It’s strange to think that the three separate shows at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center belong to the same basic tradition. Strange, in fact, that they have anything to do with each other at all. On the face of it, they are light-years apart.
But they all take up an impulse — toward self-reflexive, critical thinking — that has powered many of the best things in recent art, even as it regularly threatens to close in on itself.
One, a show of sculptures called “Fluffing the Pillows,” is by the Iranian-born artist Nairy Baghramian. Baghramian has been based in Berlin since she was 13. Her show comprises three series of carefully arrayed works that echo forms you might see in an industrial shipyard: crane hooks, huge, colorfully striped cloth sacks, and so on.
In lieu of a catalog, Baghramian has produced a glossy boating magazine. Inside the catchy cover, a long and abstruse essay is padded out by fake advertising folderol. The whole exercise is highly self-conscious and, despite its gestures at playfulness, very hermetic.
Mute in itself, the work’s sole raison d’etre seems to be to act as a portal to critical theory. With the esoteric calculation and peripheral vision of a player deep into a chess game, it takes up classic academic preoccupations of the past 40 years: art’s relations to industry and to social systems of power; the implications of context (or what is called “institutional framing”); the status of the work of art itself.
Is an artwork, asks Baghramian, ultimately anything more than a commodity for the rich? Can it aspire to be more than a plaything of collectors, on a par with yachts and sports cars?
The questions are pertinent. But, to me, it suggests a lack of imagination when, having asked them, an artist’s answer is to let her work be displaced by an academic parlor game.
If Baghramian makes art that is so self-conscious that it has all but canceled itself out, what are we to make of the work of Alan Uglow, on show in the neighboring gallery?
Uglow was born in 1941 in Luton, England. In 1969, he moved to New York, where for several years in the ’80s, he played in a rock band called Hard Labour. He died in 2011. His exhibition, “Standards and Portraits,” is a series of vertically oriented paintings, all the same size (6 feet by 7), that rest on discrete wooden blocks on the floor.
What do they show?
They show themselves. They are not so much abstract as radically reduced to their own constituent parts. The logic is Greenbergian (that is to say, in line with the thinking of the late critic Clement Greenberg): Painting equals taut canvas covering wooden stretchers with paint applied.
If, in a more conventional painting, the canvas conceals the supporting stretcher (a dangerous sign of incipient illusionism!), Uglow was determined to draw attention to it. He painted colored lines, with fastidious precision, over the horizontal and vertical supports.
When you apply a certain kind of self-criticism, when you strip away the inessential, isn’t this what painting is?
Certainly, it was Uglow’s answer, and for all its apparent austerity, it is strangely compelling. These vast white canvases, contained and subdivided by their adamant lines, in purple, yellow, blue, red, and a metallic gray, achieve a strange luminosity.
This is partly the product of Uglow’s patient layering of dozens of layers of paint. But it is also a psychological phenomenon, a feeling produced both by the ruthlessness of their conception (think of all the other things a painting could be) and the almost voluptuous luminosity of the paint, which fluctuates, the longer you look, between warm hues and cool.
This series, which Uglow calls “Standards,” has a complementary series called “Portraits of a Standard.” Made to the same scale, these are photographic silk screens which show the “portraits” at an oblique angle to the picture plane. They’re like ghost images of the “standards,” and there’s an electrical charge between them.
Unlike Baghramian’s works, which give off a mist of fuzzy thinking that obscures the objects themselves, Uglow’s paintings tend to concentrate your attention on them. They spark plenty of thought, but it’s a meditative kind of thought. It’s not predetermined.
Nothing feels predetermined about the cinematic work of Gabriel Abrantes.
Three short films by Abrantes make up the third installment of the List’s current displays. Abrantes was born in the United States in 1984. He is already garlanded with awards for his unusually lush experimental filmmaking.
When you wander from the gallery showing Uglow’s art to the dark gallery showing Abrantes’s short films, the world comes flooding back in.
Locations shift from Luanda, in Angola, to Lazio in Italy, and Jacmel in Haiti; languages switch between Portuguese, French, English, Creole, and Attic Greek; genders bend; fictions burst forth from within fictions; appropriations of Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and Paul Simon abound.
Ravishing to look at, these three films, each 17 or 18 minutes long, are clearly fired by an inquisitive intelligence. As turned on by chase scenes and boy-meets-girl scenarios as by skepticism about entrenched cultural power, Abrantes is like a latter-day Jean-Luc Godard, but without the French angst.
He relishes dissonance — especially the dissonance produced by globalization and by vast disparities in education and opportunity — and makes great play with it. He turns his wry eye on Hollywood clichés, and on the West’s willful blindness about the lives of people in other parts of the world.
In “Liberdad,” which was co-directed by Benjamin Critty, he toys with a teenage romance between a Chinese girl and an impotent African boy. In “Ornithes,” he films an improvised production of Aristophanes’ play “The Birds” in a Haitian location that was devastated by the 2010 earthquake. And in “Fratelli,” co-directed by Alexandre Melo, he creates an amusing pastiche of the prologue to Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
In stark contrast to the purity of Uglow’s vision or the hermeticism of Baghramian’s, Abrantes’s films delight in impurity and contamination. And yet there’s no doubting that he, too, belongs to the same tradition of self-reflection and critical thinking that animates those others.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.