The MCA’s latest public iteration of its permanent collection focuses exclusively on paintings, most—but significantly not all—drawn from its own holdings. Titled “Constellations: Paintings from the MCA Collection,” and organized by associate curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm, the idea is to eschew chronology and linearity in favor of focused and intimate conversations among works from disparate time periods. It’s a laudable attempt on the MCA’s part to rethink its collection dynamically, as something that is, to some degree at least, porous, open to questioning, and responsive to its surroundings.
One of the more successful constellations explores different treatments of the figure, provocatively juxtaposing a kitschy, zebra-riding Mel Ramos nude with Rudolf Stingel’s mammoth, melancholic self-portrait and a depiction of a wrathful and despondent businessman with bared teeth and grotesquely arched mouth courtesy of Francis Bacon. Another gallery looks at the phenomenon of “bad” or “de-skilled” painting, a much buzzed-about topic that, to the MCA’s credit, has not always been addressed as forthrightly as it is here. By contrasting paintings by younger artists like Scott Reeder, Jeni Spota (whose works in this gallery are not part of the Museum’s collection), and Hollis Sigler with “visionary” artist Forrest Bess and a 1951 work by Jean Dubuffet, or a grouping of small paintings by Clare Rojas with one by H.C. Westermann from 1954, this grouping calls into question historically oppositional categories such as outsider and insider, amateur and professional, craftsmanship and raw talent. It doesn’t make insubstantial works like Reeder’s any more persuasive, but it does at least provide a context for understanding their continued existence.
Potentially “heated” conversations like these get cut off all too quickly, however, as tightly focused groupings give way to broader swaths of paintings that stare at each other but don’t talk, slotted as they are with mind-numbing predictability into huge rectangular galleries that address catch-all themes of “abstraction and representation” and “color and form.” Unfortunately, the spirit of engagement that makes “Constellations” such a potentially exciting curatorial thought-experiment loses momentum midway through this show, which starts out hot and bright and then, inexplicably, grows colder and stiffer as it moves along. (Claudine Isé)
Through October 18 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago.