Burin’s haunting exhibit, her elaborate “what if,” is her own, whimsical response to such questions, and she has carried the whim through with impressive conviction. The Loos bedroom, she notes, “no longer exists, except in that photo.”
There is a hushed sobriety to Burin’s presentation, a contrast to Mark Cooper’s loud and obstreperous “yu yu tangerine.” Cooper’s installation combines a wooden, vaguely biomorphic sculpture constructed with visible brackets and screws with wobbly painted ceramics and walls garlanded with blown-up color photographs and swishy arrangements of hanging muslin and rice paper.
Cooper’s forms and shapes, inspired by recent travels in Asia, are improvised. They are combined according to memory and intuition. Informality is one of their most attractive characteristics; so is a certain arbitrariness in the spread of the whole and the inner grammar of its forms.
Here, however, the obvious risk in such an approach — that it degenerates into formless mess — is not quite avoided. Feeble as it may sound as criticism, it’s best stated simply: The whole thing doesn’t really come together.
Nor does Sarah Bapst’s more modest display of cardboard and plywood re-creations of an abandoned air conditioning unit. Bapst takes the Duchampian idea of proclaiming as art a found object removed from its intended function, and extends it by attempting to re-create the object in a different medium.
A standard gambit in contemporary art, which is ever eager to extend Duchampian logic, Bapst’s approach doesn’t really go anywhere. Her partial objects — she sees them as “unfinished prototypes” — vaguely suggest an interest in functionalism’s devolution (or evolution?) into pointless beauty. In that sense, her work is closely aligned with Burin’s interest in early modernist design. But in the end, Bapst’s objects, and the photographs of those objects she displays nearby, lack both beauty and charisma. They never escape the fumbling intricacies of Bapst’s own hermetic concerns.
Luther Price, the best known of this year’s finalists, is an experimental filmmaker who enjoys the process of seeing photographic imagery, both film footage and slides, degenerate into extravagant varieties of senseless beauty. He helps this process along, slicing, reassembling, painting on, deliberately spoiling, and in other ways interfering with the footage. But he always favors the efflorescence of chance over the discipline of artistic control.
Price’s work appeared in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and in a recent show about abstract photography at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Here, he has set up a bank of slide projectors, each loaded with 80 slides, which throw ravishing color images onto the wall in syncopated rhythm.
Some of the slides are found, others were taken by Price. Most of them appear almost entirely abstract, having been subjected to Price’s elaborate interventions.
He thinks of the slides as physical specimens subjected to an almost biological process of decay. Their beauty calls to mind the lavish colors and unsuspected patterns of things seen under a microscope. But the effect — of an arbitrary but poignant beauty, charged with its own transience — is so intense that it is finally beyond accounting.
And that is what makes Price’s work not just interesting, or bold, or thoughtful, like the other three finalists, but a joy to behold.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.