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ART REVIEW

Making ideas into art

At ICA, Kuri innovates with the improbable

Gabriel Kuri’s “Untitled (Diario económico / Economic diary)’’ from 2004. Gabriel Kuri’s “Untitled (Diario económico / Economic diary)’’ from 2004. (John Kinnard)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / February 13, 2011

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Two solo shows featuring conceptual art about consumerism, senseless accumulation, trash, and fruit stickers have opened in the Boston area in the past week. Both shows — Gabriel Kuri at the Institute of Contemporary Art and Rachel Perry Welty at the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum — have their good points. But where the Welty show, for all its sparkle, seemed formulaic, Kuri’s work veers toward the esoteric.

On balance, I liked the Kuri better. (The show was organized by the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston by that museum’s director, Claudia Schmuckli.) Kuri’s sensibility is more anarchic, less ingratiating, and his work, as a result, more surprising. Turning from one piece to the next, it’s impossible to guess what’s coming: It might be a moving conveyor belt with an empty aluminum can bobbling about at one end, a fiberglass reproduction of a magnified pork rind, the front page of a newspaper with fruit stickers on it, or a woven wool tapestry of a blown-up supermarket receipt.

And yet the show, titled “Gabriel Kuri: Nobody needs to know the price of your Saab,’’ still felt slight. I got the sense of a dilettante dabbling in weighty matters, with some appealingly light-fingered irony but, in the end, insufficient insight, a lack of palpable conviction.

Kuri was born in 1970, in Mexico City, and studied art there and in London, at Goldsmiths College — the same art school that earlier turned out such artists as Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Michael Landy, Gary Hume, and Sam Taylor-Wood.

But perhaps the biggest influence on Kuri has been Gabriel Orozco, Mexico’s best-known contemporary artist. Kuri is the third of Orozco’s disciples to have been given a solo show at the ICA in the past 18 months, after Damián Ortega and Dr. Lakra.

All three were participants in the so-called “Friday Workshops,’’ all-day gatherings to discuss ideas and drink beer that Orozco held at his home between 1987 and 1991. All show at the same Mexico City gallery, Kurimanzutto.

The ICA has made a deliberate decision to support and showcase these Mexican artists, and one can see why. They’re smart, inventive, and cosmopolitan. In the case of Ortega and Kuri, they breathe new life into the Duchampian tradition of the ready-made, lending it a social and political charge that feels admirably up-to-the-minute.

And yet, not unlike the work of Duchamp — and without the compensating benefit of his enigmatic originality — their works teeter on the edge of vacuity. Kuri, in particular, creates genuine excitement one minute only to create massive, eye-glazing indifference the next.

The first work in the show is the aforementioned conveyor belt with the rattling can, “Model for parade.’’ It’s a marvelously unlikely thing to find in a museum, and it is about as eloquent an expression of life’s emptiness and absurdity as you could hope to find.

The show’s earliest work, “Untitled (Doy fe / By my will),’’ made in 1998, is a convincing reproduction of a popular Mexican snack, the slice of pork rind, considerably enlarged, lit from above, and displayed in a glass vitrine. The words “doy fe,’’ meaning “by my will’’ or “I attest’’ have been inscribed on it.

The phrase is a commonplace piece of legal jargon, but here, it suggests at least two other meanings: It’s a bold declaration of artistic prerogative — the Duchampian “it’s art if I say it is.’’ And then also, it conjures the ghost of Francisco Goya, whose scathing depictions of war atrocities were labeled with captions such as “I saw it!’’ The artist bears witness.

The irony of using a piece of pro forma legalese — on an artificial pork rind, what’s more — to invoke such weighty resonances, but also to puncture them, is typical of Kuri (as it is of Ortega and Orozco).

A lot of Kuri’s work is mindful of the gap between the plight of ordinary people caught up in everyday commerce and the more abstract expressions of economic activity as conveyed by pie charts, graphs, and newspaper reports. One feels conscious of his sensitivity to these sorts of disparities, and impressed by his wish to draw them together again, without always feeling he has found effective ways to do so.

In “Untitled (Double yellow wrapped outside-in bin),’’ for instance, a three-dimensional painted steel pie chart has been split up into separate pieces and arranged in a way that vaguely calls to mind abstract modernist sculpture. The bubble wrap used to transport the work safely has been taken off and stuffed inside the segments as if they were bins.

In the catalog, you can find a long and laborious explanation for all this: The work, and others like it, writes Schmuckli, “conflate the consummation of desire and waste management into singular images that bespeak the ultimate vacuity of our attempt to keep count.’’ But to buy it, you have to cross over into the distorting mirror funhouse of contemporary art cant — and if you do that, you may never return.

Too much of Kuri’s work cries out for similarly unsatisfactory explanations. They can’t be called interpretations, because in effect, they precede the work of interpretation: Without them, your mind simply draws a blank.

“Untitled (Diario ecónomico / Economic diary)’’ is another case in point. Layers of moss grow over the separated pink pages of the Financial Times newspaper. The results look OK — like an avant-garde Spanish chef’s newfangled interpretation of lasagna — but the work struggles to articulate the idea behind it.

That said, the combination of apparent effortlessness and surprise can be charming, even poetic in many works here. I very much liked “Thank you clouds,’’ an installation of plastic shopping bags suspended from, and inflated by, spinning ceiling fans. The bags all have “gracias’’ and “thank you’’ printed on them by the supermarket chain that commissioned them. The result is witty, wry, unexpected, light.

“Hard fact slab’’ is another terrific work. Rows of steel rods of different lengths have been draped with colored ribbons so that they resemble the ups and downs of a graph illustrating economic performance, but also, perhaps, a mountain range. The rods emerge from a concrete slab — a hard fact, indeed, suggestive of a construction project — but the ribbons feel artificial, unreal, abstract.

They’re not, of course. They are a tangible substance like anything else — you can tell from the way they droop under the force of gravity. And this seems to be part of Kuri’s point: Instead of dividing up the world into separate categories and levels of abstraction, he thinks of them as all bleeding into one another. A stock market graph is impossible to separate from a new building project or from a household item or a moment of poetry — or even, presumably, an art exhibition.

His point is well taken. But only some of the time does it stop feeling like a “point’’ — an earnest proposition about the world — and become instead a work of art.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com

GABRIEL KURI: Nobody needs to know the price of your Saab

At: the Institute of Contemporary Art. Through July 4. 617-478-3100. www.icaboston.org