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Art Review

Getting real in a stirring show at Mass MoCA

Wangechi Mutu’s “Mwotaji the Dreamer” Kaelan Burkett, Courtesy of the artist

NORTH ADAMS — “Suffering From Realness” is the title of the bleak and stirring exhibition of mostly new art at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, but I think it’s got it backward. Suffering? Sure. Look around. If there’s been a moment more polarized, more violent, more dark and dangerous in the past 50 years, I know I haven’t seen it.

But realness? Just the opposite. In the black fog of misinformation billowing daily from the dark corners of the Internet, reality is exactly the thing we’re missing. With the growing threat of “deepfake” videos — AI-generated content putting words in the mouths of politicians, or anyone, that they never actually said — just in time for the 2020 presidential election campaign, things are about to get even less real, and quickly.


Curator Denise Markonish surely has it right when she says, in the exhibition notes, that “realness in the 21st century is increasingly complicated.” That’s too kind a word, for all the reasons I just mentioned. If art has a function in turbulent times, and I believe it does, it’s to refract those complications into parsable units. Let’s not be so naive as to call the result “truth.” One of the things we need to value about art is its bare-faced presentation of perspective, not fact (a lesson that Fox News might do well to learn, with much of its schedule one grim piece of performance art after another).

Robert Longo, “Untitled (St. Louis Rams / Hands Up)” and “Untitled (Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue Removal: Memphis” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Kaelan Burkett, Courtesy of the artist

When we land on Robert Longo’s massive, shadowy works — there are four; at 5 feet by 10 feet they’re powerful, cinematic in scale, and epic in scope — it’s fair to expect some subversion at play. Longo doesn’t disappoint. Every image radiates tension, with their photorealistic capture of fraught moments: the St. Louis Rams entering the stadium with their hands up, echoing the Ferguson, Mo., protests following the killing of Michael Brown; spotlights burning through a dark haze of late-night fog in Memphis as cranes lean toward a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, preparing to sneak away the effigy of the monumentalized Ku Klux Klan founder in the dead of night.


These are news events, heavily photographed, and Longo’s versions appear to be blown-up versions of the same. They’re not: The slow burn of realization that these huge images are meticulous charcoal drawings that mimic photography with alarming perfection, to me, is itself the art of the work. Longo, with painstaking labor, is saying images — even popular images, widespread images, news images — are constructed, built for purpose. He takes personal ownership of those public pictures to a physical extreme.

Titus Kaphar, “Seeing Through Time 2.” Christopher Gardner

Longo’s sharp-minded fusion of form and content — all art should aim so high — sets the bar here. Not everyone meets it. But those that do achieve mastery. Titus Kaphar, a recent MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, is surely one of them. With two powerful, hauntingly gorgeous paintings from his “Seeing Through Time,” series, Kaphar re-creates historical European paintings that depict African slaves and their owners, and then cuts the white figure away. With that gesture, he reveals a view past to present of the legacy of bondage.

The show is wise to make a mini-survey of Kaphar’s work, including two of his sculptural pieces as well. One, George Washington astride a horse, is burned in profile into a wooden surface, glass vessels tumbling to the floor. Another, fashioned into a bust of Washington, sits on a pillow carved from marble; its innards are wet with condensation from the mix of tamarind, rum, lime, and molasses pooled inside.


It’s one more way Kaphar makes the hard-lacquered shell of history — the victor’s tale, full of strategic omissions — transparent, a view through to a more complete truth. Washington, quintessential to the American myth, owned slaves, trading the material wealth of his newly founded nation for human chattel. Whatever stain Kaphar leaves on the long held ideal, it only makes it more true. He calls it “A Pillow for Fragile Fictions,” made from stone; myths, he seems to be saying, are meant to be broken.

There’s a lovely formal echo here from Kaphar through to Wangechi Mutu, the Kenyan-born artist whose rough and visceral work has transformed notions of African art on this side of the Atlantic over the past decade. Let’s connect the dots: from “Pillow” to Mutu’s “Mwotaji the Dreamer,” a golden bust, eyes shut, on its own marble bed. Asleep, or dead? The title, optimistically, suggests the former, though it’s easy enough to think otherwise. The figure’s pained expression suggests nothing restful, her topknots wound tight like horns.

Mutu’s reference to Constantin Brancusi seems clear: His “Sleeping Muse,” from 1910, was a sleek, near-featureless brass bust in near-identical repose. The shift in texture and precision speaks volumes. Brancusi, in his high-Modern way, reduced his form to a secular version of spiritual purity; Mutu reloads it with the specificity of context and history that “primitivism”-inspired Modernists like Brancusi had blithely wiped away. For Brancusi, peace was easy enough to achieve, from his privileged perch; for Mutu, just the opposite. The strain on her figure’s face looks nothing like rest to me.


Works like these convey an elegant urgency, a poetic sense of alarm. Others here don’t have the same presence or economy of means, and sometimes feel overly explicit. They pale alongside Longo, Kaphar, and Mutu. That’s the danger with the spirit of inclusion: It often ends up diluting its potential with too wide an invitation.

Shaken by Mutu’s work, I found Jennifer Karady’s staged photographs of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to be flat, pale versions of the work Jeff Wall did for years. Keith Sklar’s many pieces, installed mercilessly close to a towering iron sculpture by Joseph Beuys — it looks like a bolt of flayed flesh, cast in iron and enlarged to some 20 feet high — felt slapdash and uncared for. That’s surely his point — an installation of his, “The Hoard,” is a mound of cast-off junk wedged behind drywall, strategically infused with images of canonical pieces of European art — but it feels both too obvious and underthought.

Adriana Corral and Vincent Valdez team up for “Requiem,” 2016-19, which mostly works. Corral gathered dates of personal significance from 243 Americans (the Republic’s age this year) and burned them into the wall, creating an unofficial and unobserved catalog of American history. Valdez then took the ashes and used them to create the black patina for the outsize eagle lying crumpled on the gallery floor. It’s dramatic, but isn’t this a bit much? These are dark times. We get it. But one-note works like this convey only the darkness, and that’s no help.


In her notes, Markonish quotes James Baldwin, the great African-American writer-philosopher, who labored for a broader and more complex view of the American story right up to his death in 1985. “American history is longer, larger, more various, beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” The story is far from over. Let’s keep talking.


At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, through January 2020. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte