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RISD exhibit mixes styles

Monday, March 30, 2009

There is a joyful, kid-in-a-candy-store quality to “Pulled Up,” an exhibit at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art. The feeling starts with the first glimpse of the Farago Gallery’s makeover. Its fleshy pink walls, lined on the bottom by an undulating swath of brick-red paint, signal that the cheerful show is as much about the space itself as the works within it.

“Pulled Up” is the fruitful result of a partnership between the American artist Carl Ostendarp and Judith Tannenbaum, the Museum’s curator of contemporary art. Consciously responding to “Raid the Icebox I” – a 1969-70 exhibit that featured a crazed assortment of works from RISD’s collection curated by Andy Warhol – Ostendarp explored the Museum’s holdings and “pulled up” 16 20th-century works by an odd assortment of artists. Here, the high modernism of Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman mingles with Jean Arp’s Dadaist gags and the postmodern exuberance of Warhol, Ed Ruscha and John Wesley. It’s a refresher course in the history of modern art, with Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro, Odilon Redon and Richard Artschwager all making appearances. Topping it off are two new paintings by Ostendarp himself.

The seasonal group exhibition has become a Chelsea cliche, which makes this mishmash even funnier. Imagine if these guys – and they are, all of them, guys, but let’s get back to that later – had been working together, exhibiting together, Ostendarp seems to say. How would they have interacted with each other? Would they have gotten along?

As Ostendarp explores these questions, the two-tone walls serve as much more than a backdrop. They actively contribute to the exhibit, bringing out themes and underlining juxtapositions. The use of organic forms links Miro and Arp to 1960s and 1970s pieces by Myron Stout and Nicholas Krushenick. Also, many of the works are connected in their response to color. They play off the predominant warm tones of the walls, a dialogue by turns harmonious and dissonant. A Jules Olitski print blends in so perfectly with the color scheme that it almost goes unnoticed, while, directly next to it, a typical Josef Albers painting of dark green squares loses its hallucinatory calm as it tussles with the vibrant pink behind it.

For all its sunny buoyancy, “Pulled Up” also suggests darker undertones. Ostendarp acknowledges Warhol by including one of his unsettling electric chair prints. Similarly, Redon’s famous print “The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity” only becomes more disquieting, situated in this cheery context. Ostendarp’s paintings, too, capture the sense of dread beneath the exhibition’s cartoon mayhem. Each of his works takes a cry of rage and frustration – “Yaaah” and “Aaarrgh” – and renders it humorously in blown-up, blocky letters, using the two incongruously upbeat colors from the gallery walls. The paintings are both fun and desperate, and they recall the similarly laconic, text-based canvases of Ruscha, who is represented here by a wordless print of soap bubbles.

The fact that every artist in “Pulled Up” is male and, for the most part, well known is, at first, exasperating. For all of the strangeness of the exhibit’s combinations, each selection on its own holds no surprises. But instead of being annoyed, it’s probably best to treat this homogeneity as another kind of joke, even if it’s not entirely clear what the punchline is. Could Ostendarp have chosen his colors in order to highlight the hot-and-heavy, testosterone-fueled competition among the works? Is it that men are always the immature class clowns? Perhaps the joke is actually about high-minded art world rhetoric that conceals a persistent boy’s club and curatorial favoritism for established artists. Ostendarp leaves these questions unanswered.

All in all, the exhibit is a nimble and exciting demonstration of the power of context to affect our readings of an individual work of art. “Pulled Up” is so captivating that it takes a while to notice the show’s slyest trick – its soundtrack. Art rock and punk songs – including, of course, “Pulled Up” by the Talking Heads, a band that met at RISD – burbles quietly at all times, giving the viewer permission to let loose and take things a little bit less seriously. It feels like a painting studio where the radio is on, the work is fresh and anything is possible.

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