One artist included in the “Constellations” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art described the show as “art history,” believing that it finally clears up the perceived problem of Chicago’s major museums turning their backs on local artists. With about fifteen of the eighty-four paintings on view coming from local sources, or eighteen percent, and zero of the beloved Imagists, the show does produce evocative thematic groupings and a chance to view paintings rarely seen on the museum’s walls. I asked Julie Rodrigues Widholm, Associate Curator at the MCA, about her intentions. (Jason Foumberg)
How was the exhibition conceived?
Every year we present one or two major collection-based exhibitions. We decided to focus on paintings at this time for three reasons. First, we haven’t ever surveyed the paintings in the MCA collection so it was an opportunity to dig deep into what we’ve got. Second, it was conceived as a counterpoint to Eliasson. Because his work is so ephemeral and light/installation-based, we thought it would be interesting to have one of the oldest and most traditional art mediums on view upstairs. It has proven to be a dynamic pairing. Third, given all of the recent attention to artworks that take the form of installation and environments that require the physical participation of the viewer (i.e. relational aesthetics) I was excited to look at the discrete art object again (in the form of paintings) and think about why it continues to be an exciting medium for so many artists despite the fact that it’s been around for so long. The slow handmade quality of paintings feels fresh now so I decided to focus on painting as a medium and explore its traditions, conventions, challenges, viewer expectations, and history in the exhibition, which resulted in the different “constellations” or groupings. (It is also why I created the short video asking artists why they paint.)
There are so many contradictions and paradoxes of painting (which is what keeps it interesting) that I wanted to foreground the plurality of approaches to the medium rather than dictate or propose the “best” way to paint. In the reading room, I included quotes by artists that are somewhat contradictory to emphasize this point.
Getting back to the constellations/themes, they all touch on fundamental elements of painting and within each show the plurality of approaches across generations. This was very important to me, to have a cross-generational dialogue between works from the forties to the present. It is rarely questioned that painting is Art (within society and the market), yet modern and contemporary painting is challenging to a lot of people (like those who look at a Jackson Pollock and say “My kid could do that.”) so I was hoping to help our visitors better understand the various lineages of painting styles and concerns. (Tradition of figure and landscape; a faux-naive style (or so-called bad painting); the use of external mass media and materials for subjects; anti-illusionism; between abstraction and representation; and formalism.)
Was it created to satisfy “the Chicago problem”?
No, we always include several Chicago-based artists in our exhibition program and collection exhibitions. I did the same thing in previous exhibitions including “Figures in the Field and MCA Exposed: Photographs from the MCA Collection, 1967-2007,” putting local artists in context with other internationally recognized artists. For some reason people have noticed it more this time, but if you look closely they are always here. Perhaps my unexpected choices have caught people’s attention this time. I was happy to spotlight Chicago-based artists in my video, however, so that our visitors can see living working artists in their studios.