Four artists have been selected as finalists in this year’s James and Audrey Foster Prize, which aims to promote artists who live and work in Boston. The Prize is squeezed into the busy schedule at the Institute of Contemporary Art every two years or so (the last was held in the fall of 2010) and, this year, is squeezed into some pretty tight galleries, too. Could it be that the ICA is losing interest in this biennial obligation, which it discharges with an almost audible sigh?
Last time around, the organizers extended the show from four artists to nine — a promising development: The expansion found room for two photographers, two filmmakers, two painters, a sculptor, draughtswoman, and an installation artist. Pluralism produced poetry, of a kind.
This year we’re back to four. Two of the quartet, Luther Price and Katarina Burin, have risen to the challenge of making cogent work that can hold its own in a more or less arbitrary field (although all four artists, in their different ways, deal with breakdown and decay).
The offerings of the other two, Sarah Bapst and Mark Cooper, have a desultory air. Was it Leonard Cohen who said, “Something forgets us perfectly”? These works suffer much the same fate.
Burin’s work takes the most explaining, which is often its own kind of failure. But in this case, involved means involving.
Beguiled by the strange nostalgia enveloping the story of modernist architecture (its clubby, male atmosphere; its collapsed utopianism; the story of its displacement from Europe to America), she invites us to play into a little conceit.
Her fastidious display takes the form of a fake museum exhibit devoted to a female modernist architect called Petra Andrejova-Molnar. She was born in Zlin, in Moravian Czechoslovakia, and was active between the two world wars. She designed furniture and buildings, including the Hotel Nord-Sud (1932-1934) in Zadar.
What’s more, she never existed.
But that hasn’t stopped Burin, who was born in Slovakia and grew up in Canada and the United States, from acting as if she did. Instead of approaching the conceit in a spirit of sarcastic burlesque, as it might have warranted, Burin plays it all very straight.
The legacy of modernism’s design luminaries — Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, Gyorgy Kepes, Josef Albers — surrounds us in New England, and Burin’s own interest in modernist architecture is no passing fancy. She is a visiting lecturer at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, which occupies the only building in the United States erected by Le Corbusier. Earlier this year she was involved in organizing events to mark the 50th anniversary of the center.
Her project began when she designed stationery and a monogram for the fictional Andrejova-Molnar. She went on to confect archival photographs of Andrejova-Molnar’s circle; drawings and three-dimensional models for a sanatorium, and furniture in an idiom that recalls Mondrian and de Stijl.
All of this is sensitively presented in an “international museum style” that feels as reassuring and comfortable as Le Corbusier’s famous “machine for relaxing,” his LC4 chaise longue. (Not accidentally, it’s also hard to distinguish from a design showroom.) There is the obligatory enlarged photographic backdrop, the artful arrangement of furniture on elevated plinths, the casually inserted flower arrangement (not too cloyingly pretty; this is modernism, after all!); and the poker-faced wall labels.
A fascination with the modernist design legacy — its bullying polemics, its idealism, its pathos, its obstinate genius — has become a cliche in recent contemporary art. Even fictional “re”-creations of modernist structures or artworks have become commonplace (Italy’s Luca Buvoli and Australia’s Callum Morton have done particularly fine things in this vein).
But Burin’s project was triggered by something unusually subtle and suggestive. “I once saw a photo of a room published by Adolf Loos that was captioned ‘bedroom for my wife,’ ” she told ICA curator Helen Molesworth in an interview published in the exhibition brochure.
Just the thought of this photograph sparks wide-eyed speculation. Loos was the Austrian architect famous for equating ornament with crime. Was the bedroom he designed for both of them, or just for his wife? Was she allowed any kind of decoration, any expression of personal whim, or did Loos punish such weakness as a crime? Were wives, were women, ever really taken into account by modernism’s great male heroes?Continued...