Eyes blink, stare, cast down, or turn away, compelling us to return or avert our own gaze, but always to engage, to respond. The human face and form animates many of the works presented in this inaugural exhibition at 21c Museum, from Thomas Weisskopf’s lush, frontal portraits of Thai transvestites and transsexuals, to Gottfried Helnwein’s luminous painting of a child in military dress, to Yinka Shonibare’s recreation of Oscar Wilde’s 19th-century morality tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray, with the artist in the leading role of depraved Victorian dandy. Jemima Stehli offers us her back as she undresses for various critics, dealers, and curators in her Strip series, making the men’s gaze as much a subject of her work as her own body. The Atlas-like figure in Sam Taylor-Wood’s Don’t Touch Me (Front and Back) is presented for our admiration despite the demand for distance in the title, and his identity and thoughts remain inscrutable, as do the sources of haggard despondency in Slater Bradley’s staged portrait of a Kurt Cobain look-alike. The lead masks of the faces of Anders Krisar and his mother hover within inches of each other, but their magnetic forces repel one another, enacting the eternal push and pull of parental/filial relations, and illustrating the struggle for an identity separate from one’s mother, in whom there was once “two as one.”
In this era of media saturation, is it fame that we seek as we play roles, don costumes, and look into our own and others’ reflections for affirmation and understanding? Simon Moretti’s nostalgic neon sculpture addresses this question with provocative playfulness, as Tony Oursler’s disembodied, frog-like talking heads amuse, admonish, and interrogate their audience. By allowing viewers to walk on the recreated gold floor of an elaborate but uninhabited residence in his native Moldova, Pavel Braila invites us to participate in his excavation of the mythology of wealth and power nurtured Looking Now by the Roma community of Soroca. Braila’s “Barons’ Hill” project demonstrates how the Roma builders of such exquisite but impractical creations resist discrimination and poverty in favor of the dreams they pursue through architecture.
While luminous, lyrical, and at times mesmerizing, art at 21c confronts us with the realities that lie behind and between our fantasies of who we are and of the world in which we live. Lest we deny the increasing dominance of the global human population, and the effects of this growth on other species and on the environment, the Italian artists’ collective, Cracking Art Group, has deployed oversized red penguins into our midst, reminding viewers that other species, other bodies, other forms, share our space. In fact, a raccoon controls the elaborate chandelier hanging from on high in Johnston Foster’s Reason Belongs in the Wilderness. The surreal presence of a raccoon in a “civilized” space—one where a gold chandelier is displayed—suggests that our world is becoming at the very least, more absurd. As humans encroach further and further on nature, those who inhabit the wild may adapt to our domestic realms in the most unexpected ways.
The natural world is indeed transforming. Jennifer Steinkamp’s Dervish dances and twirls and progresses through the seasons with graceful speed, a virtual, anthropomorphic tree projected onto a computer-generated stage, a parallel reality now easily accessible to today’s viewers.
As we gaze, and are gazed upon, Xavier Vielhan’s Eye appears, fades away, and reappears, its bulbs noticeably warming the surrounding space. This multi-media sculpture, like many of the works presented at 21c, appeals to all of our senses, engaging sight, sound, and touch in art’s continuing investigation into what it means to live in the here and now.