"Art" is a malleable word that, in its broadest sense, encompasses just about everything. Almost anything can be declared art. For example, the Internet has been abuzz of late over a story that first emerged in 2008, about a Costa Rican artist who tied up a starving dog in an art gallery, placed a bowl of food just out of the dog's reach, and let the animal slowly die.
There is considerable doubt about the actual treatment of the dog in question (some say the dog was well fed, and other reports suggest that the poor fellow escaped after the first day), but there is no doubt about the taste and judgment of the artist: the whole idea is repulsive. Even so, there are those who defend this heinous stunt as art, regardless of the dog's treatment, because it provocatively calls into question our empathy for animals over, say, millions of starving children all over the world. You're supposed to feel bad for the dog, but shame on you for caring so much about this dog when there are so many other, more important things to care about. Or so this line of reasoning goes.
Keep this episode in mind when you visit the Walker Art Center's latest exhibit, The Spectacular of Vernacular . There, among other things, you will be asked to decide if video of a woman enthusiastically massaging her exposed breasts is really art. The video, called "Balkan Erotic Epic: Exterior Part 1 (B)," is the brainchild of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic. What makes it art, allegedly, is that the woman is dressed like a peasant and is said to be re-enacting certain folksy Balkan fertility rituals, in which the women in a village would try to entice god into giving them a baby, or making it rain, or letting their tomatoes grow nice and ripe. Admittedly, Abramovic's video is significantly more pleasing to look at than a starving dog, but in both cases the definition of art must be expanded pretty much to infinity in order to admit them into a museum.
Right about now I can hear the folks at the Walker objecting profusely to my three previous paragraphs, if only because the show includes no starving animals, and the breast-massaging video is a trifle compared to the other, more important pieces in the show. So shame on me for focusing on the most lurid aspect of the exhibit, just like everyone else who visits the Walker will do in the next few months. Rest assured, however, that Spectacular of Vernacular includes much more substantive work. Curated from the Walker's permanent collection by head visual arts curator Darsie Alexander, the show expands the term "vernacular" from a synonym for naïve art to a concept that includes homespun crafts, knitted blankets, and various twists on the idea of tradition, home, comfort, and consumerism.
Aesthetic juxtapositions are a favorite theme. As you walk in, the first thing you'll see is Marc Swanson's Untitled (Looking Back Buck) , in which a deer head, the traditional hunter's trophy, is covered in shiny sequins and turning back toward the wall, as if it is shy or ashamed of being thought of as a beautiful prize. On a nearby wall is a large painting (at least it looks like a painting), by Matthew Day Jackson, of a building with a roof surrounded by all sorts of psychedelic shapes and swirls. During the media walk-through, Ms. Alexander asked if anyone could identify the famous photograph that served as the basis for the piece. When no one could, she informed us, "It's the Jonestown Massacre." She then invited us to look more closely at the work to see that it wasn't done in paint at all, but in bits of colored yarn meticulously shaped and glued into a kind of bizarre tapestry. According to Alexander, Jackson's intent was to use a material symbolic of the comfort of home to represent an image seared into our memories as a scene of unimaginable horror.
Likewise, there is a giant quilt-like construction, by Mike Kelley, made of teddy bears, afghans, various fuzzy toys and other symbols of domestic coziness—all sewn together into a giant, entirely unusable monstrosity of a quilt. It's called, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid , a title that calls attention to all the people hours invested in making the stuff in the quilt, presumably out of love and affection for whoever got to unwrap them on Christmas morning. Kelley's piece is accompanied by a sculpture made entirely of drippy, half-used candles, a traditional source of romance, comfort, and tranquility.
Other standout pieces include a series of carved wooden sculptures, by Minnesota artist Aaron Spangler, that look for all the world like they were forged out of steel—and a huge, extraordinary painting by Lari Pittman called A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation #30 (top), which somehow crushes an entire world full of advertising come-ons and blaring enticements to spend into a single, action-packed canvas that, in the finest American tradition, appears to be sponsored by both Visa and Mastercard. There's nothing vernacular about the craftsmanship of this painting (even if you look at it from six inches away, the precision is exquisite), but the tongue-in-cheek approach to its subject matter is refreshingly humorous.
There's plenty of other artistic cud to chew on in The Spectacular of Vernacular , and the show succeeds, I think, because the reference points for much of the art are so familiar. Taken together, the exhibit is a thoughtful meditation on ideas of home, love, comfort, tradition, simplicity, and rustic, uncomplicated pleasure. It will not outrage you (unless you have an aversion to plump, artistically massaged breasts), but it might make you think twice the next time you pick up a ball of yarn and a crochet hook. No, I'm not making a potholder, you might think—I'm making something that could hang on the wall of the Walker in a hundred years or so, when the definition of art expands enough to include just about everything I do.
The Spectacular of Vernacular continues at the Walker Art Center through May 8, walkerart.org.