Four artists have been selected as finalists in this year's James and Audrey Foster Prize, which aims to promote artists who live and work in Boston. The Prize is squeezed into the busy schedule at the Institute of Contemporary Art every two years or so (the last was held in the fall of 2010) and, this year, is squeezed into some pretty tight galleries, too. Could it be that the ICA is losing interest in this biennial obligation, which it discharges with an almost audible sigh?
Last time around, the organizers extended the show from four artists to nine — a promising development: The expansion found room for two photographers, two filmmakers, two painters, a sculptor, draughtswoman, and an installation artist. Pluralism produced poetry, of a kind.
This year we're back to four. Two of the quartet, Luther Price and Katarina Burin, have risen to the challenge of making cogent work that can hold its own in a more or less arbitrary field (although all four artists, in their different ways, deal with breakdown and decay).
The offerings of the other two, Sarah Bapst and Mark Cooper, have a desultory air. Was it Leonard Cohen who said, "Something forgets us perfectly"? These works suffer much the same fate.
Burin's work takes the most explaining, which is often its own kind of failure. But in this case, involved means involving.
Beguiled by the strange nostalgia enveloping the story of modernist architecture (its clubby, male atmosphere; its collapsed utopianism; the story of its displacement from Europe to America), she invites us to play into a little conceit.
Her fastidious display takes the form of a fake museum exhibit devoted to a female modernist architect called Petra Andrejova-Molnar. She was born in Zlin, in Moravian Czechoslovakia, and was active between the two world wars. She designed furniture and buildings, including the Hotel Nord-Sud (1932-1934) in Zadar.
What's more, she never existed.
But that hasn't stopped Burin, who was born in Slovakia and grew up in Canada and the United States, from acting as if she did. Instead of approaching the conceit in a spirit of sarcastic burlesque, as it might have warranted, Burin plays it all very straight.
The legacy of modernism's design luminaries — Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, Gyorgy Kepes, Josef Albers — surrounds us in New England, and Burin's own interest in modernist architecture is no passing fancy. She is a visiting lecturer at Harvard University's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, which occupies the only building in the United States erected by Le Corbusier. Earlier this year she was involved in organizing events to mark the 50th anniversary of the center.
Her project began when she designed stationery and a monogram for the fictional Andrejova-Molnar. She went on to confect archival photographs of Andrejova-Molnar's circle; drawings and three-dimensional models for a sanatorium, and furniture in an idiom that recalls Mondrian and de Stijl.
All of this is sensitively presented in an "international museum style" that feels as reassuring and comfortable as Le Corbusier's famous "machine for relaxing," his LC4 chaise longue. (Not accidentally, it's also hard to distinguish from a design showroom.) There is the obligatory enlarged photographic backdrop, the artful arrangement of furniture on elevated plinths, the casually inserted flower arrangement (not too cloyingly pretty; this is modernism, after all!); and the poker-faced wall labels.
A fascination with the modernist design legacy — its bullying polemics, its idealism, its pathos, its obstinate genius — has become a cliche in recent contemporary art. Even fictional "re"-creations of modernist structures or artworks have become commonplace (Italy's Luca Buvoli and Australia's Callum Morton have done particularly fine things in this vein).
But Burin's project was triggered by something unusually subtle and suggestive. "I once saw a photo of a room published by Adolf Loos that was captioned 'bedroom for my wife,' " she told ICA curator Helen Molesworth in an interview published in the exhibition brochure.
Just the thought of this photograph sparks wide-eyed speculation. Loos was the Austrian architect famous for equating ornament with crime. Was the bedroom he designed for both of them, or just for his wife? Was she allowed any kind of decoration, any expression of personal whim, or did Loos punish such weakness as a crime? Were wives, were women, ever really taken into account by modernism's great male heroes?
Burin's haunting exhibit, her elaborate "what if," is her own, whimsical response to such questions, and she has carried the whim through with impressive conviction. The Loos bedroom, she notes, "no longer exists, except in that photo."
There is a hushed sobriety to Burin's presentation, a contrast to Mark Cooper's loud and obstreperous "yu yu tangerine." Cooper's installation combines a wooden, vaguely biomorphic sculpture constructed with visible brackets and screws with wobbly painted ceramics and walls garlanded with blown-up color photographs and swishy arrangements of hanging muslin and rice paper.
Cooper's forms and shapes, inspired by recent travels in Asia, are improvised. They are combined according to memory and intuition. Informality is one of their most attractive characteristics; so is a certain arbitrariness in the spread of the whole and the inner grammar of its forms.
Here, however, the obvious risk in such an approach — that it degenerates into formless mess — is not quite avoided. Feeble as it may sound as criticism, it's best stated simply: The whole thing doesn't really come together.
Nor does Sarah Bapst's more modest display of cardboard and plywood re-creations of an abandoned air conditioning unit. Bapst takes the Duchampian idea of proclaiming as art a found object removed from its intended function, and extends it by attempting to re-create the object in a different medium.
A standard gambit in contemporary art, which is ever eager to extend Duchampian logic, Bapst's approach doesn't really go anywhere. Her partial objects — she sees them as "unfinished prototypes" — vaguely suggest an interest in functionalism's devolution (or evolution?) into pointless beauty. In that sense, her work is closely aligned with Burin's interest in early modernist design. But in the end, Bapst's objects, and the photographs of those objects she displays nearby, lack both beauty and charisma. They never escape the fumbling intricacies of Bapst's own hermetic concerns.
Luther Price, the best known of this year's finalists, is an experimental filmmaker who enjoys the process of seeing photographic imagery, both film footage and slides, degenerate into extravagant varieties of senseless beauty. He helps this process along, slicing, reassembling, painting on, deliberately spoiling, and in other ways interfering with the footage. But he always favors the efflorescence of chance over the discipline of artistic control.
Price's work appeared in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and in a recent show about abstract photography at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Here, he has set up a bank of slide projectors, each loaded with 80 slides, which throw ravishing color images onto the wall in syncopated rhythm.
Some of the slides are found, others were taken by Price. Most of them appear almost entirely abstract, having been subjected to Price's elaborate interventions.
He thinks of the slides as physical specimens subjected to an almost biological process of decay. Their beauty calls to mind the lavish colors and unsuspected patterns of things seen under a microscope. But the effect — of an arbitrary but poignant beauty, charged with its own transience — is so intense that it is finally beyond accounting.
And that is what makes Price's work not just interesting, or bold, or thoughtful, like the other three finalists, but a joy to behold.