It’s fair to say the Aspen Art Museum has construction on its mind.
The local institution’s two new exhibitions at its riverside home make intriguing use of building materials, with a playful nod toward its in-progress — and literally under construction — new downtown building.
The first level of the museum is hosting “Morgan Fisher: Conversations,” through Feb. 3.
Fisher, based in Los Angeles and best known for his deconstructionist films of the 1970s, has made six replicas of the security rooms that will monitor the goings-on in the new downtown museum and installed them in the existing museum’s atrium. The six booths stand in a circle, in accordance with the color wheel. They’re based on the architectural plans for the museum’s much-ballyhooed Shigeru Ban-designed future downtown home.
Visitors can go inside the booths, as a group of us did on a walk-through with Fisher and museum curators earlier this month.
“I was interested in going behind the scenes,” Fisher says, “and more interested in something behind the scenes that has so much to do with the operation of the museum.”
The public-private interplay of the piece deepens, Fisher explains, because the public will never see the security room in the new museum — but the security room’s primary job is to see the public. While in recent years Fisher has been working in paint, an installation like this one offers museum visitors a stimulating new way to think about the new Aspen Art Museum, by taking its least public space and putting it on display.
“I’m interested in how objects interact with the spaces they occupy,” Fisher explains.
Upstairs, the museum is hosting four Latin American artists who turn their talents toward the act of building and construction as well, as the gallery hosts “BLOCK, PILLAR, SLAB, BEAM.” It’s on display through Jan. 20.
It features provocative work by Jorge Méndez Blake of Mexico, Alexandre da Cunha of Brazil, Amalia Pica of Argentina, and Gabriel Sierra of Colombia.
It takes its title from a language game devised by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, wherein players can use only the words “block,” “pillar,” “slab,” and “beam.”
As adjunct curator Matthew Thompson explained, the museum was drawn to the tradition in Latin American art, of using the built environment, by re-purposing some raw construction material.
“What I feel is a sensibility, in working with the found object, that is characteristic of a lot of work from Latin America right now,” Thompson says. “This does not intend to be a complete picture, by any means, but more to give you a sense of it through a body of work.”
The exhibition is an immersive experience, as you enter the upper gallery. Sierra has covered the existing gallery floor with a slightly raised wooden platform, and painted it in a white matching the room’s walls. The rest of the pieces are encapsulated in this all white space, giving them — and you, the museum-goer — a floating feeling in this room of white.
The centerpieces of the room are two large pieces by Blake, which blend culture and construction with a few books and many, many bricks. “The Castle,” is a wall of red bricks, stacked uniformly but interrupted by a single paperback copy of Franz Kafka’s “The Castle” inserted at floor level at the wall’s center-point. It gives the wall a curious wave-like bump, hinting at the book’s subversive message on the horrors of bureaucracy.
His “Bartelby” does the same with copies of Herman Melville’s classic of civil disobedience, “Bartelby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” wedged between cube cinderblocks stacked on the far end of the room. The 1853 novella, you may recall, was a centerpiece of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street protests, where demonstrators read it allowed in Zuccotti Park.
The cultural baggage of such books, Blake says, is very much a part of his artistic vision. Because people know these books and their impact on society, how they’ve shaken things up and challenged conventional wisdom, the presence of these paperbacks among the bricks and blocks is made meaningful.
“You will never see me working with some strange text that nobody knows,” he says. “It’s always Shakespeare, Kafka, very well known writers.”
Adds Thompson: “It’s a way of teasing out the meanings in narrative, of the existing story, while not necessarily illustrating it.”
In the same room are two clever works by Amalia Pica. You might literally step over the 34-year-old Argentine’s “Stabile (with confetti).” She has affixed, into Sierra’s false floor, what appears to be confetti — looking, at first glance, like the party favor that will cover floors around town this week for New Year’s Eve celebrations.
“I love this idea of arresting a celebration in a moment,” says Thompson.
Steps away you’ll be challenged again by her “Eavesdropper.” The piece consists of a glass cup affixed to the wall. For several hours a day, an actor will perform there, listening in to what’s happening on the other side. On our walkthrough, it was a man in Wrangler jeans, widening his eyes slightly from time to time, pantomiming an eavesdropper’s delight. For those who know the Aspen Art Museum, the playful performance piece is all the more interesting because the museum offices are on the other side of that wall, presumably providing some juicy bits worth eavesdropping on.