Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Repositories of memory

Fine Arts

Nao Bustamante, Kevlar Fighting Costumes (set of 5) (2015). Protective Kevlar wearable fighting costume. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dale Griner
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Memory is an exceptionally poignant concept for the Jews. Given their history, the passing on of their ideas and philosophy, their heritage and life experience has been essential to ensuring survival and an "I'm still here" stand against those who would see them obliterated. That's the context, though not necessarily the content, of From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art, a new exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

The diverse works by the show's 24 artists don't reflect their own memories, but instead draw on the collective imagination, popular culture, overheard recollections, haunting echoes of the Holocaust, civil rights struggles (Hank Willis Thomas' wooden pillory has a microphone planted in front of where one's unfortunate head would be) and even the secret lives of superheroes. One of the pitfalls of group exhibitions is that they're rarely cohesive and often uneven. While the premise of this one is quite broad, the work, with a couple of exceptions, is impressive. Exile, separation, the loss of homeland or loved ones and war are approached, albeit indirectly, with whimsy, mournfulness and ingenuity or a combination thereof.

Add a wink to those descriptive nouns and you have British artist Ellen Harvey's prescient pre-Presidential-primary installation "Alien Souvenir Stand" (2013), a large, complex, almost cartoonish lampoon of the nation's capital and democracy after the fall. Washington, DC's wounded institutional edifices – the White House, Supreme Court, etc. – have been left barely standing amidst rubble, damaged pillars and columns like latter-day Parthenons. Abe Lincoln, seated majestically in his marble chair at his memorial, is missing a leg, and the human race has apparently been wiped out by an unnamed disaster. In Harvey's fanciful origin story, the neo-classical ruins – an architectural style favored by Fascists and Stalinists – have become theme-park attractions that lure visiting aliens who prefer "swimming and flirting" to world domination. They've built a booth (a repurposed hot dog stand) hawking postcards and pamphlets that cater to extraterrestrial tourists. The clayboard aluminum structure is comprised of 350 oil and watercolor illustrations that are bleak and gray because the aliens are color-blind. Right, of course they would be.

Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished 1930s opus, which was to include a never-shot sequence about the soldiers of the Mexican revolution, inspired Nao Bustamante's "Kevlar Fighting Costumes" (2015). Her quintet of stiff, sunny yellow dresses may look like dowdy uniforms worn by big-boned matrons at an antediluvian mental institution, but the artist has armed these garments with protection, after the fact, for the soldaderas who went into battle with none. 

Moved by a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp, particularly the sight of the belongings left behind by inmates, Lisa Kokin created "Inventory" (1997), a powerful testimonial to those who perished into night and fog. The materials she scavenged from thrift shops and flea markets – lone buttons, keys, watch faces, a broken pair of spectacles, zipper fragments, a bra-hook closure – are congealed in hog gut squares, like fossils in amber, and lined up in rows from floor to ceiling on two walls at right angles to one another.

Ever wonder what good deeds Superman is up to when not starring in blockbusters or fighting for truth, justice and the American way? Mike Kelley's "Kandor 17" (2007), a pleasurable dip into fantasy, fills in some of the blanks with a terrific futuristic depiction of Superman's birthplace, Kandor, on his home planet of Krypton, whose imminent destruction, according to comic book legend, prompted baby Superman's evacuation to earth. Instead of being annihilated, however, Kandor was shrunk and bottled by a villain in a city eventually liberated by our heroic Man of Steel. He protected the mini-metropolis and its miniature denizens for 25 years under a bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, where he simultaneously sustained their lives and his connection to his lost past. Exhibited in its own sacred space, and bolstered by tanks of atmosphere, the colony of craggy icicles is preserved in an oversized snow globe, and infused with pink light generated by the purple panel behind it.

Bernice Eisenstein has been on a life-long hunt for things that are hidden, found and stored out of sight. "Genizot" (2014), an installation which mines the transience and repositories of memory, includes a table dotted with precious objets such as collaged and folded books, a dragonfly, a roll of twine and her father's tie clip. A series of pen-and-ink or gouache-and-charcoal portraits, all of which have text written on them, hang in an alcove behind the display. "A Conversation," a portrait of the artist's mother who suffered from dementia, is paired with "River of Forgetfulness," a portrait of Alois Alzheimer, the doctor for whom the disease that robbed her mother of her memory is named. Marcel Proust, whose seven-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past earned him admission to Eisenstein's gallery, is shown as a glum young boy, a bow tied around his neck in the European fashion of the day. 958 of his words from the longest sentence he ever wrote – with some lines written upside-down – are inscribed on the background.

Writing text on images requires words that add depth, perhaps irony, and relate to the image without competing with it or being too literal; it's a thorny proposition Eisenstein pulls off with elan. David "Chim" Seymour, co-founder of Magnum Photo, whom she calls "the eye of compassion," has his possessions at the time of his death listed to his left. But, in a flight of imagination that pierces the heart and sums up this complicated show, she carefully prints the following line from John Updike on his jacket: "What is the past, after all," he laments, "but a vast sheet of darkness, in which a few moments, picked apparently at random, shine?"


Through April 2 at CJM/SF.


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