By Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
November 08, 2012
“Lifelike,” the big new exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, is an amusement park of brain-teasing optical deceptions. The weirdness starts the minute you step through the museum’s bronze doors.
Let your eyes scan the reception desk and you’ll see what seems to be an ordinary ashtray stuffed with cigarette butts. The grimy-looking object is actually a hyper-authentic sculpture by artist Ruben Nusz. The ashtray is made from wax, the butts are made from painted plastic, the tobacco is made from tea leaves and the ashes are … cremation residue from a departed pet.
Even without the mildly macabre gray grit, Nusz’s ashtrays would have a vaguely eerie vibe. NOMA curator of contemporary art Miranda Lash explained the phenomenon by citing one of history’s great smokers, Sigmund Freud, who once wrote an essay on the uncanny. In the father of psychoanalysis’ view, Lash said, the uncanny can occur when something seems almost familiar … but not quite.
Artist Keith Edmier’s painstaking, full-sized reproduction of his family’s kitchen circa 1971 is a smorgasbord of harvest-gold uncanniness. Edmier, 45, who was putting the finishing touches on the unaccountably strange installation Wednesday, Nov. 7, pointed out the extraordinary lengths he went to in order to produce an ordinary Nixon-era interior.
The high-backed butter-colored vinyl kitchen chairs seem as real as any you would find at a flea market. But, Edmier pointed out, they were actually sculptural reproductions, laboriously cast in plastic resin. The dizzying gold, green and chrome wallpaper was custom printed to match the wallpaper in the background of old family photos. The totem pole-motif oversized wooden spoons decorating the wall near the phone were computer-carved to replicate the long-gone originals. The pattern of the floor tiles was based on a scrap of the original floor covering that his mother was given by the current residents of the Edmiers’ former family home near Chicago.
Despite his dispassionate set-designer style, nostalgia is at the heart of Edmier’s art. He said that his parents were moved by their visit to the reproduction kitchen. They may also have experienced a touch of melancholy.
“Actually, it was kind of hard to be in that space together,” Edmier said. “It really brought them back in time.”
Edmier’s 1971 kitchen would be the perfect place to sip coffee and perhaps smoke cigarettes (everyone did in 1971, after all) with art-minded friends while discussing the relationship between Freud’s definition of the uncanny and Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte’s efforts to make us aware of what he called “the treachery of images.”
Since the ice age, artists have labored to produce authentic reproductions. The best drawing of a woolly rhino was the drawing that looked the most like a woolly rhino. Fast forward to the late 1920s: Magritte paints a perfectly accurate picture of a pipe – the sort of thing you might see in the window of a tobacco shop. Underneath it, he writes: “This is not a pipe.”
That playful gesture became a touchstone of modern art. It was a clarion call of absurd self-contradiction that the artists in “Lifelike” heard loud and clear. That overstuffed plastic trash bag in the rear gallery isn’t a trash bag at all; it’s a marvelous Renaissance-style marble carving of a trash bag by Jud Nelson. That lumpy occupied sleeping bag isn’t a leftover from Voodoo Fest; it’s a painted bronze casting by Gavin Turk. That Jimi Hendrix album isn’t a Jimi Hendrix album; it’s a preternaturally convincing textured paper disk by Steve Wolfe. That small boy crouching in front of a mirror isn’t a small boy; it’s a really disturbing mannequin by Ron Mueck. Ditto the repellently realistic, oversized head of a man by Evan Penny. The video rain storm by Thomas Demand isn’t really rain and the hissing sound of the non-rain is really the sound of eggs frying.
The art in ‘Lifelike’ not only fools the eye, it ties the eye’s shoe laces together and steals its lunch money.
Those sunflower seeds in the Mason jar are actually tiny porcelain replicas presented by China’s politically critical conceptualist Ai Weiwei, who stepped into in the international spotlight in 2008 for his contribution to the bird’s nest-shaped Olympics stadium in Beijing and again in 2011 when he was imprisoned during a cultural crackdown. Ai Weiwei isn’t the only international art star in the exhibit. Those Brillo pad boxes near the front aren’t Brillo pad boxes, they’re three-dimensional prints by Andy Warhol.
The energy created between apparent reality and inspired artificiality is the engine that powers “Lifelike.” Art aficionados use the term trompe l’oeil to describe deceptively realistic art; meaning it “fools the eye.” The art in “Lifelike” not only fools the eye, it ties the eye’s shoe laces together and steals its lunch money.
Those planning to visit the exhibit, which originated at the Walker art Center in Minneapolis, Minn., should practice saying “curiouser and curiouser,” because the sensation in the last room is pure “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The institutional-brown folding chairs by sculptor Robert Therrien are exactly like every other folding chairs you’ve ever seen, except they’re as tall as a house. Meanwhile, the twin elevators with the swishing mechanical doors by Maurizio Cattelan are exactly like those in any office building in the world, except they’re so small that G. I. Joe and Barbie could barely fit. If you get close enough, you’ll notice that the tiny numbers over the doors light up, as if little people were getting off upstairs in the decorative arts department.
Despite all of the duplicitousness in “Lifelike,” that fake pack of American Spirit cigarettes in the corner by Matt Johnson is actually levitating, hovering above its pedestal all on its own, like magic, no strings attached. Trust me. Check it out.