Pass The Art, Please

Visitors to the BMA's new exhibit were invited to eat, drink and take part in the art.

October 13, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley and Glenn McNatt | Mary Carole McCauley and Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

You could say that Work Ethic, the new exhibit at the Baltimore Musem of Art, is as much fun as watching paint dry.

Really.

After all, artist Roxy Paine's elegant gray steel scaffolding, in which three blocks dip periodically into a vat of thick white paint, undeniably is both beautiful and intriguing. Each successive layer forms a perfect horizon, while the dripping stalagmites and stalactites are reminiscent of a modernist cave.

But is it Art?

Work Ethic, which opened yesterday, is crammed full of pieces that openly and humorously pose this question. Some seem actively to beg a museumgoer to declare: "I could have done that myself!"

Over the weekend, artists were on hand to talk about or perform their works. Artist Erwin Wurm, for example, was there to demonstrate his work, One Minute Sculptures. In it, visitors are urged to step onto a platform, pick up props and follow his instructions on how to turn themselves into art. ("Hold the broom and think about Spinoza.")

In the museum's sculpture garden, Hugh Pocock drilled for water - to be used later in his artistic creation. And Allison Knowles made what may have been the world's largest salad.

In the galleries, there also were works created by artists not in attendance. One, called 1,000 Hours of Staring, consists of a blank piece of white paper that the artist, Tom Friedman, claims to have stared at for the specified amount of time between 1992 and 1997. Curator Helen Molesworth juxtaposes this work nicely with Robert Rauschenberg's White Painting, a square canvas painted to resemble a blank piece of paper.

Another piece - a notorious can, labeled Merda d'artista - contains, as might be expected, artist Piero Manzoni's daily output.

There even are pieces by artists on strike, although the work stoppage hasn't prevented museums from buying the pieces that the artists refused to create. In 1969, Robert Barry held a show in a New York gallery. Visitors must have puzzled at the sign taped on the front door that declared that the gallery would be closed for the duration of Barry's exhibit. That card, called Closed Gallery, is on display in Work Ethic.

The exhibit is arranged in four sections: the artist as the manager and worker who creates and completes a task; the artist as the manager who sets a task for others to complete; the artist as experience maker in which the audience completes the task; and quitting time, which asks whether it ever is truly possible to do nothing.

The artists represented inWork Ethic belong to a larger movement that began in the 1960s, when painters and sculptors began to blur the boundaries between art and life and to explore the transient and ephemeral. They also toyed with the notion of what constitutes artistic labor. Often, newer media, such as photography, video and live performance, were found to be particularly well-adapted for these experiments. Molesworth, the former curator of contemporary art at the BMA, who is now chief curator for the arts at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, thinks that art evolved in response to societal changes.

"After World War II, the daily experience of labor changed dramatically for most Americans," she said. "The old manufacturing skills no longer held sway. Instead, we became a service economy. We sit at computers and use cell phones, and order our food to go ready-made. We've changed. But we get confused when artists change, too."

Doubtless, some visitors will experience Work Ethic as an intellectual and aesthetic experience. Others will experience it as a kind of children's museum for adults, in which they can play with tennis balls, wear rosy-cheeked tattoos and hammer a nail into a wall, all of which are part of the art.

"The neat thing about this is that many times I've come to the museum and wanted to play with the exhibits, but I've never been able to," said 55-year-old Baltimorean Jim Hart. "Now I can."

Who knew that watching paint dry could be so much fun?

Industrial art

In the sculpture garden at the BMA, under a dark Saturday night sky, artist Hugh Pocock was drilling a well while an assistant knelt at his feet and panned water as though searching for gold.

And in a sense he was - artistic gold. Pocock, who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, describes his piece as a sculpture, a performance, an activity, an exploration. It was commissioned by the BMA.

Pocock planned to dig until he struck water. Then, he and his assistants would purify the fluid, bottle it and pour it into the museum's heating and air-conditioning system. As the drill thrummed and the earth moved, a small crowd watched, fascinated, across an expanse of lawn.

Pocock's point is that extracting water from the ground isn't so different from pulling out materials used in more conventional sculpture: clay for pots and marble for statues. But once the water evaporates and starts circulating through the museum, the only sign of his sculpture's presence will be streamers placed near some vents.

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