Go to the Institute of Contemporary Art today and you see an institution caught on the cusp of full-fledged maturity, but still, on occasion, behaving with the hiccupping nerves of an adolescent. Until recently an isolated beacon of ambitious cultural thinking surrounded by forlorn parking lots, it is pegged in today by glass high rises and deep, ear-splitting excavations. Giant jackhammers were pounding rock right at its front door when I walked in on Wednesday.
Times are a-changing in the Seaport District. The long-planned development of the area was delayed by the 2008 financial meltdown, but recently has been racing ahead. And even if, so far, the surrounding architecture has been disappointingly bland, there’s no reason to think that the ICA won’t benefit in the long run.
Artistically, it has been a case of two steps forward, one step back over the past couple of years. Curators have come and gone — the most recent departure being the excellent Jenelle Porter. The shows have been good, then very good, then poor and so-so. A sense of drift alternates with gushes of great ambition and stellar execution.
Approaching the 10-year mark in its handsome waterfront building, will the ICA (which was founded in 1936 as the Boston Museum of Modern Art) step up to the next level? Will it galvanize both artists and the public, embarrassing older, slower museums with its fleetness of foot, its largeness of vision, its willingness to provoke, surprise, and seduce? Or will it continue to strike large slabs of its potential audience as fiddly and pinched, a place of pretension, predictability, and underwhelming exhibits?
As it gears up for what promises to be its most ambitious exhibition in years, “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957,” now is a good time to see both sides of the ICA — to get a sense of its strengths, and of what may still be stymieing its potential.
“All at Once,” the beautifully installed show of sculpture by Arlene Shechet, has one week left to run. Shechet’s ceramic works combine soul-stirring effusions of beauty with knock-kneed cack-handedness. Anatomically, I know, that last sounds improbable, but somehow Shechet pulls it off. Try not to miss it.
Yet at the same time, the ICA’s late summer/early fall exhibition program has been padded out with desultory displays. All are marred in different ways, but they reveal an institution that appears, for this brief period anyway, to be content to tread water.
In the entrance foyer, on a wall reserved for largescale murals that are changed every six months or so, Ethan Murrow, a resident of Jamaica Plain who teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, has drawn a massive image, from a high perspective, of an aircraft carrier chugging off into the distance. Sir Christopher Wren’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral has been superimposed on its deck.
The work’s rendering, in ink marker, is conventionally competent; the churn of the carrier’s great wake is especially dramatic. But the idea behind it is lame. The explanatory wall label may or may not do the piece justice — it’s very hard to say — but it is a classic of its kind, inducing a feeling in the brain like trying to suck a thick shake through a straw, and failing.
The same is true of the unbearably pretentious wall labels in the survey of work by Erin Shirreff, a New York-based Canadian. Shirreff is actually worth looking at. She makes great play with the overlap between the disembodied, iconic, image-ready character of modernist sculpture and the material presence, the physical thinginess, of photographs. If her work suffers from a tendency to give academic excruciations too much weight, there is nonetheless an intelligence in it, and a kind of patience attuned to the natural unfurling of aesthetic ideas.
That is not the case with Mona Hatoum, whose works can be found in a second, smaller show in an adjacent gallery. Hatoum, who was born in 1952 to a Palestinian family in Beirut, attended art school in London, where she found herself an exile from Lebanon’s long and devastating civil war.
She has long been a star of the international art circuit. Her works, which take many forms but are essentially three-dimensional gags, can be grasped readily, which makes them ideal for art fairs and biennials, where no one spends more than 30 seconds with any single work.
The Hatoum works at the ICA are all from the collection of Barbara Lee, the museum’s most important benefactor. One is called “Rubber Mat.” It’s a welcome mat made from transparent silicon molded in forms that evoke coiled intestines. A related work, “Pin Rug,” looks soft and inviting from a distance, but closer inspection reveals it to be made up of hundreds of thousands of pins pointing upward.
“Dormeuse” is a chaise longue made from industrial steel tread plate; its form is chic and feminine, its material unyielding. “Natura Morta (Edwardian vitrine)” is a display cabinet with objects made from Murano glass. These resemble both colored fruits and grenades, which, according to the wall label, are “small bombs designed to disperse lethal fragments on detonation.” (Thank you, helpful wall label.)
So you get the idea. Hatoum, who began her career as a performance artist, loads familiar items — kitchen utensils, domestic furniture, and (another favorite material) human hair — with varying degrees of strangeness and menace.
I have seen many stronger examples of Hatoum’s work. Yet the truth is, her manipulations rarely transcend the trap of each conceit. Her menace remains insulated in the intellectual part of the brain. You “get” each work, then move on to the next trick, which you imagine a hovering Hatoum presenting to her audience with the flaring eyes of a hammy magician with dark eyeliner and a billowing cape. Every 30 seconds or so, the Applause sign lights up.
Barbara Lee, who originally acquired these works, has a foundation focused on advancing female representation in politics. She is a big backer of Hillary Clinton. She is also an ambitious collector who over the years has altered her collecting to focus exclusively on women artists. Late last year, Lee gave the ICA 45 works by 28 women artists, valued at around $10 million.
Works from Lee’s collection, including Cornelia Parker’s popular “Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson),” have long been a fixture at the ICA. Quite a few can be found in the museum’s latest collection hang, “Transcending Material.” The display is bright enough — it includes Tara Donovan’s “Untitled (Pins),” a big cube made up of straight pins, and Kader Attia’s video “Oil and Sugar #2,” which shows motor oil being poured onto a stack of sugar cubes.
There are other works in the show by Glenn Ligon, Sara VanDerBeek, Rachel Harrison, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Tacita Dean, Mark Bradford, Christopher Wool, and Taylor Davis. They’re all good artists, although they’re rarely represented by their best works. (The Bradford and Wool paintings are feeble).
The real problem is, we have seen so many of these pieces before, if not in these precise combinations then in ones very like them. Are there not other collectors besides Lee and one or two others — or just as good, established artists — who might lend or give works to the ICA for these displays? Who is trying to make this happen? Why aren’t more people placing their faith in this institution?
With its upcoming “Black Mountain” show, organized by departed chief curator Helen Molesworth, the ICA may well have one of the blockbusters of the fall season on its hands. It already has a decade-long series of ambitious, compelling shows under its belt. But it needs to banish mediocrity and pretension from all of its displays if it is to reach the next level.
Through Nov. 29
ICA COLLECTION: Transcending Material Through July 17, 2016
At: Institute of Contemporary Art. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.