Anyone who knows me at all can tell you that I'm less than warm and fuzzy when it comes to embracing work spawned by minimalism and conceptualism, two amorphous art movements/philosophies that hit their strides in the 1960s and '70s. So I girded myself for profound boredom and/or bafflement before going to see "How Deep Is Your," a traveling retrospective of the minimalist and conceptualist-inspired installation work of Julianne Swartz now on display at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. The show, curated by Rachael Arauz in collaboration with former SMoCA curator Cassandra Coblenz, originated at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
In a stripped-down nutshell, minimalism, with its use of common, unaltered industrial materials and Stepford Wives-like devotion to pure geometric abstraction, eschews any form of feeling, narrative, or even meaning other than intellectual consideration of formal qualities inherent in the materials from which the work has been made. It was an artistic reaction to the Sturm und Drang angst of the abstract expressionists of 1950s American painting.
Conceptualism, starting with the European Dadaist movement born in the early 1900s and reaching an apogee in the 1960s, questions the very definition of what can be considered art. Philosophically, conceptualism maintains that even an idea or action itself, without being embodied in a commercially marketable object, can be art. Both schools produced significant art stars, but in general, unless you're really into unadulterated form or art as ephemeral idea or fleeting word, artistic production during these times, with some notable exceptions, could be mind-numbing.
Imagine my utter surprise at actually enjoying -- with childlike delight, no less -- most of the work in "How Deep Is Your," despite its sterile aesthetic foundations. In her visually minimalist installations, composed of low-tech electronic and construction supplies, Swartz has managed to take art historical precedents that usually reject emotionality or storytelling and infuse them with an intimate, highly human presence. Interactivity is key to the work, with the real art in Swartz's arsenal being the viewer's authentic, unrehearsed collaborative reaction to these pieces, the best of which suck one in with the lure of audio.
Despite the rather austere forms and materials Julianne Swartz uses, her work can elicit wonderment and an almost hallucinatory sense of mystery. In Air Breath (1998-1999), barely visible hanging ovoid shapes made from silk fiber, feathers, and quills quiver and float like awakening ghosts. In 1996-98's Shadow House, small houses made of clear glass are suspended from silk thread near a gallery wall, their shadows undulating and refracting as they move gently in space under spotlights. Strange spectrum-edged shapes appear and transmute on a piece of paper held in front of a hanging lens illuminated by a flashlight in Light Drawing Machine (1999). Floor to Ceiling (2010) is simplicity itself, but with a magical aura: two stainless steel rods fitted with magnets align with one another in air, though they never touch. From afar, Composition for a Thin Membrane (2012) looks like a slowly twirling albino potato chip; up close, one sees that the twisted wire shape is covered with a thin membrane through which wires meander like nerves, ending in tiny speakers broadcasting almost inaudible voices. And be sure not to miss Loop (2010), hidden behind a door that leads to a quiet room dominated by a loosely woven net of multicolored wires and dots of speakers. The viewer can spend hours trying to decipher the sounds coming from the tangled piece.
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Swartz's most personal work, Surrogate (JS), Surrogate (KRL), Surrogate (ARL) (2012), is a stand of three columns representing the artist and her immediate family. They're made of different-size concrete blocks in shades of gray stacked to the individual heights of family members. The inanimate columns elicit a chill when one discovers that a ticking sound from an invisible, embedded clock movement wafts from each concrete sculpture like a steady heartbeat.
One of the major pieces in "How Deep" shares the exhibition's title and initially was commissioned in 2003 by New York's MoMA PS1, located in an old school building in Queens that had just been renovated. The installation, which snakes through two of SMoCA's three gallery spaces, is composed of blue plastic pipes, clear tubing, tiny LED lights, and a large metal funnel, suspended at waist height, into which the museum-goer can stick his head to hear a recognizable mix of "How Deep is Your Love?" the Bee Gees' 1977 ballad from Saturday Night Fever, and John Lennon's plaintive "Love," from his 1970 John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album. Like some giant, militarily marshalled blood vessel traversing an unseen body, the blue tube leaks soft snippets of Swartz's sound amalgam (instead of blood) at various openings. Constricted by the size of SmoCA's gallery spaces, the piece's new reconfiguration can only be a lite version of the original, which is reported to have twisted and turned throughout several floors and into PS1's grungy basement, itself filled with boilers and pipes.
I'm compelled to go back to see "How Deep Is Your" if only to lift the lid on Open (2009), a lovely cherrywood box set in the middle of the show. Being trained not to touch the art in museums, and not knowing whether I would, like Pandora, unleash evil into the world, I was too chicken to open the box. I'm told that a soft chorus of "I love you's" greets you when you have the will to break the rules.