As I have written before, FGT was a was a surreptitious activist who was not obviously ideological or didactic. He has explained that when it’s invisible, he can infiltrate, and when he is inside, then he is capable of enabling change. He purposely chose minimalist stylistic elements referring to the 60s movement. It was a kind of strategy to get into the art historical canon. But after all, his work is always open to interpretation, the viewer constructs the meaning. So his work fits into the idea behind the exhibit, they just did not explain it enough.   And if you wonder why you can see this piece of work in different settings, the curator completely decides how to show the work (light or dark environment, hanging down from the ceiling or placed on the ground).

The last part was about “places of life.” Charlotte Posenenske adopted an American minimalist visual language (like FGT). After 10 years of making art, she called it quits because she thought art could not change the world and dedicated herself to activism and sociology. Her work looks like your everyday ventilation ducts and pipelines. They were made in the late 60s and placed in public spaces. I had to turn to Wikipedia to look for answers to why she was making these seemingly functional devices. She has stated: “I make series because I do not want to make individual pieces for individuals, in order to have elements combinable within a system, in order to make something that is repeatable, objective, and because it is economical. The series can be prototypes for mass-production.[…]They are less and less recognizable as “works of art.” The objects are intended to represent anything other than what they are.” So every line sounds like your typical minimalist artist: it is relatable, a radical break from traditional painting and sculpture, looks like functioning industrial products. But on the contrary, she has not a “What you see is what you see” Frank Stella attitude.

One information tag that nailed it was Rita McBride’. This American artist makes post-minimalist sculptures that are also resembling industrial design and architecture. She alters existing urban objects in terms of dimensions, color, and material. By placing them in the spheres of the museum, they are imbued with a new artistic condition. The tag explains: “spaces and elements at the service of the city (pipes, kitchens, garages) remind us of the role of the class, rage and gender struggle in industrialization). Wow, this fits perfectly into the overall idea of the exhibition.

In conclusion, although the objective was to explore how artists use material properties to be critical of things (to put it very loosely), the exhibition did not come across as a conveying a critical message. Most of the included artists were or are politically engaged but you have to read other texts to figure that out (except for McBride’s case). Another thought, if the surface is the place of critical content and not the conceptual notions behind it, wouldn’t that mean the works should be straightforward like The Guerilla Girls? Most of the works were ambiguous, had different layers of meaning and were in fact conceptual. If you are going to be critical anno 2017, fully commit and really GO FOR ALL. Inform your audience and contextualize the pieces because otherwise you won’t fully engage them and you’re doomed to disappear in a sea of overtly critical art and exhibitions with pertinent observations.

MACBA COLLECTION. BENEATH THE SURFACE is on view until November 4, 2018. 

Ignasi Aballí Q&Art quandart questions and art MACBA Barcelona
Ignasi Aballí
Q&Art quandart questions and art MACBA Barcelona
Latifa Echakhch “À chaque stencil une révolution” 2007
Q&Art quandart questions and art MACBA Barcelona
Derek Jarman “Blue” 1993
Q&Art quandart questions and art MACBA Barcelona
Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled (Last Light)” 1993
Q&Art quandart questions and art MACBA Barcelona
Charlotte Posenenske “Square Tubes [Series D]” 1967
Q&Art quandart questions and art MACBA Barcelona
Rita McBride “White Elephant (Wall)” 2003
Rita McBride
Rita McBride “Servants and Slaves (Domestic)” 2003

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