UNSETTLING DETAIL Capellan's Mar Caribe (Caribbean Sea).
"Nature/Artifice" at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit Street, Providence, through February 2010) feels summery, but it's not like lite beach reading. I think it has to do with the one-room show's crisp, fresh feel and the platform full of flip-flops.
Tony Capellan's Mar Caribe (Caribbean Sea) (1996) aims to suggest the difficulty of life in his native Dominican Republic by collecting hundreds of sea blue and green flip-flops that washed up along the banks of the Ozama River in the Santo Domingo. He carefully arranges the foam sandals so they all face the same direction, suggesting fish scales or waves. Then it gives you a shiver when you notice that the toe straps have been replaced with barbed wire. You can feel it biting between your toes.
The show's title suggests a rumination on natural versus artificial, but mostly it's a broad name that allows RISD contemporary art curator Judith Tannenbaum to pull out a loosely linked grab bag of 13 works from the museum's collection, mostly recent acquisitions that have not been shown here before. There are some international stars (Damien Hirst, Joseph Beuys, Christian Marclay) and some local talent. With the RISD Museum scheduled to close during August to save money during our Not-So-Great Depression, perhaps now is the time to check out what you'll be missing.
Roger Hiorns, a finalist for this year's Turner Prize, an award for British artists that is administered by London's Tate, is represented by an untitled 2005 sculpture featuring thistles strapped here and there to steel rods leaning against the gallery wall. It's typical forgettable deadpan minimalism, except that he dipped the plants in copper sulfate, which crystallized and turned a ravishing, radiant ultramarine blue.
NEWPORT VIEW McNally's Kings Beach.
Damien Hirst offers Utopia (2008), a mandala of shimmering butterfly wings that continues the Brit bad boy's trademark exploration of death and beauty — though this iteration feels rote. British artist Richard Long arranges brown and gray stones in an ellipse on the gallery floor for his Mountainside Ellipse (1999). I suppose it aims to evoke the outskirts of Athens, Greece, where he collected the rocks. The sculpture appears in your peripheral vision as you look at the other art. It works nicely that way, but when I stop to focus on it, the strictness of its border feels uptight.
Locals include Sue McNally of Newport and Duane Slick, a RISD painting teacher who lives in North Providence. Slick's painting Oration at Dawn is part of his long, thoughtful exploration of white-on-white minimalism, personal identity, and his Native American roots. This painting features the artist's ghostly profile floating under spectral flowers. McNally's painting Kings Beach (2007) is a stylized view of the Newport shore: white waves crashing over brown rocks in a green sea under chunky concrete clouds. The clouds are great — like something out of Marsden Hartley — but the rest is saccharin.
Korean Yeondoo Jung videos living tableaus from his childhood. Watch as, say, workers in orange jumpsuits erect a hayfield set, then an actor appears as a reaper and freezes. It's an elaborate joke about the nature of memory. Swiss-American Christian Marclay's Cascade (1989) is a pile of old unspooled brown audio tape hanging from the ceiling in the corner of the gallery, like a comet or crazy wig. Which sounds more amusing than it is in real life.
I've hated British artist Julian Opie recent figural work, mostly static images or brief looped animations featuring the sort of stick figures seen on road signs. But his digital animation View of Matsuzaki Bay in the Rain from Route 137 (2007) is pretty cool. It's a blocky computer update on 19th-century Japanese prints, depicting autos gliding along a highway at the foot of mountains and the edge of a sea. A light flashes from a factory in the distance. Waves lap leisurely in the foreground. Opie's figural work is so simple that it becomes boringly simplistic, but here the simplicity feels right. It teases the line between dumb digital abbreviations and just-so Zen paring down. And the sound of the rain is the perfect calming touch. It's what those dinky desktop fountains are supposed to be.
Read Greg Cook's blog at gregcookland.com/journal.