Voices of disillusionment at the Hirshhorn Review: Despite having disparate views, artists share common need to reach out to their audience.

July 02, 1996|By John M. Biers | John M. Biers,STATES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- For centuries, Chaucer, Shakespeare and other western figures have brooded over "Distemper," a psychic and/or physical disorder that can fester in individuals, the natural environment or the body politic.

"Distemper: Dissonant Themes in the Art of the 1990s," which opened at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum in late June, updates this preoccupation, bringing us 10 views of alienation in the 1990s.

The show consists of 10 artists whose work shares a disillusionment with society in the '90s and its failure to realize the possibilities for life after the Cold War. Even after reforms in Russia, South Africa and the Middle East, there is still widespread poverty, terrorism and environmental degradation, as well as the continued spread of AIDS.

Curators Neal Benezra and Olga Viso have assembled a diverse set of artists -- three from the United States and one each from Argentina, Colombia, South Africa, Poland, Germany, England and Lebanon. Their works differ as widely in their vision as they do in formal style.

At one extreme is Mike Kelley of Los Angeles, whose paintings include depictions of Santa Claus, aliens and other characters -- from popular culture. At the other extreme is sculptor Mona Hatoum of Lebanon whose geometric "Entrails Carpet" is both stark and unsettling.

They are brought together because they broadly share "a kind of yearning -- a melancholy irony," in the words of Benezra, who says he wants people to leave the Hirshhorn with "a quite unnameable sense of desperation and discomfort."

While viewers may not react quite that dramatically to "Distemper," they are likely to find the show thoughtful and provocative. "Distemper" is not for those seeking frothy summer entertainment, but those who visit are likely to find a poignancy ,, in the art of distemper, really the art of loneliness and longing. They will also enjoy the sometimes unlikely themes suggested between artists from different cultures and styles.

The show's catalog outlines three major themes: the primacy of memory, the significance of beauty and the political nature of representing the personal.

The prominence of memory is evident in the two artists who open the show, who are among the most accessible in "Distemper."

For Thomas Schutte of Germany, the past is very much alive even though the Berlin Wall has come down.

It comes in the form of communist thugs who are memorialized in a series of mock-monument sculptures, an ironic opening given the Hirshhorn's location off the Washington Mall. They have no real power -- they are tied together and stare out blankly -- but they are the only people with enough status to get a monument. Kelley is also haunted by the past. He sees his work exploring repressed memory in order to understand "what may have caused his artistic behavior."

Kelley's works, a series of egg-shaped paintings, are recollections from childhood complete with ghoulish grim reapers and jack o'lanterns. They suggest the discomfort of one who is alternately proud and troubled by the distinctive way he sees the world.

The series also uses the language of commercialism and pop culture, a trait common to the other Americans in the show.

Another theme is the restoration of beauty, a trait curators say was dismissed by the art establishment of the 1980s. Beauty is most obvious in the works of Guillermo Kuitca of Argentina, whose geometric paintings of empty theaters and other lonely spaces appear in stunningly intense hues.

Beauty is also embodied through intimate representations of personal objects and surroundings of artists or their subjects.

It is linked to the other major theme: what the catalog calls its "reticent public voice." By representing the most personal aspects of life, artists in "Distemper" make the private political in an effort to connect with the viewer.

It is through this effort that "Distemper" realizes its strength: to represent at once the alienation of artists and their efforts to reach out. Throughout the show, we are aware of the isolation and solitude, partially because of significant empty space separating artists from each other and even individual works from each other.

But the artists do not give up. They keep trying to reach out to us. Doris Salcedo embodies this style. Salcedo's sculptures are memorials to victims who have been taken and killed by guerrillas, drug dealers and other terrorists within her native Colombia. The bare sculptures include disturbing, moving details the person no longer there but missed by family members -- human bones, lace and other materials embedded in the structures.

Salcedo has a dual intent: honoring her subjects and making her audience re-connect with a world besieged by violence. Her goal is common to most of the artists throughout "Distemper."

"All I want to do is bring some dignity back to the victims of violence," she said in an interview. "I hope all of us will understand and be less indifferent about what's going on. The same thing is happening all over the world."

10 artists

What: "Distemper: Dissonant Themes in the Art of the 1990s"

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence at Seventh Street S.W., Washington

Hours: Through Sept. 15; 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. and until 8 p.m. Thursdays through Aug. 29

Admission: free

$ Call: (202) 357-2700

Pub Date: 7/02/96

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