EAST HAMPTON STAR
So Many Grains of Meaning at the Parrish
By Jennifer Landes
(8/12/2008) Living, summering, or just visiting a beach community, one often takes sand for granted. Pleasant to walk on, lie in, and make castles with, once it is off the beach it is less welcome. But not in the case of the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, which has an exhibit celebrating the material and its implied themes on view through mid-September.
Called “Sand: Memory, Meaning, and Metaphor,” the show is ambitious, filled with works by international and South Fork artists from notable collections. Five sections of the show address different topics: memory, conflict, the history of seascapes, the infinite and infinitesimal, and the physical and metaphysical aspects of sand.
One of the most resonant pieces in the exhibit belongs to Jasper Johns. Mr. Johns is a personal favorite under any circumstances, especially the recent show “Gray” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the inclusion of “Memory Piece: Frank O’Hara” in one strong thematic section, “Time, Trace, and Memory: Footprints in the Sand,” stands out in relation to the rest of the show.
The piece contains a cast of Frank O’Hara’s foot and a small, shoebox-size cabinet of flat drawers containing sand and the impression that the cast left in it. The cast was made in 1961 and the piece completed in 1970, four years after O’Hara’s death. The evanescent nature of sand footprints conflates with the fleeting quality of memory and life itself in a poignant and delicate attempt at permanence that conveys futility and obsolescence in volumes.
The other standouts in the section, which leans heavily on Surrealism, are digital prints by Richard Ehrlich of an abandoned diamond-mining town in Namibia and the desert sands that have overtaken the buildings. Joseph Cornell boxes and a mid-1980s acrylic painting of an hourglass by Ed Ruscha are other strong works.
Alicia Longwell, the curator of the museum, has been planning such an exhibit for years, the idea first coming to her from working on her dissertation on John Graham, the early modern and New York School artist and collector. “Sand was in a lot of art in the 1920s and 1930s,” she said in a recent interview. “I had that in mind and then branched out to the element of sand having so many fascinating aspects.”
Ms. Longwell’s installation, while freighted and often overwhelmed by all of the thematic meanings imposed upon it, stands well on its own visually.
It was an inspired decision to break up a portfolio of photogravures by Felix Gonzalez-Torres of closeups of patterns formed in sand and distribute them among the different sections. The piece continues to have dialogues throughout the exhibit and shows the strength of the artist’s minimalist approach in comparison to different eras and means of expression. Andrew Clemens, deaf and mute from childhood encephalitis, began creating images with colored sand in glass bottles as a boy. Simply called “Sand Bottles,” they were made in the 19th century.
In the conflict section, “A Line Drawn in the Sand,” Dennis Oppenheim’s “Reading Position for Second Degree Burn” from 1970 is still relevant. Using a book on military tactics in a red binding as a sun shade on his chest, in an era when Coppertone did not have SPF, he lay on the sand at Jones Beach for five hours, becoming his own sun print. The resulting chromogenic print records the act during and after.
Yes, the burn could have been acquired anywhere, but the beach siting allows other associations, such as those of middle-class leisure and a willingness to forget violence and death during times of war.
Ana Mendieta’s “Silueta” series of photographs records the filling and erosion of figures she has dug in the sand. Sometimes the figures fill with ocean water, sometimes she fills them with red tempera or blood that washes out into the sea. While the theme seems similar to those of other works in the show, there is something very moving about the outlines of the bodies, something like those in a crime scene and implying despotic terrorism.
“Carta Blanca,” an installation by Gabriel Orozco of sand and rusted cans labeled by the artist with a familiar beer label, have an ecological theme as well as a certain visual opposition and harmony. Both the beer allusion and the “white card” or “carte blanche” multilingual translation imply a certain indulgence and privilege assumed by those who would leave them there.
The shoreline scenes in “Littoral Drift” are charmingly historical, pleasingly modern, and, in the case of Mariko Mori, cheerfully if distastefully commercial. Choosing a manufactured indoor beachside park, she imposes images of herself dressed as a mermaid to heighten the improbable and somewhat ridiculous surroundings.
The mural-size conglomeration of six photographs contains several instances of her appearance in a kind of “Where’s Waldo” ironic display. Mariko Mori’s “Empty Dream,” a mural of six photographs, takes an indoor water park as a setting for the placement of her self-portrait as a mermaid.
Some of the most profound works are placed in the “World in a Grain of Sand” section. Donald Lipski used Amagansett sand in his piece “210,000,000 Grains of Sand” to consider the lives lost in the 20th century. The glass box is like a terrarium or a clear casket and the simplicity is surprisingly moving.
Another work that pleasantly surprises is Johan Creten’s “Torso 15,” a complicated layering of materials and visual constructs. He forms a torso out of concrete-and-sand-cast roses. The hardness and implied delicacy along with the undulating curves of the female form are a complex metaphor for the figure and the ripening and toughening of “what little girls are made of.”
A section is also devoted to sand as a medium. It focuses on works that use it as an element in paint, the casts of Costantino Nivola and Matt Mullican, and its use as a complex sculptural element.
Ernesto Neto’s “Life That Spreads Out” looks like some kind of alien life form with an approachable quality. The Lycra stockings he fills with sand to make a long, pod-like assemblage have a massive, space-eating quality that also implies dynamism. It is an example of Ms. Longwell’s free approach to her subject that also works well thematically.
Less successful, at least visually, are works by Lynda Benglis, Roy Lichtenstein, Fairfield Porter, Alfonso Ossorio, Milton Avery, and a few others. A small work by Pablo Picasso brings out an important element of early-20th-century expatriate and European sensibility, but appears more illustrative than aesthetically or conceptually inspired.
An installation in a nook behind a false gallery wall by Manfredi Beninati incorporates sand into a created tableau of a janitor’s closet. With a small, cutout window on one side to view the sand-sculpted elements and a more institutional door on the other to stress the utilitarian aspects of the scene, the artist creates a tableau of mystery, familiarity, and unexpected delight.
There are many other works worth notice and personal examination, by Dorothy Dehner and David Smith to name two, but my recommendation is simply to go. These are works worth seeing in an environment and critical display that communicate and extend their meaning. It is rare that this region receives such a stellar collection of international artworks and it is a great exercise to see how South Fork contributions fare against them.