Saturday, September 29, 2007

More Sugar Coating, Please

I went to the opening of the Kirsten Hassenfeld Dans la Lune exhibition at the Rice University Art Gallery the other day. I think that much of the experience can be summed up by the following: I was standing around in the gallery, yakking with my friend Patrick Peters, who had his nine (ten? who can tell with these alien beings called offspring?) year old, Anna, and two year old Sophie in tow. Patrick pointed to one of the enormous white lanterns suspended in the space and said, "Look, Anna: everything here is made of paper."

Anna scrunched up her nose, looked very close at the piece and said, "That's not paper. It's styrofoam."

She was referring, of course, to the fome-cor from which the piece was constructed. Patrick and I said, "Good point."

A few minutes later, Anna said, "I think Sophie poo'd her pants."

Now, I saw one of Hassenfeld's pieces at the second Greater New Yorkshow at P.S. 1 a while back. It was this pretty, ornate thing, covered with curlicues and scrolls, and it looked much like a wedding cake suspended from the ceiling, and it was probably about 3' high and a foot and a half or so wide. The detail and the obvious amount of labor put into this project was certainly impressive, but it moved me not. Seeing other pieces of her work, constructed of paper, with diamond-like facets, all in frosty white, I would think, "OK. I think I get it. It's real girly, and I generally like that...but what's the fucking point?"

I guess with the other works I've seen, the labor itself is enough to hold a certain amount of interest. And it does play on all the girlish obsessions: wedding cakes, diamond engagement rings, syrupy sweet furnishings laden with ornate scrolls.

But I think the size really bugs me here. There doesn't seem to be any really good reason for it. And the feel of the installation mimicked, in some ways, the
Eminent Domain exhibition by the designer team White Webb that was recently shown at Rice Gallery. When things that ornate are tiny, they become precious. I am amazed by the intricacies of the miniature, by the craft. Whenever I go to the Art Institute of Chicago and visit the Thorne Miniature Collection, I'm transported. It's obvious that I'm not the only one--judging by the glass in front of each of the tiny, period-accurate rooms, a jillion snot-nosed kids have left their appreciative boogers and fingerprints as evidence of their fascination.

But it's my belief that you can't just blow something up--as Hassenfeld and White Webb have done (and I grant you that the White Webb installation was not designed for the same effect--it just has that Whoops! I just fell down the rabbit hole! thing going)--and expect the same magical effect. I think that the only way that an artist can maintain that level of awe on a large scale is to put the same amount of intricate detail that he or she would put into the laboriously crafted smaller pieces, and overwhelm the viewer. Tara Donovan's insane installations pull it off. And Stephen Hendee's work a few years back at the Rice Gallery, while constructed solely of tape and fome-cor, really created an experience. Dans La Lune doesn't do that. I'm thinking that if I go back at night and the lanterns are lit, the piece will convey what it doesn't in daylight.

But I'm uncomfortable with large scaled work that doesn't hold up upon close inspection. And I'm uncomfortable with large scaled works that seemingly have no reason for being that big. Of course, there's always that magical 'rabbit hole' effect, where we can swing our arms and skip and believe we're at a tea party with ribbons streaming from our starched linen frocks, but when we near the magic lanterns and discover that, indeed, they're only styrofoam, it seems the bubble has burst. And we're left standing with a toddler who's just messed her pants.