Jewel Thief' bristles with dichotomies

Posted by Hugh O'Kelly

When asked to propose an idea for a new exhibition, Jessica Stockholder decided to tell a story. Based on her colorful tale of the same name, "The Jewel Thief," a collaborative show currently on view at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, bristles with dichotomies and visual contradictions.

Sharp divisions between organic and geometric forms, color and black-and-white and ideas about how we view art dominate the room. Surprisingly, for an exhibit dedicated solely to abstract art, many of the show's messages read as effortlessly as a piece of children's literature.

"The Jewel Thief" concerns itself more with the holistic staging of art than with simply displaying them — an atypical, but ultimately successful curatorial decision. The show as a whole is one large masterpiece; individual art objects are merely components of a greater picture, spilling out past the confines of a single room.

Conceptually unique, this show mixes a variety of media and showcases works by artists from Cary Smith to Andy Warhol. Works range from highly textured — incorporating broken porcelain, rough fibers, jagged foils, and dripping encaustic — to flat and minimalistic. Sculpture — including macramé lighting units and amorphous rubber and Styrofoam statues — is juxtaposed with painting, industrial design pieces, carpeting and even text art.

The exhibit showcases ready-mades alongside woven textiles, and unpainted plywood boards next to noisy abstract expressionist painting. Really, the only thing that's missing is the kitchen sink.

And true-to-life pieces. "The Jewel Thief" is an exclusively abstract exhibition, with the exception of a series of moderately naturalistic diamond sculptures, placed high atop an oversized block in the center of the gallery.

Yes, it sounds chaotic, even rampageous. But "The Jewel Thief" is really a harmonious spectacle. Through abstraction comes order; a series of ascending blocks sits center stage in the gallery's main room, which visually directs the eye of the gallery-goer from one end of the exhibit to the other. Acting like a staircase fit for a giant, the cubes also follow the abnormal architecture of the Tang. Stockholder and Berry have used the physicality of the museum to their advantage. And it is these subtleties that make the show a success.

But perhaps the most successful aspect of "The Jewel Thief" is the role of the curators. Ian Berry, the associate director of curatorial affairs at the Tang, and Stockholder, a practicing artist, make a fierce combination. Their collaborative efforts have produced a show that blurs the line between conventional exhibit and installation art.

On top of co-designing the show, Stockholder has produced a rather massive piece of interactive sculpture — composed of unfinished plywood and recycled playground equipment — fittingly titled "The Jewel Thief." The rest of the show looks like an extension of Stockholder's installation; paintings and lighting fixtures almost branch off of Stockholder's geometric play set.

Displaying painting as a sculptural component sounds like risky business, but Berry and Stockholder make it work in "The Jewel Thief" without compromising the integrity of individual pieces.

There are also no placards on the walls of the gallery, which is an ingenious curatorial decision. The absence of nameplates adds to the idea of individual art objects working in conjunction to create one large installation. Labels would call attention to individual pieces and artists — some better known than others—and detract from the holistic nature of the exhibition.

But this absence also speaks to another theme of the show: how we encounter art. A name next to a work of art automatically inspires assumptions and evaluative decisions. "This is a Warhol. It is good art."

Really, we have no basis for this assumption. By removing names from the show, Berry and Stockholder solve this problem of subconscious— or even conscious —evaluation that almost every gallery-goer surely has.

"The Jewel Thief" also explores how we interact with art in a more blatant way. Directly outside of the main gallery, viewers can sit on stadium bleachers and gaze directly at a small set of paintings. The contrast between the experience in the main room and in the bleachers is stark.

Sitting on cold and rickety metal seats and staring aimlessly at abstract paintings is torturous. Yet reentering the main gallery afterward is like seeing the sun after a rainstorm.

A wonderful tension throughout the show speaks to the idea of looking but not touching. Because pieces aren't labeled or displayed like highly valuable artifacts, nothing looks off limits. In fact, some of the pieces are meant to be touched — namely Stockholder's installation, which patrons can freely climb on.

But other pieces, like Elena Herzog's Romancing the Rock, a massive cube covered in thread, paint and staples, are off limits. Of course, the Tang is a gallery. It's common knowledge that most things should be left alone, even if there isn't a visible sign barking at us to "keep our hands off." But let's face it, there's a hell of a lot of glitter in this show. And children and birds are not the only creatures attracted by shiny things.

The decadence of "The Jewel Thief" leaves viewers feeling like magpies. But we should leave the exhibition not feeling taunted by the glimmering objects, but with a different perspective on how to look at art.

"The Jewel Thief" will be on display through Feb. 2011.

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