Banal Bliss: Massive, ‘Lifelike’ Show Blurs Lines Of Reality At NOMA

By Lianna Patch | NOLA Defender

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Now open at the New Orleans Museum of Art: an exhibit that will blow your mind, frustrate, confuse, elevate, and overwhelm you. “Lifelike,” on loan until January 27, 2013, from the Walker Art Center in Minnesota, is a multimedia collection of works celebrating the places, objects and moments we often take for granted.

Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Miranda Lash walked NoDef through the exhibit, pointing out her favorite pieces. Lash’s reverence for the show, originally curated by Siri Engberg, is clear.

“It’s all about elevating lowly, everyday objects,” she explains.

The artists showcased in “Lifelike” transform their subject matter through medium, scale, and process, creating a “contemporary trompe l’oeil” that uses Pop Art as a loose launchpad.

Take, for example, some of the works in the exhibit’s first room, centered around common objects like a Pink Pearl eraser, a paper bag, a legal pad. But the eraser, created by Vija Celmins, is a hundred times its usual size and made of balsa wood; Alex Hay’s paper bag, big enough to hide a child, is fiberglass. Moments of classic Americana are also represented here. Robert Bechtle’s “Fosters Freeze,” done in oil, captures a quiet moment between Mom and two kids in a diner. Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, made of wood, lend a permanence to a household product box thrown away by the hundreds of thousands.

In the following rooms, “Lifelike” moves from realism into abstraction, sliding into the uncanny with stomach-clenching presentations like Ron Mueck’s “Crouching Boy in Mirror”-an incredibly convincing human sculpture rendered with precise anatomical detail, just a hair too small. Evan Penny’s “(Old) No One � In Particular #6” is a grotesquely real, outsized bust of the artist, complete with wrinkles, hair, and an upsetting forced flatness.

These artists remind us to examine closely what we might discount at first glance. James Casebere’s “Landscape with Houses (Dutchess County, NY) #8” appears across the room as a photo of an idyllic American suburb. Getting closer, you realize that the whole thing is a carefully crafted miniature tableau. Offering a playful counterpoint to Casebere on the adjacent wall, Esteban Diaz’s photograph “Cuatro Vientos” looks like toy planes on a tiny tarmac, when in fact it’s a true aerial photo taken with a pinhole camera. And smack dab in the middle of the floor rests a glossy blue sleeping bag with a body inside. But Gavin Turk’s “Nomad,” with smudges of dirt at its corners, does not actually contain a sleeping transient, because it’s made of bronze.

Critical to each work in “Lifelike” is an investment of labor at times bordering on the obsessive. Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei offers the simply titled “Sunflower Seeds,” a glass jar filled with seemingly unremarkable snack food. But each seed is porcelain, hand-painted. Ai once filled London’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall with a million of these seeds, created by 1,600 Chinese artisans, offering a subtle comment on the growing trend of mass production and the subsequent loss of a thing’s inherent value.

Whether rendered in bronze, marble, paper, on linen or in polyurethane foam, each piece in “Lifelike” presents a meticulous attention to detail. Jud Nelson’s “Hefty 2-Ply” focuses on the humblest of subjects: a white trash bag, bulging with discards, the hint of a paper plate outlined in stretched plastic. But this trash bag weighs 1,500 pounds.

Carved out of solid marble, “Hefty 2-Ply” is at once ludicrous and awe-inspiring for its perfect execution. By taking one of the art world’s most ancient and respected media-white marble-and proving his technical mastery over it with a sculpture of garbage, Nelson forces viewers to radically reconsider their notions of worth.

Also asking the question, “What is precious?” is Susan Collis’ “Forever Young.” A scattering of planks, a dirty dropcloth, and a strip of riveted steel make it look like maybe NOMA hasn’t finished setting up yet. Upon closer inspection, though, the planks are precious wood, scattered with bits of gems; the dropcloth’s stains are painstakingly hand-embroidered.

By playing with media, the artists of “Lifelike” focus on the idea of the simulacrum, a copy of an original that aspires to be real, but may become distorted in its very attempt to offer a realistic depiction of the original. Lash cited French theorist Baudrillard’s view of simulacra: that it becomes its own reality and can take the place of the real. Offering a mindbending example, Charles Ray’s “No” is a photo of a mannequin of the artist, posed defiantly. After the photo was taken, Ray destroyed the mannequin, leaving the photo to take its place. After the artist is gone, will the photo take his place? Adding another layer to this endless onion is Dan Fischer’s graphite replica of “No”: a portrait of a portrait of a simulacrum.

If you’re not dizzy yet, enter the exhibit’s final room. Here, Robert Therion’s [sic] enormous brown “Folding Table and Chairs” loom overhead, chairs casually askew as if a family of giants had just left a card game. Just a few feet away, Maurizio Cattelan’s “Untitled” mouse-sized elevators ding open and closed, dropping off invisible inhabitants at their upstairs floors. How do people react to the exhibit’s vast range of scale? “They sit up and take notice,” smiles Lash.

In asking the viewer to examine his or her perceptions of permanence, authenticity, and value, “Lifelike” is at once playful and profound. Collecting the works referenced above and many more by artists across the globe and spanning decades, the exhibit is worth a visit, or two, or three. Don’t be afraid to feel a little foolish, and expect to leave uplifted.