NORTH ADAMS — “Kissing Through a Curtain,” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, is the only art exhibition I can think of that was planned before the onset of the pandemic, installed during it, and will close — fingers crossed — after it’s been brought to heel this fall. That being the case, the prophylactic-sounding title wasn’t conceived with public health interests in mind, though it’s impossible now to think of it otherwise. That doesn’t dent the show’s intentions; it just expands them.
“Kissing Through a Curtain” is nominally about the deep disconnects of a fractured world. Social distancing and abrupt lockdowns didn’t create that disconnect — boy, didn’t they — but pandemic life has both amplified and made it more apparent than at any other time in my memory. At the heart of it all is the uneasy mixing of a pluralistic society that too often sees difference as a threat. “Kissing Through a Curtain,” at its best, feels like a “before” to our current, gruesome “after,” an incisive look at the foundations of our discontent.
The show is largely about what’s lost in translation, across divides in culture, language, politics, and history, and Justin Favela’s candy-colored tissue-paper landscapes put a bright shine on the dirty business of appropriation. Favela, who is Guatemalan-Mexican-American, makes his works from the same frilly material you find decorating the fragile hide of any piñata at a corner store. The works are achingly festive, and full of contradictions.
Favela plies the rift between folk and high art, painting and craft, with the canny edge of a master satirist. I don’t think I’m reaching to suggest he has in mind the imposition of a Western hierarchy of aesthetic value — painting being its apex — on Indigenous cultures in the Americas. Re-rendering Western ideas of “high” art in the material language of Native craft — throwaway to the point of literally being beaten to pieces — highlights the absurdity of the high-low schism. (Favela often remakes paintings by José Maria Velasco, credited with establishing Mexican landscape painting in the 19th century alongside its European forebears.) The works are engaging and alarming, and as sparkly-sweet as sinister could possibly be.
It’s a bold first act, provocative and clear-minded, that leaves a lot of Favela’s floormates looking less on theme and a little muddied. That’s the thing about “Kissing Through a Curtain”; it covers so much ground, even before working in the vast overlay of a world gripped in multiple crises, that some works feel off-key, tangential departures from its nominal path. The show is ambitious to the point of being disjointed and occasionally confusing. But it’s also engrossing, with an undeniable disquieting charm.
Divining a unifying thesis from distantly-related artistic intentions is what curators do, at least in part. “Kissing Through a Curtain” sometimes meanders down side roads before coming back up the on-ramp, but its detours are compelling enough to merit the divergence. You’ll be a sucker, if you’ll pardon the pun, for Kim Faler’s dangling, outsize bulbs of chewed-up chewing gum — she calls the work “Double Bubble” — that hang suspended in the triple-height space it shares with Favela’s work and a piece by Jimena Sarno. If not for the title, you might think you’re walking through a field of disembodied brains. But the palette — some fuchsia, chartreuse, or bronze; others dull gray or black — makes for a seductive scene. What this has to do with the fractures of cultural difference I have no idea. But it’s sure a lot of fun.
There’s such an array of material and technique here, it’s almost as though the show itself is a metaphor for the dissonance it means to address. Often, this works well enough: Jessica Vaughn’s grid of weathered seats from decommissioned Chicago Transit Authority trains resonates with race and class discord. It falls in line, formally, with classic Minimalism, but undercuts the movement’s social agnosticism with the tacit implication that public transit is a lifeline for the urban underclass, disproportionately in communities of color. It’s quietly chilling, plaintively bristling against a lopsided society and an art world that turned a blind eye.
A few steps around the corner, you find a similar end achieved by opposite means: Nasser Alzayani’s “Watering the distant, deserting the near,” from 2017, splays dozens of sandstone slabs on a blood-red tarp. Every one of them is shedding, grain by grain, an erosion of form and meaning both; the face of each tablet is embossed with Arabic script, dissolving before your eyes. A harsh strobe is the only light source, giving the entire space the uneasy aura of a crime scene, infusing inert objects with a bodily presence much like Vaughn’s piece, a slim wall and half-a-world away.
“Kissing Through a Curtain” runs the gamut: Sculpture, installation, painting, sound, video, and, in one notable work, taxidermy and animatronics. (Osman Khan’s mash-up “The sounds weigh in anticipation of their song, hum tum tanana nana, nana nana ray,” from 2020, sets its peacocks, tiger, and disco ball into funky motion at irregular intervals a few times a day.) But the show’s most significant tangent is also its best. Up a set of stairs to a cozy mezzanine, you find the work of Asli Çavuşoğlu, who is Turkish, in what amounts to a mini-survey embedded in “Kissing Through a Curtain’s” larger frame.
The entire show, in fact, feels built around her. From a turntable spinning Turkish hip-hop, a compulsive beat thrums. A pair of neon installations, flame-colored and seething, represent the artist’s attempt at a new alphabet, given this one’s obvious shortcomings at embodying shared meaning. A grid of text-based works pair up phrases that underscore how language itself can be bent where convenient: “Exploring for energy = Drilling for oil”; “Illegal Aliens = Undocumented Immigrants”; “Work=Labor.”
In the smallest of the spaces, old-fashioned newspaper sticks — the kind that bind sections with a wooden spline, for easier reading — dangle with a half-dozen broadsheets. Their pages hold rectilinear blocks of black ink, floating on yellowed newsprint, with not a word among them. They’re spare, ominous and darkly beautiful, even more so when you learn what they are. Çavuşoğlu calls the work “The Mourning Herald,” a graphic representation of violent tragedies as seen in her social media feed. It became common some years ago, as an act of collective digital mourning, for people to either blot out their profile photos or post black space where a picture might be. The effect, ultimately, obscures and abstracts reality — what social media does best. My deflating takeaway, in these bleakly disjointed times, is that’s as close to a common language as we’ve got.
KISSING THROUGH A CURTAIN
At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams. Through Oct. 31. www.massmoca.org, 413-664-4481
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.