ArtWeekend

Do the Old Masters Still Speak to Us?

Now and then, I suspect that an honest art writer might feel as if he or she is losing it.

“Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection,” installation view; courtesy Charles Ray, Matthew Marks Gallery, and Hill Art Foundation, © Charles Ray; photo: Matthew Herrmann (all images courtesy Hill Art Foundation)

The fear (or hope) that contemporary art has lost touch with its older pre-modern traditions is an issue of great interest right now. We may like to hope that putting works from all periods under one roof in encyclopedic museums is an effective way to express the unity of visual art. The many exhibitions that juxtapose contemporary and older artworks are a response to these concerns.

But what if the images made by Cindy Sherman have too little to do with Caravaggio’s, or the sculptures of Eva Hesse have too weak a connection to Bernini’s, to justify such faith in the unity of the European tradition? What if, I am asking, our visual culture has changed so drastically that there is no longer any real ongoing tradition?

With the art market turned more-and-more towards absolutely contemporary works, and the recent modernist past seeming to recede ever more swiftly from living memory, doesn’t this desire to keep in touch with tradition begin to feel increasingly hopeless?

“Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection,” installation view; courtesy Charles Ray, Matthew Marks Gallery, and Hill Art Foundation, © Charles Ray; photo: Matthew Herrmann

The exhibition in Hill Art Foundation’s austere galleries on Tenth Avenue at the north end of Chelsea offers a challenging response to this situation. Setting Charles Ray’s figurative sculptures in dialogue with five Old Master works from the Hill Collection of Renaissance and Baroque bronzes, this dramatic confrontation-and-collaboration is sited on two floors of a Kunsthalle.

On the third floor is Three Christs, Sleep Mime and the Last Supper. Here you see two bronzes by Alessandro Algardi, “Corpus Christi” (1646) and “Christ at the Column” (1631); one by Antonio Susini, “Christo Morto” (1590-1615); Ray’s aluminum “Mime” (2014); and his “Mountain lion attacking dog” (2018), in sterling silver, set nearby Barthélemy Prieur’s “Lion devouring a doe” (before 1583).

Then up the stairs is Pagan Paradise, where there are two sculptures, Adriaen de Vries’s “Bacchic Man: Lomazzo Personifying the Accademia della Val di Blenio” (1578-80) and Ray’s “Golden jewelry” (not dated), representing a half-eaten crab apple, a tiny work originally made as a private gift for his wife, along with Ray’s drawing “Godflower” (2011).

“Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection,” installation view; courtesy Charles Ray, Matthew Marks Gallery, and Hill Art Foundation, © Charles Ray; photo: Matthew Herrmann

Mostly these older sculptures are small or medium-sized works and so, sparely installed as they are in these modernist galleries, they have a striking presence. On the top floor, you can look out through the enormous windows to see the High Line, an extension, perhaps, of a pagan paradise.

Ray’s announced goal is to put these older works in dialogue with his art, recognizing that they share concerns with “philosophical conditions of human existence,” along with, of course, specific formal qualities.

Here, then, to interpret his installation we need to consider very seriously the titles of the two floors. Of the Three Christs, the two by Algardi are still alive, but Susini’s is dead on the cross. Still, however close we get to these sculptures, Christ remains distant. As for Ray’s “Mime”: perhaps he mimes sleeping, or perhaps he is really sleeping. In the same way, Christ — another mime! — both dies on the cross as a man and as God’s son is eternally alive.

“Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection,” installation view; courtesy Charles Ray and Matthew Marks Gallery, © Charles Ray; photo: Charles Ray

Finally, presumably the two sculptures of lions attacking other helpless animals present an allegorical version of the Last Supper — could that be correct? Going, upstairs then, to the pagan paradise, we see a Bacchanalian figure, the half-eaten crab apple, and the ink-on-paper “Godflower,” a marvelously radiant image with yellow flower petals — Ray’s vision, I would guess, of sacred reality.

But what kind of relationships are we meant to glean between this higher pagan paradise and the sacred world below? That question remains unanswered.

Now and then, I suspect (but maybe this is my personal limitation), that an honest art writer might feel as if he or she is losing it. I freely confess that some interpretations of Marcel Duchamp’s “Large Glass” (1915–1923) perplex me; that many tantric Tibetian paintings baffle me; and that I don’t really understand Hilma af Klint’s much-praised theosophical paintings.

And so it’s maybe unsurprising that this exhibition also baffled me. The catalogue, which contains a marvelously short, gnomic essay by Ray from which I quoted, discusses theology, astrophysics, and science fiction. And there is an account of Philip K. Dick, which seems to have something to do with “Mime.” This essay isn’t available for distribution to the public, but you are permitted to read and photograph it. At one point Ray says: “Perhaps I ramble too much.” Yes, that is correct. And yet, his spacey text prompts serious reflection.

“Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection,” installation view; courtesy Charles Ray and Matthew Marks Gallery, © Charles Ray; photo: Charles Ray

Most exhibitions present a readymade critical perspective, supporting a viewpoint you already know, confirming your prior intuitions. But now and then an exhibition throws a curve, using significant works to offer up puzzling, even perplexing connections. And that is what’s happened here. I can see the aesthetic and sacred significance of these Old Master sculptures, and I do admire Ray’s works.

But when he says that his “Mountain lion” is made of silver “because of its cinematic reflectivity,” he loses me. Similarly, when he says that “Golden jewelry” usually sits in a closet safe as “a piece of jewelry in the mind of our marriage,” his explanation is more than a little elliptical: “If there was an Adam and Eve, I believe they had belly buttons.” But maybe this is a private erotic reference?

The goal of such a display, so it has often been said, is to create a whole that is something more than the sum of its mere parts — an ideal that is eternally enchanting. And the aim here, I surmise, is to demonstrate some hidden unity between Old Master sculpture and some contemporary artworks.

Judged by that standard, which sets the bar very high indeed, this baffling exhibition, which I may well have misunderstood entirely, is a great visual achievement even if the hidden unity remains well-hidden. To mis-paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, we would rather interpret wildly than not interpret at all.

Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection continues at the Hill Art Foundation (239 Tenth Avenue, Third Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 15.

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