The Art Institute bills its exhibition “A Case for Wine: From King Tut to Today” as one way to continue celebrating the new Modern Wing. The celebratory angle taken in this exhibition is drink; the burgundy gallery wall at its entrance underscores the variety: wine. Throughout the exhibition, the curatorial team has brought together wine and art objects from across their collections.
The effect is eclectic, cute and puzzling. Each of the ten galleries foregrounds the presence of the wine theme across media as varied as video, glassware and print patterns. It’s sort of like visiting a very elegant rummage sale, one that’s full of items in glass boxes: Greek pottery, tapestries, 400-year-old wine glasses, Impressionist painting, stained-glass from Scottish churches, Chinese silk, English wine bottles, Daumier lithographs, Chiluly glasswork, Tavern signs, Dutch still lifes, contemporary photography and, for the wine-enthusiast with gallery endurance, there’s even some pixelated, postmodern video art.
The conversations surface early on and echo through the quiet galleries. “Recent analysis of the wine residue has determined that Tutankhamen preferred red wine.” Some yield amusing anecdotes. For example, the World’s Fair battles of the punch bowl, slugged out between Baccarat and Tiffany like a middle-school food fight using ornate, heavy, metal vessels instead of grilled cheese. Daumier’s wry lithographic works provide a running commentary blurry enough for any drunk, and the most shocking reveal is the stunning beauty that man has twisted out of and into glass on wine’s behalf.
The festive tone keeps things fun. Like any good buzz, it is at its best (ornate moments frozen in glassware so beautiful that you worry it will spill) dangerously close to going too far; it isn’t until the final galleries that any allusion gets made to the parallel, if entirely elided, history of alcohol abuse and the arts. But that prostitute—er, woman in red, is probably drinking absinthe anyways, not wine. And this is where it all gathers like a cloud into a thunder-splitting headache and there you are staring at yourself as a pixelated video insert in a bar that’s definitely not your scene, wondering what you’re looking at. (Ian Epstein)
Through September 20 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan.