Sunday, May 18, 2008

Santiago Cucullu at MAM

By Aisha Motlani
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In some respects Santiago Cucullu’s onsite installation at the Milwaukee Art Museum encapsulates the post-modern spirit. Rather than being a single cohesive piece it’s an agglomeration of micro-narratives. Titled MF Ziggurat, an allusion to the centrality and untouchable sacredness of these imposing Mesopotamian and Central American structures, the piece seeks to transgress the inviolable quality of our modern day ziggurats –soaring skyscrapers and elegant art museums in whose deep shadows the city churns in habitual ferment. Cucullu aims to sneak elements of urban grit into the museums rarified atmosphere, jarring the reassuring rhythms, blurring the surgical precision of the architecture and filling it with uncanny surprises. These are all commendable intentions, yet the success with which they’re carried out is questionable. A sense of purposeless dismantlement pervades the exhibit. More than anything the disparate vignettes conjure up the forlorn aftermath of a festive bash.

A freestanding door frame hung with silver ribbons is placed off center at one end of the hall, resembling an airport metal detector trying to disguise itself as a celebratory triumphal arch. An indecisively positioned pile of rocks recalls a similarly enigmatic piece Cucullu submitted to the Mary L. Nohl exhibit last year, as do the dark patchwork of fabric stretched between the window bays and some ominously bound bundles lying inanimate on an window ledge. Most noisome of all is gaudy construction jutting out of one of the bays like fallen, oversized piñata. If there is a subtle narrative at work here it’s exceedingly well hidden.

Among the more successful pieces is a row of multicolored make shift tables extending from the window niches like colorful tongues. They recall both the dehumanizing quality of office cubicles – arrayed with the unblinking gaze of TV monitors facing both inward and outward - as well as the gaily colored stalls of a festive bazaar. The rhythmic quality of the architecture is reinforced by the repetitive images flitting across the screen.

The ambient soundtrack from these videos also enlivens the drawing that occupies the opposite wall, helping to bring areas of it into brief focus. It’s one of cucullu’s signature contact-paper drawings that have been greeted with unanimous approval by art critics (for whom they seem to act as a kind of large-scale Rorschach test against which to exercise their sensibilities). Indeed this barbed and complex amalgamation of interior and exterior perspectives, symbols and effigies has a breathless quality that transforms the muffled, air-port like space into a strained and self-conscious search for a meaning – one that remains craftily elusive. Top lit from above by the gallery’s clerestory windows its tempting to attach a quasi-religious significance to the drawing and lose yourself in its cryptic currents. Until, that is, you notice a transparent plastic bag with cut out eyes and nose dangling inanely above it. The illusion vanishes abruptly. The bag represents a thinly-applied irreverence that pervades the majority of the three-dimensional pieces in the exhibit. Instead of experiencing artwork in novel way we are forced as usual to cling to the gallery walls for refuge as tenaciously as the contact paper Cucullu uses.

You can see the installation in MAM’s Walter Schroeder Galleria through Jan. 4.

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