Sacha Baumann is an artist and designer living and working in Los Angeles.

Anxiety, choice, and the unknown: Oracle at The Broad

Anxiety, choice, and the unknown: Oracle at The Broad

Note: I was asked to write a 1000-1100 word review of a recent exhibition. I chose Oracle, currently on view at The Broad. 

My talented co-workers are having a relaxing moment before the busy day begins in front of SP272 (1) and SP272 (2), 2014 by Sterling Ruby. In the thumbnail, I'm goofing in front of Jenny Holzer's Thorax, 2008. 

The Broad’s multipartite show Oracle takes over the Los Angeles museum’s first floor galleries with a group exhibition featuring over 20 artists from it’s privately held collection. Oracle, which opened on April 29 and is on view through September 3, grapples with the anxieties of globalization on both a monumental and individual scale. The over 30 contemporary artworks on view seem very much of the moment, as the world feels increasing small and yet endlessly complex. Many of the artists explore the opaque, unknowable systems that shape society, while others depict more private moments of equal unease.

Amongst the artists on display are Albert Oehlen, Jeff Wall, Julie Mehretu, Tauba Auerbach, El Anatsui, Diana Thater, Kara Walker, and Jenny Holzer, whose 2008 sculpture Thorax greets visitors with its pink glow and rapidly moving text at the exhibition’s entrance. As its title suggestions, the work resembles a body of sorts, with semicircular columns protruding from a corner like an orderly ribcage. The glowing pink edges and flashing LED text simultaneously lull and excite visitors and upon closer examination, horrify. The words include passages from previously unreleased official governmental documents from the Iraq war, focusing primarily on interviews with soldiers about the the death of a civilian driver in Baghdad. Many words remain redacted, which Holzer displays as menacingly flashing “XXXXXX.” Despite the violent details of the Iraqi’s death, the conflicting recounting of the incident renders the facts of the event elusive.

The word “oracle” suggests authority, the knowledge of a wise person dispelling advice or prophecy, but it also refers to a sacred place where truth is sought. Many of the works in the exhibition straddle both meanings. Los Angeles based artist Sterling Ruby’s monumentally sized diptych SP272 (1) and SP272 (2), appears as a hazy, apocalyptic sunrise (or sunset) with a sickly, greenish glow, and distinct horizon lines in a smoky, grim sky. Created in 2014 by spraying hundreds of cans of paint on to the canvas, the work also recalls the graffiti and subsequent buffing (often done sloppily and in mismatched tones) by authorities around Los Angeles. Both SP272’s are true to the exhibition’s title as depicting both a hallowed locale and a soothsayer.

Opposite Ruby’s massive works in the exhibition’s center gallery is a series from 2007 by Thomas Ruff: JPEG NY105, JPEG BB03, and JPEG BD01. Like Ruby, the Ruff works seems to be both prognosticator and divine place. Each depicts grossly enlarged, low resolution, pixelated images which museum goers have likely seen innumerable times in the media: the crumbling skeleton of the World Trade Center after the terrorist acts of September 11, the rising form of the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, and the bombing of Baghdad at the beginning of Operation Freedom in Iraq. Despite their familiarity, the images escape cliche. Ruff culls the internet for JPEG images and then using Photoshop, renders them to the lowest quality and prints them on a grand scale, emphasizing their pixelation. The resulting works have a sense of eerie freshness that bring renewed emotion. Ruff seems to suggest that society has become immune to the horrors of terrorism, war, and globalization. The places depicted in his pixels act as a sort of warning to keep looking, lest history repeat itself.

An adjoining room is filled with more large scale photography, including two works by Ruff’s contemporary (and fellow student of the influential German conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, founders of the Dusseldorf School) Andreas Gursky. Both Ruff and Gursky use a technique of mounting their images directly onto acrylic. The results enhance the immersiveness of the works, by eliminating the barrier between viewer and image in traditional behind-glass framing. The technique is highly effective in Gursky’s Amazon. Made last year, the photograph shows row upon row of merchandise in a distribution center for the ubiquitous online retailer. A closer, analytical look reveals that Gursky has eliminated any sign of workers, as well as the aisles between the rows of seemingly endless products. The thousands of pieces of merchandise appear to be arranged in a chaotic, haphazard manner quite the opposite of how one may think of Amazon’s algorithmic operations. Looming above the rows of goods are the warehouse’s I-beams with the slogans: “work hard” and “have fun,” emblazoned with imperialistic effect. Unlike Ruff’s pixelated works, Gursky’s images are razor sharp. Everything is in focus, rendering no visual hierarchy in the image whatsoever and adding to the sense of unease for the viewer. Instinctively something's not right here, with the two point perspective of traditional photography completely eliminated.

As in Amazon, figuration appears with less frequency in Oracle as a whole, which seems to favor abstraction. Conveying meaning via undefinable mark making can be a tremendous challenge, which three artists pull off on a grand scale in a gallery featuring Julie Mehretu, Mark Bradford, and Terry Winters. Mehretu’s 12 foot by 24 foot canvas canvas Cairo, 2013 is a view of Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. The canvas is layered with finely rendered architectural drawings and precise strips of bold color, finished with freeform brushes of sumi ink, which depict movement, of both of people and ideas, as well as wind and sand.

Opposite Cairo are two densely collaged works by Bradford, which put his technique of layering paper and then excavating into the surface to great effect. Across 110th Street, 2008 is an abstraction of a city map or topography. Much of the work is covered in black paint, but he leaves behind recognizable elements: an Absolut vodka advertisement, superheroes from comics, and clippings from newspapers. Like Cairo, the work suggest chaos, but emerging order and the “power of many,” creed of city dwellers. At either end of the room are two densely layered Winters paintings. Each has a sense of scientific or natural order that is either just out of reach or which has been recently obliterated. Closer looks at the “holes” in the patterns reveal many layers of mark making, suggesting a past life of the painting. All three artists suggest sociological, archaeological, and geographic systems in their abstraction.

Holzer’s Thorax shares the entrance/exit of Oracle with a curtained doorway to Shirin Neshat’s two channel audio and black and white video installation Rapture. The placement is problematic in that the curators (the museum’s Director Joanne Hyler and associate curators Ed Schad and Sarah Loyer) place the two works next to one another with seemingly no context other than they both depict the Arab world and in turn, Islam. The concerns of Neshat are of individual freedoms, repression, and the rights of women as seen through her eyes as an exiled Iranian. Two screens face one another in a literal and metaphorical divide: one shows men gathering, amongst architecture, and the opposite with women working and moving amongst nature. The film ends with the strenuous efforts of the women launching a small boat into a vast sea, holding a only few of the group. Their fate is unknown, as is the meaning of the waving gestures of the the men standing at the top of fortress on the opposite screen.

Like so many of the works in Oracle, Neshat expertly renders her vision, offering that uncertainty is all that is certain, but individuals and groups create change. Indeed the oracles of Oracle are the artworks themselves, which offer cautionary visions of the current sociopolitical state of affairs, as well as suggestions for what the future may hold. The viewer is encouraged to pay heed to their messages to ensure outcomes of their own free will. The scenario recalls the Greek mythological character Oedipus whose actions, inspired by an oracle, lead to him unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother. It was not a case of fatalism, rather Oedipus’ choices fulfilled the prophecy. The works in Oracle suggest there are no predetermined outcomes, but avoiding their forecast is ill advised.

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