Storylines: Contemporary Art at the Guggenheim – Virtual Art Show, Guggenheim- New York, USA

“Narrative Art” illustrates or tells a story. It usually describes self-explanatory events from daily life or those drawn from a text, well-known folk tale or myth so it is invariably associated with storytelling.  As stated, in Western culture, painting and sculpture evolved to illuminate narratives of religion, patronage, and power. Over the centuries, genre scenes, still life’s, and portraits—often created intricate allegories for religious or historical subject matter. As the narrative role of art expanded in the twentieth century, with the advent of abstraction as a radical break with the past, many artists associated with the avant-garde rejected the figurative and, hence, eliminated explicit narrative content. More recently within contemporary art a generation of younger artists embraced the concept of storytelling to articulate the politics of identity and difference, investing both abstract and representational forms with narrative content.

Storylines offers an expansive view of the new paradigms for storytelling forged during the past ten years to communicate ideas about race, gender, sexuality, history, and politics, among other significant themes.  With over one hundred works from the Guggenheim’s contemporary collection, this exhibition examines the diverse ways in which artists today engage narrative through installation, painting, photography, sculpture, video, and performance. The artists involved within this exhibition seem to use storytelling beyond the need for plots, characters, or settings. Rather, narrative potential lies in everyday objects and materials, and their embedded cultural associations. Through a series of projects created through extensive research, acts of appropriation, or performance, the artists in Storylines uncover layers of meaning, turning to individual experience as a means of conveying shared stories, whether real or fictional. Key narratives centred upon communication, dissemination, and interpretation have been investigated to offer a social commentary of every aspect of life. As stated, these new narrative frames highlight the roles that each of us can play as both author and reader, that meaning is contingent in today’s interconnected world. Visitors have therefore been encouraged to interpret such meaning to promote heightened understanding and connection through and within the narrative.

Haegue Yang, Series of Vulnerable Arrangements—Voice and Wind, 2009. Aluminium venetian blinds, aluminium frame, industrial electric fans, wind machines, scent emitters, and scents (Buddha Temple, Fresh Cut Grass, Rainforest, Ocean Mist, Cedar Wood, and Eucalyptus), dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council 2011.8 © Haegue Yang. Photo: Benoit Pailley

From viewing and reflecting upon Haegue Yang’s created multisensory environment the Series of Vulnerable Arrangements—Voice and Wind (2009), I was struck by the sense of home, of the use of the blinds. I was really caught up with how they hung, as if partitioning off rooms of a home from view, of shifting and changing perspectives, of looking in from outside. It was almost as if there was a sense of intrusion, of bringing the public into the private space of the home. Although not able to smell the scents or see movement…there was acknowledgement of the subtle sway of the blinds which had chemically manufactured scents, emanating from commercial scent emitters and branded with names like Buddha Temple and Ocean Mist. Yang questions why mass production would attempt to capture sensations and stimuli that are variable, culturally bound, and sublime. Within this environment, olfactory, tactile, and visual experience collapse together, encouraging the viewer’s personal interpretations.

Shannon Ebner, Instrumentals, 2013. Inkjet print, 42 1/4 x 73 3/4 inches (107.3 x 187.3 cm), edition 1/5. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee 2013.14 © Shannon Ebner

Shannon Ebner’s photographs and videos map the boundaries between visual and linguistic forms, highlighting basic manifestations of writing such as individual letters, punctuation marks, and typographic symbols. Working in black and white—the most basic palette of printed text—Ebner often photographs characters that she builds out of readily available materials like cardboard or concrete blocks and then situates in the landscape. Drawing on photography’s etymology as “light-writing,” she examines how the medium can construct meaning—or obscure it. This interest extends to her more documentary images, such as Instrumentals (2013), which shows a template for organizing tools in a Los Angeles auto body shop in which each hanging object is marked by its silhouette. Presented unaltered but without context, these shapes seem like an alphabet in formation—symbols that verge on signification but remain abstract and opaque. As I viewed Instruments, I created my own sort of language in my mind, of using the shapes as text… a new form of classification or typology to elicit meaning to understand a general type or grouping. This helped me to reflect further on my own creative practice and the use of shapes and line with black ink, to create new narratives from and within modern day symbols in print.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Golden), 1995. Strands of beads and plastic track, dimensions vary with installation. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, through prior gift of Solomon R. Guggenheim; The Art Institute of Chicago, through prior gift of Adeline Yates; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Through prior gifts of J. D. Zellerbach, Gardner Dailey, and an anonymous donor; partial gift of Andrea Rosen in honour of Felix Gonzalez-Torres 2008.22 © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, courtesy of Andrea Rosen

As stated from the website Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s artworks often encourage viewers to perform a modest action such as taking a piece of candy from a continually refilled pile on the floor or removing a sheet of paper from an ever-replenishable stack. Despite their ephemerality, these acts evoke complex social and political undertones. Conjuring the vocabulary of Minimalism while reinvigorating it with open-ended content, Gonzalez-Torres leaves the construction of meaning to the viewer, only subtly hinting at the autobiographical or the incendiary in his untitled works.  For me “Untitled” (Golden) (1995) is a luminous curtain and beautiful partition, shimmering with faux-gilded beads. Any contact with this golden screen is both tactile and sensory, and there is an unwritten invitation to the viewer in person to transform its shape by touching it and walking through it. There is a sense of collective and public experience from doing so. The pliable and permeable membrane of the beads is imbued with symbolic meaning: “Untitled” (Golden) highlights transitory passage—from public to private, life to death, the known to the unknown.

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