“Shelf Life,” the title of the Claes Oldenburg show at the Museum of Fine Arts, slyly takes in the still life genre and sell-by dates, all in one gulp, with a single series of works.
The 89-year-old Pop artist’s new project, up through Dec. 2, consists of 15 arrangements on shelves, each made up of studio scraps and pieces of old maquettes that reference earlier pieces.
The towering public art pieces, goofy monuments to the everyday Oldenburg designed (often with his wife and creative partner Coosje van Bruggen, who died in 2009), include enormous matches, lipsticks, shuttlecocks, and bowling pins. “Shelf Life” shuffles through familiar motifs — pie a la mode, anyone? — making fun and provocative juxtapositions and playing, in a cartoony way, with scale.
Crocheted squares resembling buttered toast surround a maple leaf on a stick; a florid red and yellow banana peel shares the stage with a tiny birdhouse, a rotted apple core, and a bitty Giacometti-like sculpture. The comic and frankly mysterious assortments crack open new associations and odd meanings. The banana-peel grouping struck me as a whimsical deflation of modernism’s hyper-masculinity — call it post-phallic.
Curators Liz Munsell and Ronni Baer (of contemporary art and European paintings, respectively) give Oldenburg’s shelves supporting players, a handful of weighty 17th-century Dutch still life paintings.
They share more than simply format. Like Oldenburg, Pieter Claesz recycled objects (a thick-stemmed goblet, a bread roll) in several works. Balthasar van Der Ast and Cornelis Gijsbrechts’s paintings decry life’s brevity and the inevitability of death. Gijsbrecht’s “Vanitas Still Life” depicts a skull and a guttering candle.
Oldenburg’s works are neither so grim nor so moralistic. Still, they make it clear where he stands on life’s path.
In social science circles, life review — revisiting the meaningful moments of one’s life — is a developmental stage of old age. Oldenburg hasn’t fixed any of the components to their shelves. He can actually pick up these memories and turn them over in his hands.
Gijsbrecht’s painting also features a nifty bit of trompe l’oeil: The canvas appears to tear away from its stretcher. We thought life was brief and art was long, but perhaps not even art lasts.
It harmonizes across the centuries with an Oldenburg shelf outfitted with a frayed blue canvas kite and a wire insect with canvas wings hovering drunkenly over a canvas rock. It’s dorky and wildly imperfect, and it resonates with themes of age and decay, the outer limits of painting, and, as ever, playfulness — which remains, even as Oldenburg approaches 90.
Maybe you’ve already seen work by Lorraine O’Grady this summer. Her splashy costume for the performance piece “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire” is in “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-1985” at the Institute of Contemporary Art through Sept. 30. Now she has a penetrating solo exhibition, “Family Gained,” also at the MFA, through Dec. 2.
It, too, spotlights one series, O’Grady’s “Miscegenated Family Album” (1980/1994) and includes documentation of the performance the work sprang from. In it, she pairs her own family photos with images of carvings of ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti and her family.
O’Grady, now 84, grew up straddling cultures, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants in Boston. In American soil, her family tree may have felt rootless.
In her 20s, after the death of her older sister, Devonia, she traveled to Egypt, and for the first time found herself surrounded by people who looked like her. She met folks who were the product of many cultures. Her title explicitly celebrates that intermingling: “Miscegenation” was coined around the time of the Civil War as a way to codify and ban interracial marriage. O’Grady leaches the poison from the word, and imbues it with pride.
This series — the first professional artwork she made, as she struggled with her sister’s death — starts with paired portraits that look like kin: Devonia and Nefertiti, both fine-boned with broad foreheads and sharp chins, or Devonia’s daughter Kimberley and Nefertiti’s daughter Maketaten, both young and in partial profile. It opens up into moments of ceremony or intimacy. In one, Devonia nuzzles an infant and so does Nefertiti, carved in stone.
Claiming Nefertiti, O’Grady uncovered a mythic ancestor and a hidden taproot. This photo album flushes her family tree with royal sap, and makes it feel broad, deep, and alive.
Destruction and constancy
Delia Gonzalez, who has a small solo show at the MIT List Visual Arts Center through Sept. 30, likewise turns to ancient civilization in search of meaning — specifically the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, in the year 79.
A neon sign reading “The Last Days of Pompeii” glows in pink cursive on the wall as electronic music pulses. It’s a dance beat, but in this context it also feels ominous — this final party may be a countdown for oblivious revelers, who, given the contemporary groove, may well be us. Gonzalez composed the music, and she and musician Bryce Hackford will appear in concert at the List on Sept. 4 (listart.mit.edu/events-programs/public-program-musical-performance-delia-gonzalez-and-bryce-hackford).
“The Last Days of Pompeii” is the title of a 19th-century Russian painting, an English novel inspired by the painting, several film adaptations of the novel, and more. Despite the apocalyptic tenor of Gonzalez’s piece, it also celebrates the tenacity of culture and its reinvention.
She fills a second gallery with extraordinary drawings, mostly in graphite, of marble surfaces formatted in circles ringed with gold leaf. Veined and shadowed in white on black or black on white, they resemble the moon. Marble suggests antiquity, and the moon an abiding constancy, even behind shrouds of ash or clouds. Civilizations may come and go, but the moon remains, and stone, and shards of what once was.
CLAES OLDENBURG: SHELF LIFE
LORRAINE O’GRADY: FAMILY GAINED
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Dec. 2. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
LIST PROJECTS: DELIA GONZALEZ
At MIT List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames St., Cambridge, through Sept. 30. 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.