Time after time

As cerebral beings, we need, at certain points, to look back over the course of events and make sense of what has been. Certainly, the current era pricks this innate urge in us like no other time.

So — what does it mean to have survived the 20th century?

art@the end of the.century, now showing at the Asheville Art Museum, displays 26 pieces that seek to represent the final two decades of the last century. Visiting from the Milwaukee Art Museum, art@the end of the.century, above all, reflects the diversity of visual art made in the 1980s and ’90s.

From Haim Steinbach’s conceptual work questioning consumerism (a microcosm of a department store featuring trash cans, tea kettles and Halloween masks), to Philip Guston’s figurative “Table Top” (a kind of self-portrait without the self), to Jenny Holzer’s electronic “Selections from the Survival” series, the variety of creative approaches evident during this period is immediately — almost jarringly — apparent.

And even if the art itself doesn’t strike you, the sheer size of the pieces will. “You might not like the art, [but] you would certainly remember it. It is massive,” observes Jan King, the museum’s outreach coordinator.

In fact, according to museum staff, several of the exhibited pieces had to ride to the third floor on top of the elevator instead of inside it!

The richly realized show is “both paint-laden and emotion-laden,” King comments. Many works, such as David Salle’s mesmerizing “Within Sleep,” draw the viewer back numerous times.

“What’s interesting about art@the end of the.century,” notes Asheville Art Museum Director Pam Myers, “is that there is not one single face that can be put on the art that was being created at this moment in time. It is neo-expressionistic, conceptual, romantic, decorative — there is no one underlying aesthetic.”

But what ties these pieces together, Myers adds, is a common pattern of introspection. Myers adds, “Many of these artists are coming from within. Whether it’s Richter, who is looking at himself as a painter and exploring his own painterliness, or Arneson, who was sculpting after a cancer diagnosis, or Gonzalez-Torres, who is dealing with [the] AIDS crisis, they are each using their own skills to address very personal issues. They are looking to themselves and to their own voices.”

A very personal — and deceptively simple-looking — work is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled.” At first, you see just a stack of white paper, rendered beautiful in its stark use of space and surrounding light. Upon closer study, you discover that the words “Veterans Day Sale” are printed in tiny capital letters in the center of each of the hundreds of pages, showing Gonzalez-Torres’ interest in how consumerism turned a once-reverent celebration into a shopping holiday.

This minimalist piece is different in another way from the more-intricate ones that surround it: Nearby wall text asks viewers to take a piece of paper with them (rubber bands are available). In a museum atmosphere, where security guards are hired to make sure you don’t touch the art, much less cart it home with you, succumbing to this entreaty can be a bit unnerving. (Staff members report that, even though permission is stated in black and white, visitors continue to check with guards before heeding the artist’s request.)

“This is an act of the generosity of [the artist’s] spirit,” says Myers. “Simultaneously, Felix has created a beautiful sculpture and … has invited you to participate physically with his art. He meant for those pieces to be out in the world. He believed that art is for everyone, not just confined to the museum.”

The sheets of paper — replenished by whatever museum is sponsoring the exhibit — acquired additional meaning when Gonzalez-Torres began to link them to the AIDS epidemic, comparing the slowly dwindling stacks to the atrophying of AIDS victims’ bodies. (The artist himself died of the disease in 1996.)

“Contemporary art challenges you. It challenges you to look at your times and the art of your times,” says Russell Bowman, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum. “If it makes you uncomfortable, if it makes you think, then it’s working. The artist has succeeded.”

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