Wednesday, March 5, 2008

International Center of Photography: "The Collections of Barbara Bloom."

Humorous and playful, Barbara Bloom’s retrospective at the International Center of photography combines the light irony of Bloom’s work with a lively commentary by the exhibition’s organizers. The exhibition is refreshing from different perspectives. First of all, as a woman’s retrospective, it is a welcome exhibit in contrast with the many shows that focus on male artists. Furthermore, Bloom’s multi-media installations contrast the International Center of Photography’s traditional focus on the media of photography and film. In addition, The Collections of Barbara Bloom well complements ICP’s downstairs exhibition, Archive Fever- Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, by bringing to the forefront the artist’s own “collection” as an archive, hence approaching questions regarding the relationship of history, documentation and art from the perspective of the artist herself.

Collections covers a wide range of work by the American artist, who was born in Los Angeles in 1951 and lives and works in New York. There are many three dimensional objects, such as the broken Japanese ceramics restored with golden lacquer, or the carpet fashioned to look like the cover of the first edition of Nabokov’s Lolita, or the special edition of a breil Playboy. The mid life retrospective also shows some of Bloom’s photography, hidden behind semi-transparent curtains, as well as some of her installation work. To different degrees, all of the pieces hint to Bloom’s provocative approach to art, her work demanding that the visitor engage with it critically and with a sense of humor. Take, for instance, the V. Nabokov Butterfly Box (Blues), in which mirrored bluish images of Nabokov and other figures relevant to Nabokov’s writing are pinned to a wooden box mimicking a collection of dead butterflies. Bloom’s work speaks directly to the spectator, raising issues about the nature of collecting and the role of an artist in the curatorial process.

Unfortunately, while the material on exhibit is provocative and exciting, the spatial organization of the retrospective is itself somewhat startling. Walking into the exhibit initially causes a sense of disorientation: where does the exhibition begin? Are we supposed to feel like we have entered another space, a world made of Bloom’s imaginative sculpture and installations? Are we in a gallery? Texts by the art pieces speak to us intimately and in a casual tone, like characters within the exhibition itself, explaining the different themes used to group Bloom’s work. Yet the space never feels intimate or completely dedicated to Bloom’s work. In part, this is due to the fact that most of the exhibition takes place on the path to the lower floor. As a result, the experience of the show is repeatedly interrupted by those who cross the floors to go down stairs.

On one hand, then, Bloom’s collection is not displayed so as to do justice to her sense of humor and provocative perspective on the role of the artist in society, the spatial organization of the exhibit itself creating a fragmented experience of her work. Much of Bloom’s work has an interactive, theatrical aspect to it, which is somewhat lost in the way her works are displayed along long and tall walls, too dispersive to let the pieces interact properly with each other. Compared to Bloom’s exhibitions in the past, for example when the artist had transformed a whole room into an installation itself, Collections feels more fragmentary and the objectification of the art as collection partially detracts from the experience of engaging with the works. On the other hand, however, one could argue that the display of Bloom’s work at ICP is itself an ironic comment on the way an artist’s collection is dissected and re-organized by an institution such as the museum, or in the context of an auction gallery in which the works are presented to be sold (the show, we are told in the catalogue, was inspired by the auction catalog estate of Jackie Onassis.) In any case, Bloom’s interventions on and contributions to contemporary art retain a lot of their energy and it is a pleasure to visit an exhibition that jokes, flirts, and plays with the spectator.

International Center of Photography
January 18 - May 4

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