Friday, June 27, 2008

Art: Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim

If I came to the Guggenheim expecting to hate this retrospective, and actually saw five or six pieces that I didn't completely loathe—that, in fact, I found partially maybe somewhat appealing (from the back), or even, *gasp,* interesting—does that make the show a success? I'm afraid I will have to say yes, since it introduced me to work with which I was unfamiliar, and which I couldn't easily dismiss.

I could, and did, easily dismiss Bourgeois' earlier work, which winds around the lower floors of the famed Guggie spiral. The small drawings and paintings recollect Miró and Klee, the totemic sculptures the African influences on Picasso and Brancusi, the general imagery the Dada and Surrealists. But all of it seems smaller, coarser, weaker. . . dare I say more womanish? Somewhere out there is a cute lesbian ready to beat me up for that (there were more than one at the opening), but I will stand by it anyway. Gender is professed to play a huge role in Bourgeois' work, so I get a free pass.

Onto gender, then. One of the few recurring images/tropes in Bourgeois' work is the nodule. Here is a good example of nodules in a piece that I found partially maybe somewhat appealing:

The appealing part, for me, comes from the juxtaposition of the raw wooden plinth with the soft sheen of the polished marble. Under well-placed lights, the crown of each nodule reflected with a kind of wet awareness (like an eyeball, or a clitoris, or a penis emerging from its foreskin. . . sorry! I warned you that we were going to talk about gender!) Aside from seemingly obvious sexual intimations, the piece (called Cumul I) offers room for more politically-inclined interpretation. One might see "groupthink" in a cluster of fretting heads, some hiding inside their ghostly garments (perhaps French Catholic nuns, perhaps Arabic women in hijab).

Even more appealing (and more surprising, since I did expect these semi-organic, disturbing growth-like sculptures, but didn't expect this) were, toward the top of the spiral, what I would call life-size Cornell boxes, intimate rooms structured with doors for walls, with frosted glass windows and keyholes for peeking inside to see rusty wire bed frames, clear glass jars, yellowed cotton undergarments waxy casts of held hands, and colored lamps. These nostalgically evoke the concept of "interior" (as in, the private space of women) in a more tender and subtle way than her other domestic work, like the caged and guillotined sculpture of her childhood home, or the installation called The Destruction of the Father, in which a room of life-size nodules gather round a pyre-like construction of skeleton-evoking bits and appear simultaneously to be approaching the memorial as dining table, all under hot red lights. I cannot find a good image of these intimate rooms, and so wish I had brought my camera.

As far as Bourgeois' ultra-famous spider is concerned, I am ambivalent. It neither disgusts me, nor frightens me, nor inspires me, nor challenges me. I might like it better if I were allowed to climb between its legs and look up at it from inside. The omnipresent arachnid is a symbol of the artist's mother, she says, who was a weaver of tapestries, and a force Bourgeois considers less than positive (as was, as evinced in her work, her father). And yet, I cannot see these spiders as evil as many viewers, no doubt, do. It is something just there. In its proportions, its machined construction, and repeated manifestations (there is one at the Tate, one on San Francisco's Embarcadero, one at the Louvre, one in Tokyo, one at the Smithsonian, one at one at the National Gallery of Canada, etc. etc. ad inf.) it threatens only on an Oldenberg scale—that is, as a joke, as "plop art," as a way to make a buck (or, in fact, a cool $3.2 million). She may be more bourgeois than most aficionados are willing to admit.

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