Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Lee Boroson: Plastic Fantastic at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art

I was mightily amused; I was surprised, intrigued, and felt my spirits lift when I saw a very, very big show by the installation artist Lee Boroson earlier this month at MassMOCA—the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. I love shows like his, sprawling, multi-faceted, full of experimental energy and gumption. MassMOCA is almost unbelievably immense, and Boroson makes reasonable use of vast industrial spaces in the museum's refurbished mill buildings—spaces beyond the capacity of most artists to employ. 

Lee Boroson at MassMOCA, 2014
The show is well titled Plastic Fantastic. It's fantastic, at least, if not all plastic. Two of the four pieces that form engulfing, eerie environments are made of pedestrian materials: shower curtains; inflated plastic "packing bubbles". I found it impossible not to chuckle even through the awe that these great works imparted. This tension between monumentality and its own deflation was a central feature of all the work.

Lee Boroson, 2014
In the immense hall, Boroson has installed a magically white and twinkling tower of draperies in various textures, flecked and decorated with positive and negative adornments. One is drawn into the center of the installation's petal-like concentric curves by the lure of a single, central light high above. Finally, there it is, a sparkly collection of lights on long, silver rays. 

Lee Boroson, 2014
As I moved through the curtains, I was struck by the way that something beautiful in the manner of fairy tale ideal could feel so common when examined close-up. The shirred curtains are cheap nylon, the plastic sheeting is just that. These are not yards and yards of silk and gossamer: It's all about illusion and wishfulness. The artist's conception and craft are brought into perfect union with a collective dream. Even while I saw it "for what it is," the piece surpassed its common DNA and achieved a "real life" of dreams. We conspire with the artist who taps into our longing for a heavenly sense of purity and beauty.

Now, having written that, I'll confess to having found the following yesterday when I finally looked at the MassMOCA prose about this show. Happily, this was not posted on any walls; the Museum kept interpretation far from any exhibition, allowing visitors like me to draw our own conclusions. 
Officially, though, "viewers will enter Deep Current, a referential ode to Niagara Falls, the title of which serves as a subtle pun on the word “current,” referencing both water and electricity. What fascinates Boroson is the fact that Niagara Falls is considered a sublime example of nature’s grandeur despite it being a highly engineered and carefully controlled version of nature." If the title, Deep Current, was posted, I missed it. (It wouldn't be the first time, if so.)

I see nothing that would lead the viewer to draw as necessary the conclusion that this work is about Niagara Falls. I do like the idea of Niagara Falls surrounded by spray, though I have to think about the silence, and about the stillness at the center, where light seems to be the main event. From the exterior, the installation moves in a downward direction; from inside, it leads the eye up. It's an intriguing work but confirms my conviction that artists should refrain from telling us what their work is "about." It may be about that, but that's one of a multitude of fascinating possibilities.
Lee Boroson, Uplift, 2014 at Mass MOCA

Another of Boroson's installations that I loved (before or despite title or notes) is a medium-sized, low-ceilinged room that is lit from above and filled with gray, inflated plastic bubbles. These are conjoined in a manner that makes them look like rows of trees in an orchard or, better yet, like grapevines in an arbor, the leaves and fruits forming a shady canopy above us. So I see it, at least. The same MassMOCA notes that surprised me before suggest this about this piece titled Uplift. "Uplift comprises an array of inflatable fabric forms molded into stalactites to evoke the architecture of the underworld, providing room for contemplation in a dark, primordial chamber." Well, okay. That's a reasonable interpretation too?
Lee Boroson, 2014

Whether one sees this room and its contents as a dark underworld filled with drippings of molten minerals, or as a bower shaded by limbs densely hung with fruit, I won't quarrel. It is an amazing installation that works from any angle of perception or thought. I found the materials wonderfully kooky in their tremulous resilience. The forms are both imposing and silly. As stalactites, they would be in a cave Asterix might find. As fruit trees, they grow in the Land of Cockaigne.

Visually, though, the materials are less important than what they do to the room and to the bodies of the viewers. The canopy they form is low enough that at 5'7" I had to stoop not to hit my head against the forms. I'm sure that I would have disrupted nothing had I touched them, but I was body-conscious and careful about my own position, fearful about a fragility they clearly did not possess. However amusing the installation was at one level, it created tension in me.

While the forms are lined up in regular rows, as trees in an orchard, or people in military formation, the lighting casts emphatic shadows. The shadows  are as amazing in their velvety, flat, black sharpness as their originals are in eccentric, sinuous three dimensions. 

Lee Boroson, Uplift, 2014
Looking up, one enjoys yet another experience, not of shadow, but of light. Or, it might be better to say that they forms themselves become shadows of the shapes their outlines carve out against the lit wooden ceiling and beams. The warmth of the wood is striking in the room where color is very muted, amounting to little more than the tones implicit or reflected in the gray plastic. The plastic forms, then, serve not only as positive place-holders in space, but as mediators between the coolness of the white-ish concrete floor and the warm, pine-colored ceiling.

I hadn't seen Lee Boroson before, but I'll certainly go out of my way to see him again. I don't know "who he is" any more than I know any artist whose work I see for the first time. Call it a persona that one meets through a person's art, or call it the essence of the person him- or herself. Whoever it is that I perceive through this work, I like. There's a combination of the cerebral, sensual and humorous that I find inviting—a practicality and idealism mixed with levity in a rare way. 

I hope that my interpretations of Boroson's work carry no more weight than the official versions on MassMOCA's site, because this work is splendid for being quite open; it actually gives few explicit clues. I see fairy tales; authoritative Boroson sees Niagara Falls. An underworld may be a shady, fruitful arbor. Now that is interesting art, something to note and follow up on.

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