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26 Feb

There is a difficulty to surprise, in that if you expect it, it won’t surprise. This is at the crux of of the encounter of Lifelike at the Walker Art Center, a show about works of art that are not what they seem to be. It is a conservative survey -curator Siri Engberg made a point of saying during the media preview that this is not a show about contemporary issues in virtual reality, but about the studio process and practice of re-creation. This leads to a distinctly nostalgic feel in the exhibition galleries, with a tension between meticulous hand-creation and the trompe-l’œil effect of industrial production, the physical world we live in re-manifested and magnified by the hand and concept of the artist.

Vija Celmins, Eraser, 1967

“It’s oddly oppressive to set off on a journey in a place so thoroughly imagined by other people,” Zadie Smith caustically remarks about Los Angeles in her essay “Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend”. It is not surprising then, that despite and because of that aura of familiarity, there is a melancholy that runs through Lifelike. In the first gallery, a gorgeously rendered painting by Robert Bechtle (who lived and worked in L.A.) of his wife and children sitting at a diner booth is juxtaposed with Duane Hanson’s Untitled (Janitor) from 1973, a full size recreation of a down-in-the-mouth middle-aged man, with his cuffed pants and receding hairline slouched despondently against the wall. Their matched expressions provide a smart and empathic moment into the struggles of everyday people, and ground the show well. The middle three galleries are dominated by an enormous, enveloping painting by Rudolf Stigel, Untitled (After Sam). Painted by his studio in darkly saturated black and white, the recumbent Stigel is shown with in a private moment of captivating sadness and the scale of the work, taking up a whole wall, magnifies that emotion and makes it inescapable, even inviting for us. (Sartorial sidenote – you can tell Stigel is an Italian at a glance, top two buttons of his white shirt undone, sleeves uncuffed under a bold pinstripe jacket, fashionable denim slightly distressed – Gianni Agnelli would be proud.)

That transition from Bechtle and Hanson to Stigel underscores another shift in the works, the financial status of the art and artists. Not to be vulgar, but life is vulgar and money is ordinary, but there is a marked transition in the resources used by the artists as we move through time and through the show. Starting with Vija Celmins’ oversized sculptures, carved of balsa wood (cheap) and meticulously painted, her Eraser has a price stamp for 14¢ on the back. Move through time, as the works become increasingly art-market referential, and the price indicators rise. A hand crafted column of Sony speakers by Kaz Oshiro (installed to recall Donald Judd’s minimalist sculptures in the collection of the Walker) are identical except for one which has a winking Ferrari decal painted on. The empty office lobby that eerily glows with morning light in Paul Winstanley’s Utopia I (Engberg quoted Peter Schjeldahl in calling him “the Vermeer of corporate interiors”) surely gums at the hand that feeds him. Susan Collins creates a floor wreck out of precious hardwoods that reads like an interior designers wet dream, Jud Nelson offers up a trash bag wrought from Carrara marble, Ugo Rodinone casts a cardboard sheet from bronze and paints it back to it’s pulpy beginnings. It’s all Arte Povera, ma non. Rodinone also has a direct predecessor in the show, a lead cast piece of toast by Jasper Johns, and recalls the minimalism of Richard Serra and the cotton-containing enameled iron cases of Jannis Kounellis. But by the time we reach this, towards the end of the show, the surprise of materials not being what they seem and the potential for economic critique seems to have slipped away into art historical winking and tiresomely, having to explain each joke as it is met.

Kaz Oshiro, Dumpster (Flesh with Turquoise Swoosh), 2011

The internal references to the art world and that notion of elevated insularity cycles around full circle with Dan Fischer’s small graphite drawings on grid paper of many of the artists on display in the galleries. This closes the loop on the show – the artists celebrating everyday objects are made the subject of the arts themselves, art from a life less ordinary. Fischer’s drawings, at the exit to the show are paired with a wall-mounted sculpture by Steve Wolfe, a meticulous recreation of Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? It begs the question, what is your life like?

It is an interesting thought that Lifelike, according to Engberg, apparently started as a painting show in its original conception 3 years ago. Having grown into full installations, video and 3-dimensional works, the painter still runs throughout the exhibition, and the individual personalities of the pieces as extensions of the artist make a visit to the exhibition full of interesting parts. There is also a welcome break, after all these reproductions of life, in a painting by the youngest artist in the galleries, Tauba Auerbach. Auerbach’s Untitled (Fold) from 2011 is a medium canvas, perfectly ordinary in size, with evidence of folding, like an unmade bed, recorded in paint. Using an industrial sprayer, an everyday tool if ever there was one, Auerbach has applied an deep spectrum of color, from reds and greens with a touch of yellow and blues. It is ordinary, familiar and wonderfully abstract. It invites us, in our workaday lives, to stop and look, to think about what might be, to sleep, perchance to have our own Technicolor dreams.

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