Beyond in Front of You
The Henry Is a Finely Tuned Instrument Right Now
Vodka is the only thing you are spoon-fed in the group exhibition Now Here Is Also Nowhere at the Henry Art Gallery. You are literally spoon-fed vodka. If you want it. Up to you. Little puddles of vodka await, each one in a white plastic spoon sticking out from the white gallery wall right at your mouth. Many spoons hang like this in a row, forming a long line that runs almost the length of the gallery. Walk up, lean in—is that liquid in there?—and you smell that it's vodka. The label reads "Jirí Kovanda (Czech Republic, born 1953), Untitled. 2006, Plastic spoons and vodka." These are only facts, not instructions. But it's an instinctual response to lean in and take your medicine when somebody points a spoon at you like that. Will you do it? When you do, how many seconds after you swallow will you consider germs? How many seconds after that before you consider that alcohol kills germs? Or maybe you'll walk coolly by, leaving the sculpture to mess with other minds and tongues.
Now Here Is Also Nowhere takes up most of the lower floor of the Henry, spread across the several rooms created by the temporary walls that are a holdover from the Henry's last exhibition. But it feels like a new place entirely. The row of spoons is in the farthest gallery from the entrance to the exhibition. Also in that room: a large black-and-white photograph of six shirtless men standing in a row with their backs to the camera, each with a line freshly tattooed across him (1999, by Santiago Sierra, who paid these Cuban day laborers to brand them). A small framed print of a black splash of ink resembling the whipping tail of some cartoon animal (by high abstractionist Robert Motherwell, who was almost certainly not intending to invoke a cartoon animal when he made the print in 1970). A large mobile of curvy forms painted metallic olive green and dangling from the ceiling, all together forming the suggestion of a splash of paint in mid-air—the line is never formed, but the mind fills in the blanks.
The mind fills in so many blanks in Now Here Is Also Nowhere. Some people will call this a "conceptual art" show, but that's not really right. Traditionally, art shows train your focus on what's in front of you. The object on the pedestal and inside the frame. Right there, in front of your eyes: Just look. This experience is indirect instead. It draws you past what's in front of you—not that past is better, just different. It feels different. It's a showing of intangibility, or a series of demonstrations of being right around the corner from seeing a thing directly—from that thing, whatever it is, showing up and being wholly there, even while you're aware that you're looking for it.
You don't see the faces of the men who had their backs tattooed. While part of you ponders their (curious, unexplained) circumstances, another part—the part that's most visual, maybe—is aware that wherever those men are now, the line that drew them together, that ran straight across their backs like the leash joining a pack of racing dogs, was broken as soon as the photograph was finished being taken, and that the segments are just wandering the world right now, fragments, connected only in your mind and the minds of anybody who thinks about this piece. Across the artworks in Now Here, what shows up is disappearance, and the dust it leaves behind. Hence the large black-and-white photograph by John Divola in a desert landscape. He's in the middle of the frame, running away, naked in the dirt. The title of the picture is As Far As I Could Get (10 Seconds).
This is the first time in a long time that the Henry Art Gallery feels united, all the exhibitions resonating as if the place were one big instrument with differently tuned strings. Now Here is not-enoughness. Upstairs there's too-muchness: the 25-year, ripe-to-bursting-garden survey of ceramics and paper sculptures and paintings by Stranger Genius Award–winner Jeffry Mitchell. Mitchell's art is gleaming, glistening, bumpy. Now Here is translucent, windy, fleeting. Two small exhibitions located in between those two feel loosely, unforcibly related to the big two: a series of gilt-framed 19th-century landscapes paired with video sculptures of fast-moving contemporary landscapes, and a vivid, trippy video projected so that it crawls across your body—fleetingly fleshy—by Pipilotti Rist.
Responsible for this new vibe is the unifying curatorial intelligence of Luis Croquer, late of Detroit. He's only been at the Henry for less than a year, as director of curatorial and education (one wonders how a single person can do both, but what a beginning). This is the first full cycle of exhibitions he's overseen. His low-key style does not spell things out. The rooms are not theme-labeled. (This is the opposite of the Seattle Art Museum's clumsy "Get Your Woman On!" stuff.)
Single-handedly, Croquer conceived Now Here, which will be followed by another iteration—Now Here Is Also Nowhere, Part II—in 2013. It was a significant accomplishment to draw together all these works, both logistically and intellectually. The show is subtle but really rich. Its ideas are unexpected, ungeneric, untrendy, almost literary. One running theme is portraiture of things unseen, each one a little mystery where what's left out is precisely what's normally seen: a pair of lovers whose faces have been removed (Hans-Peter Feldmann), a silent film of Freud talking filled in only by a contemporary artist's digital tracing—a dancing white line—of the unconscious gesticulations of Freud's hand as he speaks (Pierre Bismuth), a pair of shoed feet on the floor with no body attached (Tom Friedman), a gold ring awaiting a diamond that will be created from the ashes of the artist's body if someone will only buy her and sign the prewritten contracts with LifeGem, a real "memorial diamonds" company (Jill Magid).
There are all these displacements of bodies, bodies that are elusive and moving and incomplete, which is calming and sort of familiar, rather like the opposite of facing a glaringly sexy underwear ad on a billboard or the priceless Mona Lisa behind bulletproof glass. One of the artworks, in the same room as all the broken lines, is a large white neon sign that reads "THIS WORK SHOULD BE TURNED OFF WHEN I DIE" (Stefan Brüggemann). The piece is unfinished now, but when it is finished, it will not be functional. There's an agnosticism here that just feels human. Like unfinished is the place. Like things are going by you all the time and you're missing them and yet most of the time it's okay. Maybe you can relate to that like I can.