BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 11 NOV 96
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Issue 31

Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives

BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 11 NOV 96

The political face of the United States is becoming increasingly pockmarked with God-fearing politicians who claim to hold a Christian antiserum to the country's moral deficit in their pants pockets - the same pockets that hold their fat wallets. As the fin de siècle witnesses a moral and religious mind-shift to the conservative right, it is only logical that this non-secular phenomenon should infiltrate our cultural arenas. Succumbing to the apocalyptic frenzy of the burgeoning millennium, curator Richard Francis, eager to anoint the Museum's brand new Joseph Paul Kleihues building, could not resist fulfilling the ecclesiastic yearnings of a newly introspective, soul-searching public.

'Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives' features the works of eleven artists who have been, according to Francis, 'making art in their studios in much the same way that monks meditate in their cells'. Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys, James Lee Byars, Lucio Fontana, Shirazeh Houshiary, Anselm Kiefer, Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt and Bill Viola preside over this ecumenical service of spiritually-based art.

Laid out in a sanctimonious loop - the never ending symbol of infinity - the exhibition was gloriously anchored in the centre by a Byars princely golden orb. With the exception of Viola's video installation, each artist was housed in a clearly defined sanctuary of white museum space punctiliously linked by shrines of didactic artefacts. Running the gambit of cultural history, these included a Poussin painting, a Dürer engraving, Native American coil baskets, a first edition copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, a Rosette from India's Mughal Period, lecture notes on a shorthand pad and a John Cage gouache drawing.

A 19th century Tibetan mandala marks the juncture between Byars' cosmic sphere and Ad Reinhardt's monotone canvases. This circular symbol of the universe is both a formal and conceptual hinge used to contextualise the spiritual territory mapped out by Byars and Reinhardt. In addition, the mandala functions as a visual conduit embodying a shared abstract language. For the most part, however, these support objects only convolute the often exquisite bodies of work by the major players on display and read quite simply as an over indulgent curatorial act to politically correct the mostly white, mostly male list of artists.

The very carefully choreographed path-of-multi-denominational-enlightenment does, however, lead to first-rate examples of work that, even without the help of tutorial accessories, sets up vibrant and abundant dialogue. Moving from some of the finest examples of Reinhardt's Zen-entranced images to six perfect meditations on nature by Martin to Viola's video installation, Room for Saint John of the Cross, (1983), the exhibition demonstrates how these artists seem to relish a purity of form and ideology as crisp as the cold wind blowing through Viola's video of snow-covered mountains.

Another compelling string of works consists of six Newman vertical line paintings, a Nauman limestone and poetry installation bolstered by an imposing neon sign of flashing three-word commands. These works weave sturdy formal devices with Jewish mysticism, simple children's games and fate. Nauman's third piece is tucked between a room full of Fontana's enormous cast bronze pinch pots and Byars' globe. A literal linchpin for the entire show, Window or Wall Sign (1967) is a colourful, pulsing neon spiral-of-life that reads 'the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths'. By including Francis Bacon, the curator has pushed the limits of spirituality right up to the doors of hellish paganism. The instructional leader to Bacon's imagery, a 1532 drawing based on Michelangelo's The Rape of Ganymede, set the stage for his tumultuous homoerotic clashes and cruel acts of control.

Ultimately, 'Negotiating Rapture', with all of its heavy attempts at embracing religions from Buddhism to Judaism, Shamanism, Catholicism and Sufism, still comes off sounding like a sermon for a virtuous high-minded life. Attempting to renew the sacerdotal role of the artist is a perfect public relations move for the inaugural exhibition of the Midwest's foremost contemporary art venue. It looks intelligent, sports clustered bodies of outstanding work and offends no one. Which brings us back to those fat wallets.

Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator and professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is Director of the exhibition spaces The Suburban in Milwaukee, USA and the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, USA.