21 May 2014

Isa Genzken Retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

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My little feet on a floor installation outside of the exhibition

Last night I visited the Isa Genzken Retrospective which recently opened at the MCA Chicago. It was free night, the show was so new I could still smell the paint and plaster, a smell I fondly reminisce about and miss frequently since my departure from the Art Institute. I walked into the show knowing nothing about Genzken, and impulse joined a group tour with a docent. We were greeted by her most recent works, a grouping of mannequins dressed in a variety of outfits to create an "environment" near the entrance of the exhibition space. But upon entering the show-proper, we stepped back in time, confronted with Genzken's early works - minimal, abstract geometries, a single readymade, photography, and video installation.

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This self portrait contains two photos of Leonardo DiCaprio
as well as a photo of Andy Warhol. I approve.

Even early on, Genzken was working in a diverse manner. The curators and art historians describe Genzken as "post-medium" in that she works outside of the constraints of a single medium, opting in favor of sculpture, assemblage, film, photography, collage, and painting. But what I took away from the exhibition was that outside of being post-medium, Genzken is an an artist with two distinctive movements, pre-9/11 and post-9/11. The early works are clearly influenced by the minimalists who predate her, and her desire to breakout of that preexisting artistic practice. She experiments with form, color, and abstraction, always with a punchiness and sense of humor to her manner of work. She moves from clean mathematically precise woodwork, to bare bones concrete sculptures that feel both jiltingly cool and oddly disarming. Her work draws the viewer in, through familiar materials, eye-level installations, the use of windows, and quirky feelers that break the "fourth wall" bringing the viewer into the space of the work.

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Pages from her New York scrapbook, images of her being a laid back, goofy, woman who loves New York.

As she moves through the 1990's, Genzken changes locale, falling in love with New York City. Her love for the city makes itself apparent in her architectural sculptures which seem to capture the color, fast-paced, exotic, thrilling danger of living in the city. Many of the works from this period are assemblages full of color and humor, not as painstakingly focused on clean mathematical construction, but rather on capturing the feeling of being in the city.

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Post-9/11 work

But then the horrific events of 9/11 occurred and we see a shift in Genzken's work. The city she loved and called home was under attack, and in response, Genzken's works evokes a darker more violent persona. Splashes of red pop from grays and silver, recalling the layer of ash that rained down on the Financial District when the Twin Towers collapsed. The carnage and destruction was ever present in the mind of the New Yorker, and so it was ever present in Genzken's work. Anxiety, violence, destruction, and war all make themselves apparent in her post-9/11 work. The isolation of being a person in this dark new world is a theme that repeats itself through the final rooms of the exhibition, leaving the viewer with a haunting self-awareness that is so different from the color and whimsy we are greeted with upon entering the exhibition.

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NASA astronauts survey the remains of abandoned
suitcases in this jilting environmental installation.

It is difficult not to walk out of this exhibition with 9/11 on the brain. With the opening of the 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero this past week, I've found myself engrossed in the various press, critiquing the opening of a museum upon an active burial site. Criticisms of the steep admission price ($24), or of the museum having a gift shop in which one can purchase 9/11 museum "souvenirs" amid a city of people who are still very carefully picking up the pieces from a tragic, confusing, destructive day. Genzken's response to 9/11 still feels fresh and raw, but she finds moments of color and lightness through the tragedy as she sorts through her own experiences from that day, and the days that followed. Her work, in that is it post-9/11 work created by a non-American lends a new approach and different view of a day in history that will forever stain our memories. 9/11 belongs to the world, our world, and she won't let us forget it.

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